Thu, October 28, 2021

in-focus

Fact-checking Trump's farewell address


President Donald Trump's farewell address was essentially a mini version of one of his campaign rallies - minus the cheers and applause. Since his campaign rallies were a rich source of false or misleading claims, the president brought out some of his favorite golden oldies, many of which are on The Washington Post's list of Bottomless Pinocchios. Here's quick guide to what was wrong or exaggerated.

"We also built the greatest economy in the history of the world. . . . Powered by these policies, we built the greatest economy in the history of the world."

This is Trump's favorite false claim, so there should be no surprise he said it twice. (In The Post's database of Trump's claims, we only count a falsehood once per venue.)

By just about any key measure in the modern era, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton presided over stronger economic growth than Trump.

The gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.3% in 2019, slipping from 2.9% in 2018 and 2.4% in 2017. But in 1997, 1998 and 1999, GDP grew 4.5%, 4.5% and 4.7%, respectively. Yet even that period paled in comparison with the postwar boom in the 1950s and in the 1960s. Growth between 1962 and 1966 ranged from 4.4% to 6.6%. In 1950 and 1951, it was 8.7% and 8%, respectively.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate reached a low of 3.5% under Trump, but it dipped as low as 2.5% in 1953. (After the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy, Trump jacked up his claim even more, falsely saying it had been the greatest economy in the history of the world.)

This marks the 493rd time that Trump used a variation of this line, meaning he said it on average every other day.

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"All Americans were horrified by the assault on our Capitol. Political violence is an attack on everything we cherish as Americans. It can never be tolerated."

This statement is not especially credible in light of the president's actions on Jan. 6. "Trump at first hesitated to tell his supporters to stand down when they stormed the Capitol," The Post reported. "He was captivated by the spectacle playing out on live television and entranced by the notion that the rioters were fighting for him, people with knowledge of the events said." Trump resisted advice from aides to call for an end to the violence. When he finally issued a video that afternoon telling the rioters to "go home," he also declared his support for them by saying, "We love you." Then, for several days, Trump refused to lower Americans flags in honor of two U.S. Capitol police officers who died after the violent riot by his supporters. He finally relented after enormous public pressure.

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"Our agenda was not about right or left. It wasn't about Republican or Democrat, but about the good of a nation."

This is a line that actually never appeared in Trump's campaign speeches. Instead, he constantly attacked Democrats as a force of evil, so it's doubtful he really believes this.

"Remember this it's all Democrat run cities, radical left Democrats, Democrats," he said at Oct. 31 rally. "You look at what's going on all Democrat run cities. Republicans have no problems, our cities are doing great." At a Jan. 4 rally, Trump declared that Democrats will "turn our entire country into one giant sanctuary for criminal aliens, setting loose tens of thousands of dangerous offenders and putting MS-13 gang members straight into your children's schools." On Nov. 4, Trump said: "Joe Biden is a globalist who spent 47 years outsourcing your jobs, opening your borders, and sacrificing American blood and treasure on ridiculous, endless foreign wars. Most of you have never even heard of some of these countries. . . . A vote for Biden is a vote to give control of government over to the globalist, Communist, Socialist, the wealthy, liberal, hypocrites who want to silence, censor, cancel, and punish you."

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"We passed the largest package of tax cuts and reforms in American history."

This is Trump's second favorite falsehood, and this marks the 295th time he said it.

Even before Trump's tax cut was crafted, he promised it would be the biggest in U.S. history - bigger than Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut. Reagan's tax cut amounted to 2.9% of the gross domestic product, and none of the proposals under consideration came close to that level. Yet Trump persisted in this fiction even when the tax cut was eventually crafted to be the equivalent of 0.9% of GDP, making it the eighth largest tax cut in 100 years.

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"We slashed more job-killing regulations than any administration had ever done before."

Trump may have grounds to brag about his efforts to peel back regulations, but his claim of the most or biggest regulation cuts cannot be easily verified and appears to be false. There is no reliable metric on which to judge this claim - or to compare him to previous presidents. Many experts say the most significant regulatory changes in U.S. history were the deregulation of airline, rail and trucking industries during the Carter administration, which are estimated to provide consumers with $70 billion in annual benefits.

A detailed November 2020 report by the Penn Program on Regulation concluded that "without exception, each major claim we have uncovered by the President or other White House official about regulation turns out to be exaggerated, misleading, or downright untrue." The report said that the Trump administration had not reduced the overall number of pages from the regulatory code book, and that it will have completed far more regulatory actions than deregulatory ones once the full data is examined.

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"We imposed historic and monumental tariffs on China. . . . Billions and billions of dollars were pouring into the U.S."

Trump regularly brags that the United States reaps billions of dollars from tariffs he has imposed on other countries, such as China. But tariffs - essentially a tax - are generally paid by importers, such as U.S. companies, who in turn pass on most or all of the costs to consumers or producers who may use Chinese materials in their products. So, ultimately, Americans are footing the bill for Trump's tariffs, not the Chinese. The president is fooling himself if he thinks otherwise.

The China tariff revenue has been greatly reduced by payments - totaling $28 billion - the government has made to farmers who lost business because China stopped buying U.S. soybeans, hogs, cotton and other products in response. Through Jan. 13, 2020, the Trump tariffs have garnered about $75 billion on products from China, according to Customs and Border Protection.

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"We also unlocked our energy resources and became the world's No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas, by far."

Trump takes too much credit. The energy boom he's referring to began during the Obama administration.

The United States has led the world in natural gas production since 2009. Crude oil production has been increasing rapidly since 2010, reaching record levels in August 2018, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. In September 2018, the United States passed Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the largest crude oil producer. It is expected to hold that position, according to predictions from the International Energy Agency.

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"We passed nearly $4 trillion in economic relief, saved or supported over 50 million jobs and slashed the unemployment rate in half."

"Fifty million" is a dubious number cooked up by the Trump administration.

In fact, officials told Reuters that the number referred to the total number of workers employed by businesses that were approved for loans under the Paycheck Protection Program.

"The PPP likely did not save 51 million jobs, or anywhere close to it," Reuters concluded after interviews with economists and an analysis of the program's data. "Half a dozen economists put the number of jobs saved by the initiative at only a fraction of 51 million - ranging between 1 million and 14 million."

The Post found dubious numbers in the data. For instance, Fire Protection Systems, a sprinkler system installer in Kent, Wash., retained more than 500 jobs using its PPP funds. But the company says it has 20 employees.

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"[I] stood up to Big Pharma in so many ways, but especially in our effort to get 'favored nations' clauses added, which will give us the lowest prescription drug prices anywhere in the world."

In a move widely regarded as a political play seven weeks before the election, Trump announced that he had signed an executive order to lower Medicare drug prices through what is known as the "most favored nation policy."

The mostly toothless order has not been implemented and faces legal roadblocks. It would require pharmaceutical companies to accept much lower payments - an aggressive move that the industry is fighting vociferously.

Trump did not need to issue any executive orders for his administration to start experimenting with new Medicare payments, but he clearly wanted to be able to claim that he was doing something on drug prices before the Nov. 3 election.

After the election, Trump announced that the Department of Health and Human Services had issued an "interim final rule," meaning the administration skipped the normal rulemaking process, which requires weeks to collect public comments.

That could make it difficult for the Biden administration to defend the policy in court if the pharmaceutical industry sues over the rule. In late December, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction that prevented the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, from carrying out the "most favored nations" rule as scheduled on Jan. 1.

The judge wrote in her temporary order that the CMS had not followed required procedures for notice and comment before imposing such sweeping changes.

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"We passed VA Choice."

False. The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2014, in the wake of the Phoenix VA scandal. The law allows veterans to seek private medical care, with costs covered, when VA wait times exceed a certain period. One of the lead authors was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

This is one of Trump's most insidious falsehoods. Not only did he take more and more credit for the 2014 law as his term progressed but in public remarks he would often erase the roles that Obama and McCain played. ("McCain didn't get the job done for our great vets and the VA, and they knew it," he said in 2019.)

Trump signed the Mission Act in 2018, an update and expansion of the Choice program.

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"We appointed nearly 300 federal judges to interpret our Constitution as written for years."

Trump nominated and the Senate confirmed 226 federal judges, "well below the totals of recent two-term presidents, including Obama (320), George W. Bush (322) and Bill Clinton (367)," according to the Pew Research Center.

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"The American people pleaded with Washington to finally secure the nation's borders. I am pleased to say we answered that plea and achieved the most secure border in U.S. history."

Unauthorized migration "had been generally declining" from 2000 to 2017, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Then it spiked in the latter half of Trump's term, despite years of draconian measures to stop migrants from entering the United States.

The number of people detained at the U.S.-Mexico border by immigration officials began to increase again in 2019 and 2020.

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"This includes historic agreements with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, along with more than 450 miles of powerful, new wall."

The regional asylum agreements Trump negotiated with these four countries have encountered significant roadblocks in U.S. courts. The Trump administration wanted a system in which asylum applicants no longer were released into the United States while they awaited immigration hearings, but instead remained in Mexico or Guatemala.

Trump's new asylum rules were set to take effect last week, but they were blocked by a federal judge in San Francisco.

At the close of 2020, the Trump administration had built nearly 40 miles of bollard-style fencing where none existed on the border - a small fraction of the 450 miles Trump claimed. The administration also had built 344 miles of fencing to replace run-down barriers that already existed.

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"The world respects us again. Please don't lose that respect."

Surveys show that in many developed countries, favorable opinions of the United States tanked under Trump, especially regarding the country's management of the coronavirus pandemic.

"For instance, just 41% in the United Kingdom express a favorable opinion of the U.S., the lowest percentage registered in any Pew Research Center survey there," according to Pew. "In France, only 31% see the U.S. positively, matching the grim ratings from March 2003, at the height of U.S.-France tensions over the Iraq War. Germans give the U.S. particularly low marks on the survey: 26% rate the U.S. favorably, similar to the 25% in the same March 2003 poll."

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"NATO countries are now paying hundreds of billions of dollars more than when I arrived just a few years ago. It was very unfair. We were paying the cost for the world. Now the world is helping us."

During the 2016 presidential election, Trump consistently inflated the U.S. contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Once he became president, his inaccuracy has persisted, but with a twist. Nearly 150 times, he has claimed that "hundreds of billions" of dollars have come into NATO because of his complaints. In this speech, he even suggests this money might be coming to the United States.

Instead, NATO members have increased defense spending as a share of their economies - a process that was started before Trump announced presidential his candidacy. In terms of direct funding of NATO, the United States paid the largest share - about 22%. Germany is second, with about 15%, though Trump sought an agreement to make the payments equal.

Trump sometimes suggests NATO members "owe" money to the United States or are "delinquent," but that is not the case. NATO members are required to meet a guideline of spending at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024. He also claims that NATO spending was at a low point when he came into office, but that's not true. It had fallen after the end of the Cold War but had started rising sharply after 2014, after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine.

NATO estimates that European NATO and Canada will add $130 billion in cumulative defense spending through 2020, in 2015 dollars, as an increase over 2016 spending. NATO also estimates the cumulative figure will rise to $400 billion through 2024.

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"Perhaps most importantly of all, with nearly $3 trillion, we fully rebuilt the American military, all made in the USA."

This is false. Trump is adding up four fiscal years of military funding, but the money is not all spent, only a portion of it is destined for new equipment and the equipment is not all built. The actual amount spent on military equipment since he became president is much less, about 20% of the total. The rest was spent on personnel, operations and maintenance, research and development, and more. Trump's spending on military equipment is not particularly new or unusual.

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"The Abraham Accords opened the doors to a future of peace and harmony, not violence and bloodshed."

Trump's reference to "violence and bloodshed" is misleading. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, the Arab and North African nations extending diplomatic recognition to Israel during his presidency have never been at war with the Jewish state. The source of much of the violence remains the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians - an issue that Trump largely ignored. Helping win diplomatic recognition for Israel from Arab states is a noteworthy achievement.

Trump sometimes adds that the deals came with "no cost." In reality, the Trump administration made a number of deals to coax Middle Eastern and North African leaders into recognizing Israel, such as weapons sales and upending U.S. policy toward the Western Sahara region claimed by Morocco.

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"I am especially proud to be the first president in decades who has started no new wars."

Trump appears to be referring to Jimmy Carter as the last president with no new wars, but this is highly debatable. It depends on whether one counts Obama's intervention in Syria as a "new war" or an extension of the conflict in Iraq started under President George W. Bush. (The Islamic State terror group emerged in the aftermath of that war.) Obama did not deploy any troops to Libya when NATO began a campaign in Libya aimed at saving civilians in Benghazi threatened by Libyan government forces. Meanwhile, Trump ramped up commitments in Iraq and Syria initially to fight ISIS (while also launching air strikes on Syria for chemical weapons), added troops in Afghanistan, and escalated hostilities with Iran, including the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Trump said that strike was carried out in accordance with the a resolution in 2001.

Published : January 20, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo