Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Fact-checking President Trump's 2020 State of the Union address

Feb 05. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, Sarah Cahlan · NATIONAL, POLITICS, WHITEHOUSE 

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech once again was chock-full of stretched facts and dubious figures. Many of these claims have been fact-checked repeatedly, yet the president persists in using them. Here, in the order in which he made them, are 31 statements by the president.

As is our practice with live events, we do not award Pinocchio ratings, which are reserved for complete columns.

- "I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best it has ever been."

The president can certainly brag about the state of the economy, but he runs into trouble when he repeatedly makes a play for the history books. Our database of Trump claims shows he has made a variation of this claim some 260 times. There are several metrics one could look at but the current economy falls short, according to experts we consulted. The unemployment rate reached a low of 3.5% under Trump but it was as low as 2.5% in 1953. Trump has never achieved an annual growth rate above 3%, but in 1997, 1998 and 1999, the gross domestic product grew 4.5%, 4.5% and 4.7%, respectively. But even that period paled against the 1950s and 1960s. Growth between 1962 and 1966 ranged from 4.4% to 6.6%. In 1950 and 1951, it was 8.7 and 8%, respectively.

- "From the instant I took office, I moved rapidly to revive the U.S. economy ... enacting historic and record-setting tax cuts."

Trump constantly claims he passed the biggest tax cut in U.S. history, but that's false. The best way to compare tax cuts (or spending plans) over time is to measure them as a percentage of the national economy. Trump tax cut, according to Treasury Dept. data, is nearly 0.9% of GDP - compared to 2.89% of GDP for Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut, the actual largest tax cut. When measured as a share of the U.S. economy, his tax cut is the 8th largest in the past century.

- "Since my election, we have created 7 million new jobs."

Trump often inflates the number of jobs created under his presidency by counting from Election Day, rather than when he took the oath of office. There have been almost 6.7 million jobs created since February 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job creation under Obama's last three years, 227,000 a month, still exceeds the monthly average of 191,000 a month under Trump.

- "Incredibly, the average unemployment rate under my Administration is lower than any administration in the history of our country."

This is ingenious and worth fact checking because the average over three years is hardly comparable to a four-year or eight-year average for other presidents. For example, the unemployment rate average was lower in Lyndon Johnson's second term than it has been under Trump. But when Johnson's first term is factored in, Trump gains the edge.

- "The unemployment rate for disabled Americans has reached an all-time low."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported this rate since 2008, so it's a big stretch to call it an "all-time low." The rate was 7% in December.

- "Under my Administration, 7 million Americans have come off of food stamps."

About 4.2 million people (not 7 million) have stopped receiving food stamps since February 2017, according to the latest data. But experts say the improvement in the economy may not be the only reason for the decline.Several states have rolled back recession-era waivers that allowed some adults to keep their benefits for longer periods of time without employment. Reports have also suggested immigrant families with citizen children have dropped out of the program, fearing the administration's immigration policies. Moreover, the number of people collecting benefits has been declining since fiscal 2014.

- "In 8 years under the last administration, over 300,000 working-age people dropped out of the workforce. In just 3 years of my Administration, 3.5 million working-age people have joined the workforce."

Trump never seems to remember - or prefers to forget - that Barack Obama took office during the world economic crisis since the Great Depression, when 800,000 jobs a month were being shed. The labor force participation rate fell, sharply, as people had trouble finding work as millions of jobs were eliminated. In January 2009, the labor force participation rate was 65.7%, and it fell to 62.8% by the time Obama left office. It has since inched up a bit, to 63.2%, under Trump but it is still not back to pre-recession levels of 66%.

As for Trump's math here, we're not able to replicate it. Over the course of Obama's two terms, labor force participation times the working age population gets you a gain of about 5.5 million under Obama and nearly 5 million under Trump.

- "This is a blue collar boom."

In the past year, things have gotten grimmer for many blue-collar workers. The manufacturing sector is in a technical recession and only 9,000 manufacturing jobs have been gained since June, compared to the 460,000 in the first 2 1/2 years of Trump's presidency. Job growth has slowed in many "blue-collar" sectors such as transportation, construction and mining.

- "Since my election, the net worth of the bottom half of wage-earners has increased by 47% - 3 times faster than the increase for the top 1%."

Trump is just spinning here. Net worth for the bottom half has gone up, but it was from such a low base that it's pretty silly to call it a boom. People in the bottom half have essentially no wealth - just 1.6% of the nation's wealth -- as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. The top 5% hold more than 70% of all net worth in the United States.

- "Everybody said that criminal justice reform couldn't be done, but I got it done and the people in this room got it done."

Trump signed the First Step Act in 2018. One of the biggest pieces of the First Step Act - a provision that reduced sentences for crack cocaine offenses - was an extension of Obama's efforts in 2010.

We gave Three Pinocchios to Trump for claiming that he accomplished what Obama could not. (In his speech Tuesday night, Trump didn't mention Obama when discussing the criminal justice law.)

- "All of those millions of people with 401(k)s and pensions are doing far better than they have ever done before with increases of 60, 70, 80, 90, and even 100%."

Trump often boasts that the value of 401(k) retirement accounts has skyrocketed during his presidency, even though there's no evidence of such huge gains and even though the Census Bureau reports only 32% of Americans are saving for retirement with such plans. An analysis by Fidelity Investments showed the average 401(k) balance increased less than 1% when comparing the first quarters of 2018 and 2019.

- "Thanks to our bold regulatory reduction campaign, the United States has become the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world, by far." 

The notion that a revolution in energy began under the Trump administration is wrong. The United States has led the world in natural gas production since 2009. Crude oil production has been increasing rapidly since 2010. The United States was the top producer in 2013. In September 2018, the United States once again passed both Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the largest global crude oil producer. But the energy revolution he takes credit for began under Obama.

- "With the tremendous progress we have made over the past three years, America is now energy independent."

This is false. The United States continues to import energy. In 2018, the United States imported about 9.94 million barrels per day (MMb/d) of petroleum from nearly 90 countries," according to an Energy Information Agency report, with 43% coming from Canada and 16% from Persian Gulf countries.

- "After losing 60,000 factories under the previous two administrations, America has now gained 12,000 new factories under my Administration with thousands upon thousands of plants and factories being planned or built." 

"Factories" conjures up images of smokestacks and production lines, but the data set Trump cited is not really about factories.

Trump is using a Bureau of Labor Statistics database set known as the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. The data show that United States gained nearly 12,000 additional "manufacturing establishments" between the first quarter of 2017 through the second quarter of 2019. (There was also a gain of 10,000 in Obama's second term.)

But more than 80% of these "manufacturing establishments" employ five or fewer people. If those sound like pretty small factories, that's because many are not "factories." The BLS counts any establishment "engaged in the mechanical, physical, or chemical transformation of materials, substances, or components into new products," so that also includes businesses "that transform materials or substances into new products by hand or in the worker's home and those engaged in selling to the general public products made on the same premises from which they are sold, such as bakeries, candy stores, and custom tailors."

-"Following NAFTA's adoption, our nation lost 1 in 4 manufacturing jobs."

This is misleading, as Trump attributes all manufacturing lost to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) when many other factors were responsible, such as automation and China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

- "Many politicians came and went, pledging to change or replace NAFTA -- only to do absolutely nothing. But unlike so many who came before me, I keep my promises. Six days ago, I replaced NAFTA and signed the brand new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) into law."

The USMCA is a modest reworking of NAFTA launched in 1994, with about 85-90% the same as the deal Trump repeatedly trashed as terrible. 

The U.S. International Trade Commission, which is tasked with evaluating the impact of trade agreements, calculated the new deal would have a relatively minor impact: USMCA would raise U.S. real gross domestic product by $68.2 billion (0.35%) and U.S. employment by 176,000 jobs (0.12%), USITC said.

- "The USMCA will create nearly 100,000 new high-paying American auto jobs."

This is an invented figure. The ISITC report said the agreement would create about 28,000 jobs in the auto sector.

- "To safeguard American Liberty, we have invested a record-breaking $2.2 trillion in the United States Military."

Trump is just talking about three years of defense funding added up together. On an inflation-adjusted basis, not one year of Trump's defense budgets has exceeded the high point in 2010 under Barack Obama. 

- "I have raised contributions from the other NATO members by more than $400 billion, and the number of allies meeting their minimum obligations has more than doubled."

Trump gives himself too much credit. Since 2006, each NATO member has had a guideline of spending at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense spending. Defense expenditures for NATO countries other than the United States have been going up - in a consistent slope - since 2014. That's when NATO decided to boost spending in response to Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region. NATO estimates that its European members 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.

- "Before I took office, health insurance premiums had more than doubled in just five years. I moved quickly to provide affordable alternatives. Our new plans are up to 60% less expensive."

Trump often makes this claim, but we have not been able to verify the claim of a 60% reduction in costs. The new short-term health plans authorized by the Trump administration are less expensive for a reason: they offer skimpier coverage and thus provide less protection. As for the doubling in health-insurance premiums, that claim is based on a White House report that made some questionable methodological choices.

- "We will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions -- that is a guarantee."

In an ongoing court case, the Trump administration is supporting a total repeal of the Affordable Care Act - including its guarantee that patients can't be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions. Republicans in Congress tried for years to repeal the whole law. Trump has not presented a plan to cover the gaps in case the court challenge is successful. Moreover, he has promoted short-term plans (which he touted in his speech) that are not required to cover pre-existing conditions.

- "Through our Pledge to American Workers, over 400 companies will also provide new jobs and education opportunities to almost 15 million Americans."

Trump usually describes this as jobs already created, but apparently his language was tamed by a teleprompter. These are not new jobs but training opportunities. Moreover, the numbers reflect pledges over a five-year period, not something already achieved. Many companies signed up by offering training programs that already existed.

- "I was pleased to announce last year that, for the first time in 51 years, the cost of prescription drugs actually went down."

The consumer price index for prescription drugs in 2018 fell for the first time in 46 years. But that's only when measuring calendar years from January to December, which is somewhat arbitrary. The president's record shrinks to 5 1/2 years when measuring non-calendar years. (The CPI had last declined in the 12-month period ended July 2013.)

Experts say the CPI for prescription drugs fails to account for rebates, which can be substantial, and may be giving a skewed picture because of recent market shifts toward generics and electronic payments by third parties. A range of studies we found shows drug prices have not declined, especially when it comes to branded drugs.

- "As we speak, a long, tall, and very powerful wall is being built. We have now completed over 100 miles and will have over 500 miles fully completed by early next year."

Trump doubled down on a promise for 500 miles of new border fencing by "early next year," which would require the current pace of construction to more than double. Department of Homeland Security officials have been trying to lower expectations lately, saying they will have that much built or "under construction."

He also exaggerates the barrier's sturdiness. The Washington Post has reported that the steel-and-concrete bollard fence can be cut through with a souped-up power saw, and that a series of large flood gates "must be left open for months every summer during 'monsoon season' in the desert."

- "With unyielding commitment, we are curbing the opioid epidemic. Drug overdose deaths declined for the first time in nearly 30 years."

Overall, drug overdose deaths fell in 2018 for the first time in 28 years, according to CDC data. But fentanyl overdose deaths increased 10%.

- "Last year, our brave ICE officers arrested more than 120,000 criminal aliens charged with nearly 10,000 burglaries, 5,000 sexual assaults, 45,000 violent assaults, and 2,000 murders."

Many of the "criminal aliens" Trump is describing are immigrants who were convicted of immigration or nonviolent offenses. He quickly switched from the total for ICE arrests (120,000) to a different number that includes all the different charges. It's a misleading, apples-and-oranges comparison because one individual may face multiple charges - and not all arrests result in convictions.

"Before I came into office, if you showed up illegally on our southern border and were arrested, you were simply released and allowed into our country, never to be seen again. My administration has ended catch-and-release. If you come illegally, you will now be promptly removed. We entered into historic cooperation agreements with the governments of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. As a result of our unprecedented efforts, illegal crossings are down 75% since May -- dropping eight straight months in a row. And as the wall goes up, drug seizures rise, and border crossings go down."

The Trump administration has tried but has not ended catch-and-release, the policy of releasing asylum-seekers and refugees - many of them women and children - into the country while they await a hearing in the clogged U.S. immigration court system. Immigrants continue to be released.

Southwest border apprehensions dropped 75% when measuring from May to December, but when looking at all of Trump's presidency, the gains are almost negligible: 42,359 apprehensions in January 2017, and 40,620 in December 2019.

- "In the Senate, we have confirmed a record number of 187 new federal judges."

It's not a record. Trump has a long way to go to have appointed the most federal judges. Ronald Reagan has the record, with 383, followed by Bill Clinton with 378 and then Barack Obama with 329. Through Jan. 18, 2020, 187 judges nominated by Trump have been confirmed by the Senate.

- "Forty million American families have an average $2,200 extra thanks to our child tax credit."

This is an example of Trump using correct numbers, but he gives too much credit to himself and his Republican colleagues. The child tax credit has existed since 1997, and it's been expanded since then, including in the recent tax law. In 2016, under President Barack Obama, 35 million American families took the tax credit, with an average benefit of over $1,500 a year, according to the Treasury Department. So there's only been a modest increase (in part because of inflation).

- "Three years ago, the barbarians of ISIS held over 20,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria. Today, the ISIS territorial caliphate has been 100% destroyed, and the founder and leader of ISIS - the bloodthirsty killer AlBaghdadi - is dead!"

The U.S. military warned, in a report issued the day Trump spoke, that ISIS remained a dangerous threat and the killing of Baghdadi did not degrade to ISIS's capabilities. "USCENTCOM told the DoD OIG [Office of the Inspector General] that following the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group's capabilities in Syria remained the same."the report said. "USCENTCOM said that ISIS remained cohesive, with an intact command and control structure, urban clandestine networks, and an insurgent presence in much of rural Syria."

- "Qasem Soleimani...directed the December assault on United States Forces in Iraq, and was actively planning new attacks."

Other than Trump's assertion, there is no publicly available evidence that Iranian General Suleimani directed the December attacks or that any possible attack was imminent.

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