Biden’s Greatest Hits
A compendium of the top false and misleading claims by the Democratic presidential candidate.
By Robert Farley, Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Rem Rieder, D'Angelo Gore and Jessica McDonald
Posted on August 17, 2020
As the Democratic National Convention kicks off today, we thought it would be helpful to highlight some of the claims we have fact-checked from presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden over the course of the campaign so far.
For more on each statement, follow the links to our full stories. All of our articles on Biden can be found here.
Next week, when the Republican convention begins, we will present a similar compilation of claims we have checked from President Donald Trump.
Claims are grouped by subject.
Biden falsely accused Trump of being late in imposing travel restrictions on China. In fact, the United States was not late getting off the mark compared with other countries around the world.
On ABC’s “This Week” on April 5, Biden said “45 nations had already moved” to restrict travel from China “before the president moved.” Said Biden, “We started off awfully slow.”
Think Global Health, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations, tracked the travel restrictions on China due to COVID-19. Its country-by-country analysis shows that in the days after the World Health Organization on Jan. 30 declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, 36 countries imposed travel restrictions, including the U.S., by Feb. 2. “What this data shows is that the United States was neither behind nor ahead of the curve in terms of imposing travel restrictions against China,” a co-author of the tracker, Samantha Kiernan, a research associate on global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations, told us via email.
Biden was wrong when he said that the Trump administration made “no effort” to get U.S. medical experts into China as the novel coronavirus epidemic spread there early this year. “[W]hen we were talking … early on in this crisis, we said — I said, among others, that, you know, you should get into China, get our experts there, we have the best in the world, get them in so we know what’s actually happening,” Biden said at a CNN virtual town hall on March 27. “There was no effort to do that.”
That isn’t true. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to get into China just one week after China reported the outbreak to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, 2019. “On January 6, we offered to send a CDC team to China that could assist with these public health efforts,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a Jan. 28 press conference. “I reiterated that offer when I spoke to China’s Minister of Health on Monday, and it was reiterated again via the World Health Organization today.” More than a week later, Azar said at a Feb. 7 press conference that “our longstanding offer to send world-class experts to China to assist remains on the table.” A team of public health experts from the WHO with two U.S. members was allowed by Chinese authorities to visit Wuhan, where the outbreak began, later in February.
In late March, Biden and Trump traded barbs over the use of the Defense Production Act to compel companies to manufacture medical supplies to treat those infected with the coronavirus. Biden said Trump was too slow to act; the Trump campaign said Trump did invoke the act, and that Biden was exaggerating how early he had begun calling for its use. We found that both sides were spinning things.
On March 18, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act “just in case we need it,” but he stopped short of implementing the act to force production of certain goods. It wasn’t until March 23 that Trump invoked the act to compel General Motors to begin producing ventilators. As recently as mid-summer, some medical workers and elected officials continued to criticize Trump for failing to use the full force of the act to stay ahead of supply shortages.
However, we also found no evidence that Biden — who claimed to have supported invoking the act two to three weeks before Trump first invoked it — had been calling for use of the law as early as he said.
In the March 15 Democratic debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden criticized Trump’s response to the coronavirus, falsely saying that the World Health Organization offered the U.S. diagnostic testing kits, but that “we refused them.” The U.S. never refused a test from the WHO. Although it’s true that the CDC botched its rollout of tests, which hampered the nation’s ability to detect infections early in the pandemic, the WHO’s test kits are intended for lower-income nations. And it’s standard for countries with the scientific know-how to create their own tests, as the U.S. did.
In a May appearance on “The Breakfast Club” radio program, Biden made several misleading or exaggerated claims about the coronavirus.
Biden gave the false impression that a Columbia University study said he called for nationwide social distancing restrictions prior to March 8. “They pointed out that if he [Trump] had listened to me and others and acted just one week earlier to deal with this virus, there’d be 36,000 fewer people dead,” Biden claimed.
The authors did estimate that earlier implementation of enforcement measures, such as stay-at-home orders, could have prevented 35,927 U.S. COVID-19 deaths between March 8 and May 3. But they didn’t say Biden suggested taking such steps before mid-March, and his campaign didn’t offer an example of Biden calling for social distancing, or something resembling a nationwide lockdown, by early March.
Biden also exaggerated when he said “I wrote an article” about the virus on Jan. 27 that “said this pandemic’s here.” His USA Today op-ed didn’t say the outbreak was already a pandemic. It said Trump was not prepared to lead the country through a “global health challenge,” which Biden did predict would “get worse before it gets better.”
He also took credit in the interview for being “the guy that said we ought to … find out exactly how many people in the Black community are getting COVID and are dying from it.” But Biden himself had issued a statement saying he was just following what Democratic lawmakers had already asked the Department of Health and Human Services to do in March. He wasn’t taking the lead, as he suggested.
In his campaign kickoff speech on April 29, 2019, Biden falsely claimed that “all of” the tax cuts signed into law by Trump “went to folks at the top and corporations that pay no taxes.” Those with higher incomes reaped greater benefits from the tax law, but most households received a tax cut.
The Tax Policy Center estimated that about 65% of households paid less in federal income tax in 2018 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — a Republican-crafted bill signed into law on Dec. 22, 2017 — than they would have paid under the old tax laws, while about 6% paid more.
A higher percentage of high-income taxpayers got a tax cut, and that tax cut was, on average, greater than the tax cuts for those with lower incomes (both in dollar amounts and as a percentage of after-tax income). But 82% of middle-income earners — those with income between about $49,000 and $86,000 — received a tax cut that averaged about $1,050, the Tax Policy Center estimated.
In a speech at the Iowa State Fair in August 2019, Biden claimed that the top 1% pay “a lower tax rate than you do, because it’s mostly capital gains. … [M]ore than a teacher, a firefighter, a cop. It’s ridiculous.” That’s misleading: The top 1% of taxpayers pay a higher effective tax rate on average than middle-income people.
It’s true that the top personal tax rate on capital gains (20%, or 23.8% including the net investment income tax) is lower than the top rate on ordinary income (which is 37%). And it’s possible some wealthy individuals, if only earning money from capital gains, pay a lower tax rate than some middle-income earners, but that’s the exception.
An analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center showed the top 1% — those making over $783,300 ($2.4 million on average) — would pay about an average federal tax rate of 30.2% in 2019. That’s higher than any other income category. The middle 20% of earners — with an expanded cash income of $50,001 to $87,300 — would pay an average federal tax rate of 12.4%, less than half the average rate paid by the top 1%.
Back in June, Biden went too far when he claimed on more than one occasion that “most of the conservative think tanks,” including the Heritage Foundation, agree that the tax cuts championed by Trump “generated virtually no growth at all.”
There are many economists who agree with Biden that the tax cuts have not generated much, if any, economic growth, and a review by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service of the first-year economic impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act did not find evidence of “large effects particularly in the short run.” But Biden was wrong to claim most conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, agreed.
In fact, economists from the Heritage Foundation say the tax cuts are working: increasing wage growth, business investment and employment. Other conservative groups have argued that the economic growth is simply taking longer than expected, or that it has been offset by other policies, such as the trade war.
During the first head-to-head debate between Biden and Sanders in mid-March, Biden denied Sanders’ claim that he ever talked on the Senate floor “about the necessity” of “cutting Social Security.” In 1984, Biden called for a one-year spending freeze that would have included Social Security, and he boasted about that position from the Senate floor in 1995.
At times, Biden has at least been willing to keep cuts to Social Security as negotiating chips, while other Democrats have taken a harder line that any cuts cannot be part of budget negotiations.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 29, 2007, for example, then-presidential candidate Biden said he would “absolutely” put “age of eligibility” and “cost of living” for Social Security and Medicare on the table during discussions on reducing the deficit. And Biden was also involved in so-called “Grand Bargain” negotiations between then-President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that would have reduced the deficit through a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts — and even changes to Social Security. The New York Times reported that the Grand Bargain would have raised the retirement age and changed the formula for calculating benefits.
But those deals never happened, so we don’t know what Biden might have been willing to compromise on. Agreeing to leave an issue “on the table” prior to a negotiation isn’t the same thing as agreeing to do it. And in his 2020 bid, Biden has proposed a plan that would increase revenue for Social Security by eliminating the payroll tax cap and expand benefits for some of the oldest seniors.
On the day the White House released the president’s 2021 budget, Biden said the proposal “eviscerates Medicare.” There are several proposals in Trump’s budget to reduce the growth in Medicare spending over the next 10 years by about $600 billion — a 6% decrease from projected spending. But experts say the measures are similar to last year’s budget proposal, which included bipartisan ideas also supported by Obama.
The watchdog group Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said the Medicare proposals “represent reductions in costs not cuts to benefits.”
During a Democratic debate in January, Biden defended his 2002 vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, claiming the Bush administration “said they were not going to go to war” and only sought weapons inspections. But days before the vote, then-President George W. Bush said, “I hope this will not require military action, but it may.”
In the days and weeks before and after the war started, Biden said that while the hope was that the resolution could be used to leverage further inspections, he also acknowledged it was a vote for the possibility of war.
“The way the Constitution works is, we voted to give the president the authority to go to war,” Biden said in a CNN interview two weeks after the war started. “It’s our decision whether or not we go from a state of peace to a state of war. We gave him that authority. You can second guess whether we should have or not. Once we’ve [done] that then it’s his decision to prosecute the war.”
Last fall, Biden twice claimed that despite voting to authorize military force against Iraq in 2002, he opposed the Iraq war from “the moment” it began.
As we wrote then, Biden was a consistent critic of the way the Bush administration handled the war: its failure to exhaust diplomatic solutions, its failure to enlist a more robust group of allies for the war effort, and the lack of a plan for reconstruction of Iraq. Some of his comments proved to be quite prescient, including his warnings about the likely higher-than-expected cost and length of the war, and the complexity of “winning the peace” once Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.
But Biden never outright opposed military action in Iraq in the immediate days after the start of the invasion, as he claimed. The day the war commenced, Biden told CNN: “There’s a lot of us who voted for giving the president the authority to take down Saddam Hussein if he didn’t disarm. And there are those who believe, at the end of the day, even though it wasn’t handled all that well, we still have to take him down.”
During a TV interview taped for WMUR in New Hampshire on Sept. 7, 2019, Biden acknowledged that he “misspoke” and that “the misrepresentation was how quickly I said I was immediately against the war. I was against the war internally and trying to put together coalitions to try change the way in which the war was conducted.”
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that Biden sponsored received bipartisan support at the time, but it has since been criticized for some of its provisions, such as mandatory minimum sentencing, and its impact on mass incarceration. Asked at a CNN town hall to defend the crime bill, Biden contended that the law “did not put more people in jail, like it’s argued.”
As we have written, critics often lay too much blame on the 1994 bill for the mass incarceration trend in the U.S. that has hit the Black community particularly hard. That was a trend that started two decades prior to the sweeping crime bill in 1994. However, experts told us the law exacerbated the trend.
In the same town hall, Biden misleadingly said the 1994 bill “had money for state prisons, which I opposed.” He said something similar in a July 2019 speech in South Carolina: “I didn’t support more money to build state prisons. I was against it.” In fact, Biden did support $6 billion in funding for state prison construction, but not the $10 billion that was part of the final bill.
Finally, Biden misleadingly in the South Carolina speech said that the crime bill “worked in some areas,” claiming that “[t]he violent crime rate was cut in half in America.” The violent crime rate dropped by 46% from 1994 to 2017, but experts say other factors — including social and economic changes, such as an aging population — are responsible for most of that decrease.
In a February Democratic debate, Biden sparred with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg over the controversial stop-and-frisk police tactic used during Bloomberg’s term as mayor of New York City from 2002 through 2013. Biden wrongly claimed that pressure from the Obama administration was the cause of a decline in stop-and-frisk over Bloomberg’s last two years in office.
“The reason that stop and frisk changed is because Barack Obama sent moderators to see what was going on. When we sent them there to say this practice has to stop, the mayor thought it was a terrible idea we send them there — a terrible idea,” Biden said.
The decline started well before the Obama administration’s intervention.
In June 2013, the Obama administration announced that if a federal judge in a class-action case challenging the policy ruled that New York’s application of the stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional, then an independent monitor should be appointed to oversee the program. On Aug. 12, 2013, a U.S. District Court judge did make that ruling.
Bloomberg opposed an independent monitor, and he fought the lawsuit.
But by then, the number of stops had already dropped by 71% in the year-and-a-half before the Obama administration made its first official intervention in the case.
In addition to the lawsuit, there was mounting public opposition to the practice.
Biden falsely claimed that Trump “asserted that immigrants would, quote, ‘carve you up with a knife.’” Trump said that about MS-13 gang members, not immigrants in general.
On Aug. 7, 2019, Biden said Trump “fomented fears of a caravan heading to the United States, creating a hysteria when he said, look, look what’s marching up, this is an invasion. An invasion. He asserted that immigrants would, quote, ‘carve you up with a knife.’” It’s true that Trump regularly used the term “invasion” when referring to illegal immigration at the southern border. But Trump didn’t say immigrants would “carve you up with a knife.” He said that about gang members at an Oct. 22, 2018, rally in Houston for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
At the time, Cruz was running for reelection and faced an unexpectedly tough challenge from Democratic then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “O’Rourke even voted to shield MS-13 gang members from deportation,” Trump said. “He doesn’t want to deport them. He says they’re people. They’re people. They carve you up with a knife, but they’re people.”
At least three times in February, Biden falsely said he was “arrested” 30 years ago while trying to visit Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, where the future leader of South Africa had been imprisoned at the time. But Biden later admitted that he was “stopped” at the Johannesburg airport — not arrested.
While campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 11, Biden said, “I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on Robbens Island.” Biden repeated a version of that story twice more while campaigning in Nevada, according to the New York Times, including in Las Vegas on Feb. 18.
A week after the Times questioned Biden’s account in a Feb. 21 story, Biden told CNN that he refused to take the whites-only door at the airport, because he would have been separated from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Cops, Afrikaners, would not let me go with them. Made me stay where I was,” Biden said. “I guess I wasn’t arrested, I was stopped. I was not able to move where I wanted to go.”
In May, Biden claimed in a “virtual rally in Wisconsin” that farm bankruptcies increased 20% last year “due largely to Trump’s unmitigated disaster of a tariff war.” International trade was a factor, but we found there were additional reasons that predate the trade war — such as years of relatively weak prices, declining incomes and rising farm debt, according to agricultural economists and government reports.
Biden was correct at the time about the percentage increase in farm bankruptcies, 20% for the 12 months ending December 2019, up nearly 100 filings to 595, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. (More recently, the farm bureau reported on Aug. 4 that Chapter 12 farm bankruptcy filings totaled 580 cases for the 12-month period ending in June 2020, up 8% compared with year-ago levels.)
John Newton, the farm bureau’s chief economist, told us in June there are several reasons for the increase in bankruptcies — not just the trade war. “It’s one piece of many pieces that combined to hurt the farm economy,” Newton told us in an interview.