Republican Convention Night 2
The fact-checking fodder included claims about the economy, the Democratic nominee and the president's actions.
By Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, Lori Robertson, Jessica McDonald, Rem Rieder and D'Angelo Gore
Posted on August 26, 2020
On the second night of the Republican National Convention, we found:
- White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow falsely claimed that Trump inherited a “stagnant” economy on the verge of recession. Actually, economists were predicting continued growth, and very few saw any risk of a downturn.
- President Donald Trump’s son Eric claimed wages “went through the roof” under his father. Not quite. Weekly earnings after inflation are up — but still well below the 1973 peak.
- Eric Trump misleadingly claimed that under Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s tax plan, “82% of all Americans will see their taxes go up significantly.” Biden’s plan does not call for direct tax increases for anyone making less than $400,000, but independent tax analysts say raising corporate taxes will indirectly affect employees. The reduced income would be relatively small for low- and middle-income earners.
- First Lady Melania Trump made the dubious claim that the president “has built an administration with an unprecedented number of women in leadership roles.” One source shows Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton appointed more women to Cabinet-level positions in one term.
- Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky didn’t give the whole story when he said Biden “voted for the Iraq War, which President Trump has long called the worst geopolitical mistake of our generation.” In a 2002 radio interview with Howard Stern, Trump said “I guess so” when asked if he supported going to war.
- Eric Trump repeated the false claim that Biden “pledged to defund the police” (he didn’t) and falsely added Biden would “take away our cherished Second Amendment.”
- As proof of the Trump administration’s success in battling the opioid epidemic, a police officer from New Mexico misleadingly said that drug overdose deaths “decreased in 2018 for the first time in 30 years.” While that’s almost correct, it ignores the fact that drug overdose deaths increased in 2019 to the highest level on record.
- Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi falsely implied that Biden abused his office as vice president to improperly intervene in a Ukrainian investigation of a Ukrainian gas company that employed his son, Hunter. This is a false narrative that has been pushed by Trump for more than a year and resulted in the president’s impeachment.
- Eric Trump made the meaningless boast that his father “increased wages for our incredible men and women in uniform.” In fact, Trump was just following the automatic cost-of-living formula required by federal law.
- Bondi said Trump “can’t be bought” and “won’t even take a paycheck from the American people,” which he donates to “charities across this country.” Actually, Trump has donated his quarterly paychecks to various government agencies and he still profits as president because of payments made to his businesses, including from the federal government.
Kudlow’s False Economic History
Kudlow painted a false picture, claiming Trump inherited “a stagnant economy on the front end of recession” and then adding, “The economy was rebuilt in three years.”
But the fact is, as we wrote on the day Trump took office, Trump inherited “an economy experiencing steady if unspectacular growth in output, jobs and incomes.” After the terrible 2007-2009 recession that Obama inherited, the economy had posted six straight years of economic growth and was about to post a seventh.
Obama’s best year was 2015, when growth was initially estimated to be 2.6% but is now estimated at 3.1%. Trump’s “rebuilt” economy achieved just short of that — 3.0% by current estimate — in his best year, 2018.
Kudlow’s claim that the economy was “on the front end of recession” isn’t supported by the facts. The month before Trump took office, among economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics only 8% were predicting a recession any time in 2017, and their consensus prediction was that growth would accelerate to 2.2% in 2017.
Four days after Trump took office, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecast that under then-current law, economic growth would be 2.3% in 2017 (which turned out to be exactly correct) and 2.0% in 2018.
That would support a claim that Trump’s tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks boosted the growth by 1 percentage point above expectations in 2018 before weakening in 2019. But the claim that Trump “rebuilt” an economy on the verge of a downturn is absurd.
Eric Trump’s Economic Exaggerations
The president’s son Eric embellished reality when he said:
Eric Trump, Aug. 25: [T]he economy soared to new heights — heights never seen before. Wages went through the roof.
Even at its best, the economy as a whole never grew at the 4% to 6% rate that Trump was still promising as recently as December of his first year in office. As we’ve already noted, Trump’s best year saw 3% growth, a bit less than the 3.1% seen in 2015.
As for wages, it’s true that paychecks continued to grow faster than prices during Trump’s tenure — as they had for many years previously. But they have not gone “through the roof,” or even equaled the levels seen back in the 1970s.
The real (inflation-adjusted) average weekly earnings of rank-and-file production and nonsupervisory workers went up 3.2% during Trump’s first three years, after rising 4.2% during Obama’s time.
Ironically, average wages have shot up another 4.4% this year despite a wicked recession — but that’s because millions of low-wage workers have been laid off while higher-wage workers are able to continue working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even so, average weekly earnings in July were still 4% below the peak month of February 1973; that’s the real “roof.”
Biden’s Tax Plan
Eric Trump also misleadingly claimed that under Biden’s tax plan, “82% of Americans will see their taxes go up significantly.” Biden’s plan does not call for any direct tax increases for anyone making less than $400,000, but independent tax analysts say Biden’s plan to raise corporate taxes will indirectly affect employees due to lower investment returns or lower wages over time.
As a result, most Americans would see a reduction in after-tax income, but “[t]he change would be small for most of those middle- and lower-income households—on average, only a fraction of a percent of their after-tax income—and we estimate that 80 percent of the new tax revenue would come from the top 1 percent by income,” according to John Ricco, a senior tax analyst at the Penn Wharton Budget Model that is the basis for the 82% figure cited by Eric Trump.
As we’ve explained before, Biden’s tax plan includes provisions such as imposing a payroll tax on earnings over $400,000, restoring a top income tax rate of 39.6% for income above $400,000, and increasing the top corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%.
In an interview with ABC News on Aug. 23, Biden vowed there would be “No new taxes” for anyone making under $400,000 a year.
Ricco said that “[v]ery few families would be sending larger checks to the IRS (or having more money withheld from their paychecks) under Biden’s proposal.”
“If you’re looking only at individual income taxes and payroll taxes, we find that about 2 percent of all families would see their taxes go up directly under the Biden plan — almost all of them in the top 5 percent by income,” Ricco told us via email.
But when you include Biden’s plan to increase corporate taxes, the Penn Wharton Budget Model analysis found that “the tax plan will affect 82 percent of families,” Ricco said. “But instead of seeing their taxes go up directly, those additional families are paying the corporate tax hikes in the form of lower investment returns or lower wages over time. The change would be small for most of those middle- and lower-income households.”
According to the Penn Wharton Budget Model — which estimates the Biden tax plan would raise between $3.1 trillion and $3.7 trillion over 10 years — middle-income earners would see their after-tax income decline by 0.4%, or $180, on average.
“To explain a bit more: because the corporate income tax is remitted by corporations and not people, economists have to make some assumptions about which people ultimately bear the burden of that tax,” Ricco said. “We assume that, in the long run, a quarter of the corporate income tax falls on workers in the form of lower wages. This figure is based on an extensive body of economic research, and government agencies like the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis use a similar assumption. So while those workers wouldn’t literally be remitting more in taxes, over time they would end up shouldering some of the burden of the tax increase.”
A Tax Foundation analysis of Biden’s tax plan similarly found that while the majority of the new tax burden would fall on the wealthiest Americans, “taxpayers in other income quintiles would also see a reduction in their after-tax income … mainly due to the increased tax burden on labor from higher corporate income taxes.”
“Most of the effect of Biden’s tax plan on those earning under $400,000 comes from the proposed corporate income tax increase and minimum corporate income tax,” Garrett Watson, a senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation, told us via email. “This would impact taxpayers under $400K both by reducing wage income as some of the corporate income tax is borne by workers, and through lower returns and valuations of corporate equities and related assets, which are owned by many taxpayers under $400K in retirement and taxable investment accounts.”
“There is a distinction between a direct tax increase – the amount of tax paid by taxpayers to the government — and the share of tax hikes that are ultimately borne by taxpayers in the form of lower incomes,” Watson said. “Our estimates show that many Americans under $400K would have lower-after tax incomes as a result of the proposals, but they would not necessarily have larger tax bills. We agree with Penn Wharton that the bottom 90% is unlikely to face any net tax hike outside of the indirect effects of the corporate tax hikes. With that in mind, it’s more precise to say that Biden’s plan would lower the incomes of 82 percent of Americans as a result of the tax changes, but not that it would generate a larger direct tax bill for those Americans.”
Comparing Biden’s plan to the tax cuts championed by President Trump, Eric Trump added one of the most repeated, and most fact-checked, false claims of the Trump presidency: that his father “delivered the largest tax cuts in American history.” Despite the persistence of this claim, there have been more expensive tax laws in terms of percentage of gross domestic product and inflation-adjusted dollars.
Women in Leadership
First Lady Melania Trump claimed that the president “has built an administration with an unprecedented number of women in leadership roles.” That’s not backed up by available data. In fact, Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have appointed more women to Cabinet-level positions in one term than Trump has in his.
Our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post looked into a similar claim in 2018, awarding four Pinocchios to Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife.
Let’s start with the Cabinet positions. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, Trump had appointed six women to Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions as of April 2019. Obama had appointed eight women in each of his two terms, and Clinton appointed seven in his first term, six in his second term.
Trump now has four women in his Cabinet.
Looking at presidential appointments beyond the Cabinet, there isn’t one standard source for that information. But the sources the Post found dispute the claim that Trump has more women in leadership roles than past presidents.
Of the 679 Senate-confirmed appointments under Trump, 25% have been women, according to a database of key executive branch nominations created by the Post and Partnership for Public Service. A New York Times analysis in January 2013 (before Obama’s second term) found: “About 43 percent of Mr. Obama’s appointees have been women, about the same proportion as in the Clinton administration, but up from the roughly one-third appointed by George W. Bush.”
That would put all three of those administrations ahead of the Trump administration, but the source for the Trump information isn’t the same. So they can’t be directly compared. Other measures still find higher percentages of women appointees under Bush and Clinton.
The Knight Ridder news service found 37% of Clinton’s first 512 appointees were women, according to an article by Women’s eNews, while the Brookings Institution found 26.1% of Bush’s 264 nominations, as of July 2001, were women.
We reached out to the first lady’s office about her claim but we haven’t received a response.
Paul wasn’t fully transparent when he tried to contrast the two presidential candidates for their positions on the Iraq War.
“Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War,” he said, “which President Trump has long called the worst geopolitical mistake of our generation.”
The part about Biden is true, although he criticized the way the Bush administration handled the war and by the end of 2005, would voice regret for voting for the war authorization.
As we wrote during the last presidential campaign, although Trump claimed to have “fought very, very hard against us … going into Iraq,” there is no evidence that Trump was against the war prior to it starting.
In a Sept. 11, 2002, radio interview, host Howard Stern asked Trump if he supported going to war, and he reluctantly responded, “Yeah, I guess so.”
The first overtly negative comments Trump made publicly about the Iraq War occurred on March 25, 2003, six days after the war began, when the Washington Post reported that Trump called the war “a mess” at a post-Oscars Vanity Fair party. But his comments were in the context of the war’s impact on the stock market.
In July 2003, Trump said in a television interview that he wished the money being spent in Iraq could be spent in New York City instead, and in November of that year Trump questioned whether the U.S. should have gone to Iraq.
Trump’s opposition to the war was clear by 2004, although he supported Bush for reelection that year. In a Nov. 27, 2005, “Meet the Press” interview, Biden called his vote a “mistake,” and said he would have voted “no” had he known how the administration would handle the situation.
“It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly,” he added.
It’s true that both men have long opposed the war. Biden played a role in allowing Bush to proceed with it, but there’s no evidence Trump opposed the war before it began.
Biden’s Stance on Police
Eric Trump repeated the false claim made by many Republicans that Biden wants to “defund the police,” despite the fact that Biden has said he is opposed to the idea.
“Biden has pledged to defund the police,” the president’s son said.
But as we have written, Biden has said on a number of occasions that he is opposed to defunding the police, and a Biden spokesman told us the Democratic nominee supports more funding for police for some functions, such as initiatives to strengthen community relationships and for body-worn cameras.
Biden wrote in an op-ed in USA Today on June 10, “While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police. The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.”
The federal government pays a small percentage of law enforcement expenses. According to a backgrounder by the Urban Institute, 86% of police funding in 2017 was from local governments, with additional money ponied up by state governments.
As we’ve written, there is no agreed upon definition for the term “defund the police.” Some critics of the police really do want to abolish police forces and replace them with other forms of community safety entities. Others advocate shifting some money and functions away from police departments to social service agencies. But in campaign ads and verbal attacks on Biden, Republicans generally use the term to mean devastating budget cuts for law enforcement, something Biden clearly opposes.
Biden backs underwriting initiatives in which social workers and mental health personnel would team up with police in some cases, an approach Trump has endorsed.
Biden’s justice platform says that “these service providers will respond to calls with police officers so individuals who should not be in the criminal justice system are diverted to treatment for addiction or mental health problems, or are provided with the housing or other social services they may need.”
In June, Trump signed an executive order calling for the attorney general to look for opportunities “to provide guidance regarding the development and implementation of co-responder programs, which involve social workers or other mental health professionals working alongside law enforcement officers so that they arrive and address situations together.”
Biden and the Second Amendment
Eric Trump also falsely claimed that Biden would “take away your cherished Second Amendment.”
While Biden champions a number of gun regulation initiatives, he has never called for an end to the Second Amendment. In fact, his campaign platform says, “It’s within our grasp to end our gun violence epidemic and respect the Second Amendment, which is limited. As president, Biden will pursue constitutional, common-sense gun safety policies.”
The elements of Biden’s gun safety policy include banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and a voluntary program to buy back assault weapons and high-capacity magazines from those who now possess them. Under Biden’s plan, assault weapons owners could either sell the weapons to the government or register them under the National Firearms Act.
As we have written, after Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke — a proponent of mandatory buybacks of assault weapons — endorsed Biden in March, misinformation about Biden’s position on guns began to circulate. Videos and articles suggested Biden would be confiscating weapons should he make it to the White House. But that was unfounded.
While Biden did say O’Rourke would help him with gun policy, he never adopted the mandatory buyback approach.
Drug Overdose Deaths
Ryan Holets, a police officer from Albuquerque, New Mexico, touted the Trump administration’s actions to combat the opioid epidemic, including additional funding and a safer prescribing initiative started in March 2018. Holets said, “And it’s having an impact. Drug overdose deaths decreased in 2018 for the first time in 30 years.”
Holets’ factoid is nearly correct. It comes from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from January 2020, which found that overdose deaths declined year over year in 2018 for the first time since 1990. That’s a 28-year span, not quite three decades.
But more critically, the statistic is misleading because the most recent data available show that overdose deaths have since increased. According to the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, there were 71,148 reported deaths and 72,041 predicted deaths for the year ending with December 2019.
That’s up from 67,850 reported deaths and 68,699 predicted deaths for the same period in 2018 and also outstrips the previous high for 2017.
When limiting to only opioid deaths, the pattern is the same. The most recent data, for the year ending with January 2020, is higher than at any other point.
The idea that the one-year drop in drug overdose deaths might be temporary was noted at the time by the lead author of the CDC report. Dr. Holly Hedegaard, an injury epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told U.S. News & World Report that while statistically significant, the decrease between 2017 and 2018 “could be just a temporary blip” and that “a one-year change isn’t enough to really say, ‘Now we’re over the hump.’”
Holets also suggested that Trump should get credit for a decline in opioid prescribing. “We’re seeing that doctors are writing fewer prescriptions for opioid pain drugs,” he said. “These are significant improvements that have a meaningful impact.”
It’s true that opioid prescribing has fallen under Trump. According to the most recent CDC data, the number of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. dropped in 2017 and 2018 by 11% and 12%, respectively, and the prescribing rate has declined to a low of 51.4 prescriptions per 100,000 people.
Some of that decrease, however, comes with a caveat. The CDC website shows that the percentage of counties with available data also decreased for both years, and reporting of prescriptions changed in 2017 to reflect the number sold to patients, rather than dispensed prescriptions. “This change in measurement frame resulted in a 1.9% downward shift in the measured opioid prescriptions dispensed,” the CDC page explains. “Thus, caution should be exercised when examining trends during this time period.”
And as we’ve written, opioid prescribing has been falling for years. According to a 2018 report by IQVIA Institute for Human Data, the drop in prescribing was driven by “changes in clinical usage, which have been influenced by regulatory and reimbursement policies and legislation that have been increasingly restricting prescription opioid use since 2012.” That includes new state laws that restrict opioid prescribing as well as laws at the federal level.
Thus, while Trump can take some credit, his actions have been part of a yearslong effort by government officials, medical professionals and others to reduce the scourge of opioid drugs in America.
False Ukraine Narrative
Bondi made the baseless claim that Biden abused the power of his office as vice president to improperly intervene in a Ukrainian investigation of a Ukrainian gas company that employed his son, Hunter.
She repeated the now familiar story of Burisma; Hunter Biden, who served on the company’s board from 2014 to 2019; and Joe Biden’s role in the firing of former Ukraine Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.
Bondi, Aug. 25: A corrupt Ukrainian oligarch put Hunter on the board of his gas company, even though he had no experience in Ukraine — or in the energy sector. … That very same company was being investigated by a Ukrainian prosecutor. Joe Biden — the vice president of the United States— threatened to withhold aid to Ukraine unless that same prosecutor was fired. And then he was fired.
It’s true that Biden once said he told Ukrainian leaders that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Ukraine did not fire Shokin. But Bondi implies Biden was protecting his son’s company from being investigated, and there is no evidence to support that claim.
The Obama administration, not just Biden, joined the international community and anti-corruption advocates in Ukraine in calling for Shokin to be removed from office for his failure to aggressively prosecute corruption.
In February 2016, two months after Biden visited Ukraine and met with its leaders, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde threatened to withhold $40 billion unless Ukraine undertook “a substantial new effort” to fight corruption. She issued IMF’s threat after Ukraine’s economic minister and his team resigned to protest government corruption. That same month, a “reform-minded deputy prosecutor resigned, complaining that his efforts to address government corruption had been consistently stymied by his own prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin,” according to a Jan. 3, 2017, Congressional Research Service report.
The president and his campaign have been pushing this false narrative for more than a year. It also led to Trump’s impeachment, which was triggered by a whistleblower who claimed Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and Burisma. The White House released a memo of a July 25, 2019, phone call between the leaders that confirmed the whistleblower’s account, and a subsequent House investigation determined that the Trump administration threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine until Zelensky publicly announced Ukraine would investigate the Bidens.
On Dec. 18, 2019, the House voted 230-197 on the first article of impeachment (“abuse of power”) and 229-198 on the second article (“obstruction of Congress”). On Feb. 5, the Senate voted to acquit Trump on both impeachment counts: 53-47 on obstruction of Congress and 52-48 on abuse of power.
Meaningless Military Pay Boast
Eric Trump made the meaningless boast that his father “increased wages for our incredible men and women in uniform.” In fact, President Trump was just following the automatic cost-of-living formula required by federal law.
“Under current law, the pay raise for service members is, by default, set to equal the percentage change in” the employment cost index for private-sector workers’ wages and salaries, as the Congressional Budget Office explained in a 2018 report.
It’s true that the president can seek an adjustment in the formula, and Congress can pass legislation that would “supersede the automatic adjustment and/or any presidential adjustment,” the Congressional Research Service said in a July 17 report.
But, as we wrote in July, Trump has stuck to the formula, except for his first budget, when he proposed an increase of 2.1% — less than the 2.4% level set by the formula for fiscal year 2018. Congress overrode the president’s proposal and provided the full military pay hike, according to the CRS report.
Bondi said that Trump donates his government salary without mentioning that his company still receives taxpayer money.
“He’s a tough, no-nonsense outsider who can’t be bought or intimidated. He won’t even take a paycheck from the American people. He donates his paycheck to charities across this country,” she said.
It’s true that Trump donates his quarterly paychecks as president, which are about $78,000 after taxes. But while Bondi said Trump gives his salary to “charities,” he actually donated his checks from 2017 to 2019 to 12 different federal agencies or offices, including the National Parks Service and the Department of Education.
Furthermore, Trump still collects taxpayer funds in another way.
In May, the Washington Post, based on its review of federal records, reported that “the U.S. government has paid at least $970,000 to President Trump’s company since Trump took office — including payments for more than 1,600 nightly room rentals at Trump’s hotels and clubs.”
The payments were for federal staffers and members of the U.S. Secret Service who accompanied the president on numerous trips to his business properties, the Post said. The newspaper also noted that its figure was likely an undercount, and that “neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump administration has provided a full accounting of how much taxpayer money has been paid to Trump’s companies” since he was inaugurated in January 2017.
The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, noting that Trump has refused to completely sever ties with his company, also has said that Trump is still profiting from being president.
On its page about “All the President’s Profiting,” the campaign finance watchdog says: “By keeping his assets in a family-managed trust, which he can revoke at any time, Trump and his family are in the unique position to profit directly from his public service. Special interests in Washington have caught on. Those seeking to curry favor with Trump are not only donating to his reelection campaign but holding fundraisers and galas at his resorts, private clubs and hotels – the proceeds of which benefit him and his family.”
According to the center, during the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, when Trump was president, his properties received more than $9 million in payments from Trump-related committees, the Republican Party, and Republican candidates, elected officials and leadership political action committees.
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