FactChecking the Third GOP Primary Debate

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Summary

The third Republican primary debate included a few arguments, mostly about China, and some misleading claims:

  • Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sparred over their roles as governors in helping to lure Chinese companies to their respective states. Both spun some facts.
  • Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and DeSantis disagreed over whether a DeSantis donor had influenced a Florida bill blocking Chinese nationals from buying property within a certain distance of military bases. Bloomberg News reported that it happened, citing unnamed sources.
  • In vowing to ban TikTok in the U.S., former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie misleadingly said former President Donald Trump “did not ban them when he could have and should have.” Trump tried, but his attempt was blocked by the courts.
  • In talking about Social Security, DeSantis correctly stated that life expectancy in the U.S. had recently declined, but neglected to say that much of the drop is due to COVID-19. 
  • Several candidates misleadingly claimed that Democrats support allowing abortions “up until birth.” Democrats support an exception for bans on abortion after fetal viability if the mother’s health is at risk.
  • Haley and Sen. Tim Scott disagreed over Scott’s support for a federal bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks. Scott didn’t co-sponsor the bill last year, but did voice support for the idea in April.

The candidates also repeated claims we’ve heard before on fracking, IRS agents and more.

The Nov. 8 debate, held in Miami, was hosted by NBC News, with Salem Radio Network, the Republican Jewish Coalition and Rumble as partners.

Analysis

DeSantis Attacks Haley on China

Haley and DeSantis sparred over their roles in helping to lure Chinese companies to their respective states as governor, but both spun each other’s record a bit.

DeSantis said that when she was governor, Haley “welcomed them [Chinese companies] into South Carolina, gave them that land near a military base, wrote the Chinese ambassador a love letter saying what a great friend they were.”

It’s true that Haley, who served as governor from 2011 to 2017 helped to lure Chinese business to the state and in 2014, she wrote a letter to the Chinese ambassador boasting about “the strong relationship we share with China” and expressing gratitude “for your contributions on the economic front.” The South Carolina Department of Commerce reported that capital investments by Chinese companies in the state grew from $307.8 million in 2011 to almost $669 million in 2015.

When DeSantis said Haley provided a Chinese company land near a military base, he is referring to Haley’s role in helping to recruit China Jushi, a partially state-owned company that makes fiberglass. An ad from a pro-DeSantis super PAC highlighted Haley’s role in helping to entice the company to bring a manufacturing plant to South Carolina in 2016. Haley called the announcement “a huge win for our state” and touted the 400 jobs it would bring.

In a fact-check, the Washington Post concluded the ad went too far with claims that the plant brought “China’s eyes and ears — dangerously close” to a military base, Fort Jackson, 5 miles away. “There is no indication it is a spy center for China” the Washington Post Fact Checker wrote, noting that Fort Jackson is not on a list of sensitive military sites for which a foreign entity would need U.S. government approval to locate within a mile.

In the debate, DeSantis did not go as far as the ad’s conclusion, but why else would DeSantis note that the Chinese company was located on “land near a military base” if not to raise concerns about that.

At the debate, Haley acknowledged, “Yes, I brought a fiberglass company 10 years ago to South Carolina.”

Haley Attacks DeSantis on China

Haley and DeSantis also tangled over Florida’s position on attracting Chinese business to the state.

“Ron, you are the chair of your economic development agency that, as of last week, said Florida is the ideal place for Chinese businesses,” Haley said.

“I abolished that agency that she’s talking about. Enterprise Florida? We abolished it,” DeSantis responded.

They’re both right. And they both were also a little misleading.

Here’s the deal with Enterprise Florida Inc., a quasi-government agency that was created in 1996 with the intent of bringing business and jobs to Florida.

As Haley said, it’s true that DeSantis was the chairman of the board of directors for Enterprise Florida.

It’s also true that the agency recently had posted on its website an annual report for the 2019/2020 fiscal year that said it had focused on “Positioning Florida as an ideal business destination for Chinese companies.”

But that report is about three years old and the fact that it was still available on the website doesn’t necessarily mean that it reflects the agency’s current goals. A more recent annual report, from 2022, said that Enterprise Florida’s International Trade & Development team had “been working with partners in Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico to lure more manufacturing away from China and bring supply chains closer to home and into Florida.”

That said, Enterprise Florida’s website, which is no longer live as of the first week in November, had said on its page about partnerships in Asia, “China remains Florida’s most important trading partner and export destination in the region.”

So, Haley was correct in saying that DeSantis chaired the agency and that it had published a report saying that Florida would be an ideal place for Chinese business. But she misled a little in quoting from an outdated report.

As for DeSantis’ claim that he abolished the agency, that’s sort of true.

State politicians had been fighting for years about whether or not to dissolve the agency.

In May, DeSantis signed legislation that “[c]onsolidates the responsibilities and resources of Enterprise Florida, Inc. (EFI) into the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which the bill also renames as the Department of Commerce,” according to a press release from DeSantis at the time.

The consolidation did away with some of the agency’s programs and re-distributed others. So DeSantis’ claim that he “abolished” Enterprise Florida overstates the impact of the bill he signed.

The context of the exchange could also leave the impression that DeSantis was motivated to sign the bill in order to stanch Chinese investment in Florida, but he said nothing about China in his press release on the bill signing and, as one of the bill’s sponsor’s put it, the legislation was drafted because Enterprise Florida has “over-promised and under-delivered for years.”

Florida’s Ban on Chinese Land Purchases

When Ramaswamy said that a DeSantis donor successfully lobbied to amend a Florida bill blocking Chinese nationals from buying property within a certain distance of military bases in the state, DeSantis said the claim was not accurate.

But Ramaswamy was referring to reporting from Bloomberg News.

“I do have to recognize that Ron DeSantis was correct about acknowledging Nikki Haley’s tough talk when she was ambassador to the U.N., calling China ‘our great friend,’ bringing the CCP to South Carolina,” Ramaswamy started.

“What you left out, though, Ron, and be honest about it, there was a lobbying-based exemption in that bill that allowed Chinese nationals to buy land within a 20-mile radius of a military base lobbied for by one of your donors. I think we have to call a spade a spade.”

DeSantis could be heard saying, “that’s not true.”

DeSantis signed the bill, SB 264, into law in May, and it went into effect in July. Among other things, it restricts nationals of seven “foreign countries of concern,” including China, from owning or acquiring agricultural land or real property in Florida. The law specifically states that they cannot purchase property “within 10 miles” — not 20 miles, as Ramaswamy said — “of any military installation or critical infrastructure facility in this state.”

In an Aug. 16 article, Bloomberg News reported that “early drafts” of the legislation barred “all Chinese citizens and others from buying real estate within 20 miles (32 kilometers) of military bases and critical infrastructure, such as ports, airports and power substations.”

The story said that posed a problem for Ken Griffin, the founder and CEO of investment firm Citadel, and a donor to DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign, who planned to relocate hundreds of his company’s employees to a new global headquarters in Miami. Citadel employs 4,500 people, including key executives from China, Bloomberg News reported.

“So the Citadel founder assembled a network of influence to rework the proposed law, according to people familiar with the matter,” the Bloomberg News article said.

The version of the bill that DeSantis signed included an exception for individuals with non-tourist U.S. visas, allowing them to buy one residential property in the state that is not on or within 5 miles of any military installation.

Bloomberg News, again citing unnamed sources familiar with the process, said “Citadel’s lobbyists persuaded lawmakers” to include that “carve out” in the legislation.

According to the article, of the Citadel’s roughly 250 employees in Miami, “only a handful could have been affected by the harsher version of the law, one of the people close to the situation said.”

Trump Did Try to Ban TikTok

Asked if he would ban TikTok or force its sale, Christie said he would impose a ban on Day 1, and he criticized Trump for failing to “ban them when he could have and should have.”

“This is one of the big failings among many of the Trump administration,” Christie said. “He talked tough about TikTok. I heard him do it many times. But when it came down to it, he did not ban them when he could have and should have. And now since then, we’ve had an additional nearly six years of this type of poison be put out throughout the United States.”

Trump did more than talk “tough about TikTok.” His administration tried to ban the popular app — which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance — but he was rebuffed by the courts, as Scott said later in the debate.

In May 2019, Trump issued an executive order that declared a national emergency “to protect America from foreign adversaries who are actively and increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology infrastructure and services in the United States,” as described in a White House statement.

No company was named in Trump’s order, but that order was referenced in another executive order issued by Trump in August 2020 that specifically targeted TikTok. “Under authority delegated by the 2020 Order, the Secretary of Commerce issued a list of prohibited transactions, which included maintaining TikTok on a mobile app store or providing internet hosting services to it,” the Congressional Research Service said in a Sept. 28 report.

In separate lawsuits, TikTok and TikTok users challenged the Trump administration’s restrictions on TikTok’s U.S. operations. “The courts ultimately sided with the plaintiffs and issued preliminary injunctions temporarily barring the United States from enforcing the restrictions,” CRS said. “Both courts described the government actions as effectively banning TikTok from operating in the United States.”

Life Expectancy and Social Security

In speaking about Social Security, DeSantis pointed to a falling life expectancy as a reason not to increase the age of eligibility of the program.

“When life expectancy is declining, I don’t see how you could raise it the other direction,” he said. “So it’s one thing to peg it on life expectancy, but we have had a significant decline in life expectancy in this country. And that is just a fact.”

It’s true that life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen. According to the latest provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in August 2022, life expectancy at birth for 2021 was 76.1 years. The figure reflects a drop of nearly a year of life expectancy from 2020 — and it’s the lowest it has been since 1996. The decline followed an even sharper drop of 1.8 years between 2019 and 2020. 

But DeSantis failed to mention the primary reason for the large declines: the COVID-19 pandemic. Per the CDC, 74% of the drop in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 and 50% between 2020 and 2021 was from COVID-19 deaths. Other major factors for the latest decline include increases in deaths from accidents — nearly half of which are attributed to drug overdoses — as well as upticks in deaths from heart disease, chronic liver disease and suicide.

This is relevant for his claim about Social Security, since as time goes on, COVID-19 is likely to have less of an impact on life expectancy, making these large declines temporary. Moreover, these figures reflect life expectancy at birth, or as the CDC says, the “average number of years a group of infants would live if they were to experience throughout life the age-specific death rates prevailing during a period.”

What’s actually relevant to the financial status of the program, the Social Security Administration explains, isn’t life expectancy at birth, but rather life expectancy at retirement age and the relative size of the working population compared with the retired population.

“Increases in life expectancy are a factor in the long-range financing of Social Security; but other factors, such as the sheer size of the ‘baby boom’ generation, and the relative proportion of workers to beneficiaries, are larger determinants of Social Security’s future financial condition,” an archived agency webpage reads.

Data show that despite recent declines, life expectancy at 65 is still higher than it was for much of the past.

Abortion

Just as in the first two debates, some candidates misleadingly claimed that Democrats, or certain states, support allowing abortions “up until birth.” As we’ve explained, Democrats support an exception for bans on abortion after fetal viability if the mother’s health is at risk.

DeSantis, Scott, Ramaswamy and Christie all made some version of this claim. DeSantis said Democrats “will not identify the point at which there should be any protection, all the way up until birth.” Scott claimed “states like California, Illinois or New York … have abortion up until the day of birth.” Christie said his home state of New Jersey “goes up to nine months that you get an abortion.” And Ramaswamy talked about Ohio, where voters passed a ballot initiative on Nov. 7 to add an amendment on abortion rights to the state constitution.

“That now effectively codifies a right to abortion all the way up to the time of birth without parental consent,” Ramaswamy said of the measure.

Ohio’s new amendment — which passed with 57% of votes in favor — said that “abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability,” but not “if in the professional judgment of the pregnant patient’s treating physician it is necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

As we’ve written, Republicans object to the health exception, claiming the bill would allow abortion on demand at any point in a pregnancy.

Mary Ziegler, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis and the author of six books on the abortion debate and the law, told us that “Republicans view those health exceptions as sort of like a blanket permission to have an abortion whenever you want.” Democrats say “it’s an exception for life or health.”

California, Illinois and New York also have bans on abortion after viability, but exceptions for the life and health of the mother. New Jersey’s law doesn’t specify a point at which abortions would be banned. The state’s Office of the Attorney General says: “New Jersey protects the ability of individuals to make decisions in collaboration with their provider throughout pregnancy.” Dr. Glenmarie Matthews, director of the Reproductive Choice Program at New Jersey Medical School, told our fact-checking colleagues at PolitiFact that, in practice, this means health care providers aren’t performing abortions after 24 to 26 weeks of gestation, which would be around the point of viability.

The vast majority of abortions in the U.S. occur early in pregnancy. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 93.1% of abortions in 2020 were performed at or before 13 weeks of gestation and less than 1% were performed at or after 21 weeks.

A 15-Week Abortion Ban

Scott and Haley argued over Scott’s support for a federal bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks.

“I would certainly as president of the United States have a 15-week national limit,” Scott said. “We need a 15-week federal limit.”

“But Tim, there was a bill last year, Lindsey Graham sponsored it. You didn’t even co-sponsor the bill,” Haley said. “And then when you first were interviewed on this, when you ran, you wouldn’t even say you were for 15 weeks.”

“That’s just not true,” Scott said.

It is true, as Haley said, that when Sen. Graham introduced S. 4840, the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act, in September 2022, Scott was not one of the nine co-sponsors. The bill, which never made it to a vote, sought to make it a crime to perform an abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It included exceptions for the life of the mother, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

A month before Scott officially announced his candidacy for president, HuffPost reported on April 13 that Scott repeatedly dodged questions about his support for a 15-week abortion ban, responding instead, “I am certainly 100% pro-life, without any question.” The article noted that Scott said he would “definitely” support a 20-week ban.

But in an interview on Newsmax a week later, Scott laid the issue to rest when he was asked if, as president, he would sign Graham’s bill into law.

“Every day I would sign that bill into law,” Scott answered. “I would sign the most conservative, pro-life legislation you could bring to my desk.”

More Repeats

We also heard several claims we’ve fact-checked before:

  • Haley claimed that DeSantis “banned fracking.” He hasn’t, but he supported it. During his campaign for governor in 2018, DeSantis pledged to ban both fracking and offshore drilling out of concern for Florida’s geological and natural resources. An amendment to ban offshore drilling passed in that same election. DeSantis signed an executive order directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to “[t]ake necessary actions to adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.” But legislative attempts to ban fracking have been unsuccessful.
  • Haley referenced the well-worn talking point about “87,000 IRS agents going after middle America.” As we’ve explained many times, this figure refers to the number of employees that could have been hired by the IRS with funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. But the Treasury Department told us most of the new hires would replace retiring or departing employees, and most new positions would be in customer service. Some new employees would be tax enforcers but their focus would be high-income tax evaders, not middle America.
  • Ramaswamy repeated the unsubstantiated claim that “Hunter Biden got a $5 million bribe from Ukraine.” As we’ve written, the allegation refers to an FBI report made public on July 20 in which an FBI informant said that years ago, the owner of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, told the informant he was “pushed to pay” bribes of $5 million each to Hunter and Joe Biden for what the informant understood was assurance that the Ukrainian prosecutor general at the time would be fired. But the FBI agent who wrote the report said the claim couldn’t be substantiated. Hunter Biden was paid $1 million a year to serve on the Burisma board between 2014 and 2019, but that was to provide legal and consulting work.
  • Haley, echoing another popular Republican talking point, claimed that President Joe Biden gave Iran “$6 billion to get five hostages home.” Scott, too, said, “President Biden has sent billions to Iran.” To be clear, as we’ve written before, the $6 billion was Iranian money which had been frozen in foreign banks and not U.S. taxpayer money given by Biden. The money was released to banks in Qatar, and could be spent on humanitarian needs in Iran, such as food or medicine. On Oct. 12, amid the war in the Middle East, U.S. and Qatar agreed to block Iran’s access to the $6 billion for the foreseeable future.

Sources

Kaiser, Anna, et al. “Ken Griffin Reshaped Law Banning Chinese Real Estate Purchases.” Bloomberg.com. 16 Aug 2023.

S.B. 264, Interests of Foreign Countries. 8 May 2023.

Herlihy, Brianna. “Nikki Haley hailed China as ‘a friend’ in 2014 thank-you letter to ambassador.” Fox News. 26 Oct 2023.

South Carolina Commerce. “Foreign Investment in South Carolina: Highlighting Chinese Investment.” Aug 2011.

South Carolina Department of Commerce. “China Jushi bringing 80,000-ton fiberglass production line to Richland County.” 31 May 2016.

Kessler, Glenn. “DeSantis group’s ad attacks Haley with facts but offers false conclusions.” Washington Post. 4 Nov 2023.

Congress.gov. S.4840 – Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act. Introduced 13 Sep 2022.

Delaney, Arthur. “Tim Scott Fumbles Abortion Questions After Announcing Possible Presidential Bid.” HuffPost. 13 Apr 2023.

Enterprise Florida, Inc. Annual Report 2019-2020. Accessed 8 Nov 2023.

Wallace, Jeremy. “Caught in crossfire between Rick Scott and Richard Corcoran, group fights for survival.” Tampa Bay Times. 22 Mar 2017.

DeSantis, Ron. Press release. “Governor DeSantis Signs Legislation to Streamline Economic Development in Florida.” 31 May 2023.

Turner, Jim. “State House panel backs shuttering Enterprise Florida.” WGCU. 31 Mar 2023.

White House. “Executive Order 13873. Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain.” Federal Register. 17 May 2019.

White House. “Statement from the Press Secretary.” 15 May 2019.

White House. “Executive Order 13942. Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok, and Taking Additional Steps To Address the National Emergency With Respect to the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain.” Federal Register. 6 Aug 2020.

U.S. Department of Commerce. “Identification of Prohibited Transactions To Implement Executive Order 13942 and Address the Threat Posed by TikTok and the National Emergency With Respect to the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain.” Federal Register. 6 Aug 2020. 24 Sep 2020.

Congressional Research Service. “Restricting TikTok (Part I): Legal History and Background.” 28 Sep 2023.

TIKTOK Inc. v. Donald J. Trump.” No. 1:20-cv-02658. U.S. District Court, District of Columbia. 7 Dec 2020.

Douglas Marland et al v. Donald J. Trump.” No. 20-4597. U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.” 30 Oct 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Abortion Surveillance—Findings and Reports, Abortion Surveillance 2020. 17 Nov 2022.

Robertson, Lori. “The Political Disagreement Over a Health Exception for Later Abortions.” FactCheck.org. 5 May 2023.

Ohio Attorney General’s Office. The Right to Reproductive Freedom with Protections for Health and Safety. Initiative Petition. undated.

Kaiser Family Foundation. Abortion Gestational Limits and Exceptions. accessed 9 Nov 2023.

New Jersey Office of the Attorney General. Know Your Rights. 29 Jun 2022.

Kertscher, Tom. “Anti-abortion group exaggerates how states regulate late-term abortions.” PolitiFact. 28 Jun 2022.

Life Expectancy in the U.S. Dropped for the Second Year in a Row in 2021.” Press release. CDC. 31 Aug 2022.

Arias, Elizabeth et al. “Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2021.” Vital Statistics Rapid Release. CDC. August 2022.

Life Expectancy for Social Security.” Social Security Administration. Archived page, accessed 9 Nov 2023.

Arias, Elizabeth and Jiaquan Xu. “United States Life Tables, 2019.” National Vital Statistics Reports. 22 Mar 2022.

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