FactChecking the Fourth GOP Primary Debate

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Summary

In the last Republican presidential primary debate of 2023, the candidates argued over their positions on gender-affirmation surgery, legal immigration and more:

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cherry-picked comments from Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to claim she did not oppose “gender mutilation for minors.” Haley has said children should not be allowed to undergo a “gender-changing procedure” until they are at least 18 years old.
  • Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said it was “false” for Haley to claim that she “never said government should … require” social media users to disclose their names. Haley did initially suggest that all social media users should be required to use their names online, before later clarifying that only Americans should be allowed to post anonymously.
  • Haley wrongly accused DeSantis of supporting a Florida bill that would have required political bloggers to register with the state. He actually said at the time that he didn’t support the bill, and it later died in committee.
  • DeSantis claimed Haley said “there should be no limits on legal immigration.” She didn’t. She said it should be based on “merit,” not “a quota.”
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie disputed that he backed guidelines supporting transgender students against the wishes of parents. Christie signed a law providing wide-ranging protections for transgender students, but specific guidelines regarding parental consent were issued after he left office.
  • Ramaswamy wrongly said that Haley was “bankrupt when you left the U.N.”
  • DeSantis falsely claimed that “there was no data to support” the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for 6-month-old babies. Both Pfizer and Moderna tested lower-dose versions of their vaccines for young children in clinical trials.
  • Ramaswamy embraced the baseless conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job.”
  • Ramaswamy repeated claims he has made before about climate change and transgender people.

The Dec. 6 debate was hosted by NewsNation and held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Analysis

DeSantis Distorts Haley’s Position on Gender-Affirmation Surgery for Minors

DeSantis claimed that Haley opposed a bill he signed prohibiting gender-affirming surgeries — or as he put it, “gender mutilation” — for minors. That’s a distortion of Haley’s position. Haley has said any “permanent change” for transgender people should only be allowed after a child has turned 18.

DeSantis raised the issue twice in the debate, both times leading to fiery exchanges in which Haley said DeSantis was distorting her position and DeSantis insisted he had video evidence to back up his claim.

DeSantis: I did a bill in Florida to stop the gender mutilation of minors. It’s child abuse and it’s wrong. She opposes that bill. She thinks it’s fine and the law shouldn’t get involved with it. If you’re not willing to stand up for the kids, if you’re not willing to stand up and say that it is wrong to mutilate these kids, then you’re not going to fight for the people back home. I will fight for you and I will win for you. …

She didn’t respond to the criticism. It wasn’t about the parents rights education bill. It was about prohibiting sex change operations on minors. They do puberty blockers, these are irreversible. … That is what Nikki Haley opposed. She said the law shouldn’t get involved in that. And I just asked you if you’re somebody that’s going to be the president of the United States and you can’t stand up against child abuse, how are you going to be able to stand up for anything?

Haley: I never said that.

DeSantis: That is the truth.

Haley: I never said that.

DeSantis: We have it on video.

Haley: I said that if you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, you should have to be 18 to have anything done to change your gender.

Later in the debate, DeSantis again raised the issue.

DeSantis: As a parent you do not have the right to abuse your kids. … This is mutilating these minors, these are irreversible procedures. … I signed legislation in Florida banning the mutilation of minors because it is wrong. We cannot allow this to happen in this country. … Nikki disagrees with me. She opposes the bill that we did to ban that, she said the law shouldn’t get involved with it.

Haley: I did not.

In May, DeSantis signed into law a bill that prohibited “sex-reassignment prescriptions and procedures for patients younger than 18 years of age.” The ban includes both surgeries as well as puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones.

The video evidence DeSantis cites to back up his claim about Haley is an interview she did with CBS News on June 5, but he’s cherry-picking her response. In the interview, CBS News’ Tony Dokoupil asked Haley “what care should be on the table when a 12-year-old child in this country assigned female at birth says, ‘actually I feel more comfortable living as a boy.’ What should the law allow the response to be?”

“I think the law should stay out of it and I think parents should handle it. This is a job for the parents to handle,” Haley said. “And then when that child becomes 18, if they want to make more of a permanent change, they can do that. But I think up until then, we see with our teenage kids, they go through a lot during puberty. They go through a lot of confusion, they go through a lot of anxiety, they go through a lot of pressures. We should support them the whole way through, but we don’t need to go and enforce something in schools. We don’t need schools sitting there hiding from the parents what gender pronoun they are using. We don’t need to have those conversations in schools. Those are conversations that should be had at home.”

A super PAC backing DeSantis also cited to us comments Haley made in a June 4 CNN town hall when speaking on the transgender issue. “I want everybody to live the way they want to live,” Haley said. “Let’s get them the help, the therapy, whatever they need so that they can feel better and not be suicidal.”

In neither case did Haley advocate gender-affirming procedures for minors.

In fact, in a May 3 interview with ABC News, Haley specifically said, “You shouldn’t allow a child to have a gender-changing procedure until the age of 18 when they are an adult.”

Haley on IDing Social Media Users

Moderator Megyn Kelly asked Haley to “speak to the requirement that you said that every anonymous internet user needs to out themselves.”

Haley said her original comments, made in a Nov. 14 “Voters’ Voices” segment on Fox News, were that “social media companies need to show us their algorithms.” She added, “I also said there are millions of bots on social media right now. They’re foreign, they’re Chinese, they’re Iranian. I will always fight for freedom of speech for Americans. We do not need freedom of speech for Russians and Iranians and Hamas.”

When Ramaswamy accused Haley of misrepresenting her original remarks, Haley went on to say that she believes social media companies have to “fight back on all of these bots that are happening” and that social media “would be more civil” if people had to include their names alongside their online comments.

“But having said that, I never said government should go and require anyone’s name,” she said.

Ramaswamy called her response “false,” and DeSantis also jumped in to say that Haley had said one of her first acts as president would be to ask for people’s names on social media.

In that Fox News interview, when responding to an audience question, Haley did suggest that all social media users should be required to identify themselves. (Her response starts at about 5:07 in the video.)

Haley, Nov. 14: When I get into office, the first thing we have to do, social media accounts — social media companies, they have to show America their algorithms. Let us see why they are pushing what they are pushing.

The second thing is, every person on social media should be verified by their name. That’s, first of all, it’s a national security threat. When you do that, all of a sudden people have to stand by what they say and it gets rid of the Russian bots, the Iranian bots and the Chinese bots. And then you’re going to get some civility, when people know their name is next to what they say, and they know their pastor and their family members are going to see it. It’s going to help our kids and it’s going to help our country.

After there was a backlash to her comments, including from some of her GOP primary opponents, Haley, in a Nov. 15 CNBC interview, added a caveat about allowing anonymous online posting by Americans only.

“I want freedom of speech for Americans,” she said. “I don’t want freedom of speech for Russia and Hamas. And that is what is happening right now. And so the way you fix that is, we need our social media companies to verify everybody so that we can get all of those bots out.”

When CNBC’s Joe Kernen asked if Haley was “really saying that people can’t tweet anonymously,” she said she had no issue with Americans doing so.

“I mean, do I think life would be more civil if we were able to do that? Yes. … You should stand by what you say,” she said. “But … I don’t mind anonymous American people having free speech. What I don’t like is anonymous Russians and Chinese and Iranians having free speech.”

That’s different from what she first said on Fox News.

Haley Wrong on DeSantis Support for Blogger Registration

Haley claimed that DeSantis had said “bloggers should have to register with the state if they’re going to talk about or write about elected officials.”

“Check your newspaper, it was absolutely there,” she said, suggesting that there was evidence of DeSantis’ support for the measure.

But there isn’t.

Here’s what happened:

Jason Brodeur, a Republican in the Florida Senate, introduced a bill in late February that would have required “bloggers” to register with the government if they were being paid to write about elected officials.

“If a blogger posts to a blog about an elected state officer and receives, or will receive, compensation for that post, the blogger must register with the appropriate office,” the bill said.

The bill didn’t get much traction and died in committee in May.

But there was a brief flap over the bill in March, and some news outlets ran articles with pictures of DeSantis and references to him in their headlines. The New Republic, for example, published a story with the headline: “Florida GOP Bill Would Require Bloggers Who Write About Ron DeSantis to Register With the State.”

We couldn’t find any news stories reporting that DeSantis had supported the bill, but articles with a photo of the governor that mention him in the headline might give the impression that he was supportive.

Actually, though, a spokesman for DeSantis told the Tampa Bay Times on March 3 that the governor would “consider the merits of a bill in final form if and when it passes the Legislature.”

Then, at a press conference on March 7, DeSantis distanced himself further, saying, “Every person in the legislature can file bills, right? I see these people filing bills, and then there’s articles with my face on the article saying that … bloggers are going to have to register for the state and it’s, like, attributing it to me. And I’m like, OK, that’s not anything that I’ve ever supported, I don’t support.”

“I don’t control every single bill that’s been filed,” DeSantis said.

Fact-checkers at the Associated Press and Reuters addressed this issue at the time.

So, Haley was wrong about DeSantis’ support for the measure, and there have been news articles about the issue since March.

DeSantis Distorts Haley Comment on Immigration

In yet another disagreement on Haley’s policy positions, DeSantis claimed she had said “there should be no limits on legal immigration and that corporate CEOs should set the policy.” Haley interjected, “That’s not true.”

DeSantis, who has made this claim before, is distorting Haley’s comment. She didn’t say there should be “no limits”; she said legal immigration should be based on “merit” rather than a quota.

At a Nov. 2 town hall in New Hampshire, Haley said: “So for too long, Republican and Democrat presidents dealt with immigration based on a quota. We’ll take X number this year. We’ll take X number next year. The debate is on the number. It’s the wrong way to look at it. We need to do it based on merit. We need to go to our industries and say: ‘What do you need that you don’t have?’ So think agriculture, think tourism, think tech. We want the talent that’s going to make us better. Then you bring people in that can fill those needs.”

The U.S. has an “alphabet soup of visa categories” for legal immigration, the Migration Policy Institute explains. “Family relationships, ties to employers, or the need for humanitarian protection are the top channels for immigrants seeking temporary or permanent U.S. residence. And to a lesser extent, people can come if they possess sought-after skills or are selected in the green-card lottery. Visa categories have varying requirements, are subject to different numerical caps, and offer differing rights and responsibilities,” MPI says.

Christie Spins His Support of Transgender Students

Moderator Kelly asked Christie about his support for transgender students against the wishes of parents while he was governor of New Jersey. Christie did sign a bill in 2017 providing protections for transgender students. But the specific guidelines were not issued until after he left office.

“When you were governor in 2017, you signed a law that required new guidelines for schools dealing with transgender students. Those guidelines required schools to accept a child’s preferred gender identity, even if the minor’s parents objected,” Kelly said. “And it said there is no duty for schools to notify parents if their son or daughter changes their gender identity, allowing the serious issue to remain a secret between the school and the child. How is any of that pro-parental rights?”

Christie responded, “That’s simply not true. That law was put into effect in 2018 and regulated in 2018, after I was out of office. … We did not issue those guidelines and you’re wrong about that, simply wrong.” He added, “I stood up every single time for parents to be able to make the decisions for their minor children.”

Christie, who served as New Jersey governor from 2010 to 2018, signed a law in July 2017 that required the state’s education commissioner to develop guidelines to provide protections for transgender students. But the guidelines themselves were issued in late September 2018, after Christie had left office.

The law, NJ S3067, said the guidelines would “provide direction for schools in addressing common issues concerning the needs of transgender students, and to assist schools in establishing policies and procedures that ensure a supportive and nondiscriminatory environment for transgender students.”

The law said the guidelines should address “confidentiality and privacy concerns, including ensuring that school personnel do not disclose information that may reveal a student’s transgender status except as allowed by law, and advising schools to work with the student to create an appropriate confidentiality plan regarding the student’s transgender or transitioning status.”

At the time, Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, said the organization was “pleasantly surprised” by Christie’s signing of the transgender student bill. Christie had previously said policies concerning transgender students should be decided by school districts, and he didn’t support statewide “edicts” on the matter, Politico reported.

The guidelines issued in September 2018 said, “A school district shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required.”

Ramaswamy’s ‘Reasonable Peace Deal’ for Ukraine

Christie derided Ramaswamy’s plan for ending Russia’s war in Ukraine, saying it would concede to Russia “all the land they’ve already stolen” and keep Ukraine from joining NATO (although Christie misspoke, saying the plan would keep Ukraine out of Russia). In exchange, Christie said, Ramaswamy would trust Russian President Vladimir Putin “not to have a relationship with China.”

Ramaswamy shot back, “That’s not my deal.”

But it seems to be a mostly accurate synopsis of what Ramaswamy had proposed in June and refers to as the “reasonable peace deal.”

Ramaswamy appeared on the June 1 episode of Kim Iversen’s podcast, which has a history of promoting conspiracy theories. There, he gave a preview of his proposed peace deal, which he then rolled out during a speech in New Hampshire.

“Here’s the deal that we can do with Putin,” Ramaswamy said in his speech. “We will stop providing aid to Ukraine; we will freeze the current lines of control, that means he gets the Donbas region, it means he gets the Crimea; and we will make a permanent commitment to tell Ukraine that you will not be admitted to NATO — not now, not ever. Those are big concessions to Russia. But we have a big ask in return — that you will exit your treaty with China.”

The treaty to which he is referring is the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, which was first signed in 2001 and extended in 2021.

According to a paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the agreement followed a border dispute and “set forth a bilateral relationship based on ‘mutual respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ noninterference in internal affairs, equality, and mutual benefit.” 

So, it’s true that Ramaswamy had proposed a plan to end the war in Ukraine by allowing Russia to keep all the land it has taken and preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. Christie was less clear — but broadly accurate — when he described what Russia would have to give up in exchange, although Christie clearly would not trust Putin to end Russia’s relationship with China.

Haley Wasn’t ‘Bankrupt’ When Leaving the U.N.

While making an allegation that Haley is “corrupt,” Ramaswamy wrongly said that Haley was “bankrupt when you left the U.N.”

Ramaswamy: Nikki, you were bankrupt when you left the U.N. After you left the U.N. you became a military contractor. You actually started joining service on the board of Boeing whose back you scratched for a very long time and then gave foreign multinational speeches like Hillary Clinton is and now you’re a multimillionaire. That math does not add up. It adds up to the fact that you are corrupt.

Like a lot of politicians, Haley went on the lecture circuit after leaving office, and joined the board of a major corporation, in her case the Boeing Company. But she said she and her husband did not go bankrupt.

“First of all, we were not bankrupt when I left the U.N.,” Haley said. “We’re people of service. My husband is in the military, and I served our country as U.N. ambassador and governor. It may be bankrupt to him, but it certainly wasn’t bankrupt to us.”

When Haley left the U.N. after just two years, there was some speculation that she did so for financial reasons. Money Magazine wrote that her 2018 financial disclosure form, which she filed in May 2018 and covered the preceding calendar year, showed she and her husband had a mortgage, credit card debt and a line of credit that put her total indebtedness in the range of $525,000 to $1.1 million.

At the time, Haley’s spokesperson released a statement that said: “Their current debt level is well below $500,000, and it had no bearing whatsoever on Ambassador Haley’s decision to leave her position.”

So, Haley left office with some level of debt, but we could find no evidence that she and her husband filed for bankruptcy.

DeSantis on COVID-19 Vaccines for Young Kids

DeSantis, who has argued against COVID-19 vaccination in Florida, particularly for younger people, falsely claimed that there was no basis for the FDA to authorize the shots for babies.

“You also have the FDA approving an mNRA shot for 6-months-old babies,” he said, incorrectly referring to the mRNA, or messenger RNA, design of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. “There was no data to support that. They’re doing it because Big Pharma will make money.”

The FDA first authorized COVID-19 vaccines on an emergency basis for children down to 6 months on June 17, 2022, based on the results of clinical trials conducted in young children. As is standard for vaccines, the testing in young children followed testing in adults and older children. This step-down approach helps ensure any safety issues are caught first in adults.

For safety, the clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine included about 4,800 vaccinated kids, while the Pfizer trial included about 3,000 vaccinated kids. Both companies tested their vaccines in two age subgroups, one of which was a group for ages 6 months to 2 years.

The primary way the vaccines were evaluated for effectiveness was through a so-called immunobridging approach, in which young children were tested for their antibody responses to the vaccines. If their antibody levels were similar to those of young adults who had received the adult dose, and a similar proportion of children mounted an antibody response, then it is inferred that the vaccine works in younger children. Both vaccines met the criteria for effectiveness using this method.

The companies also reported traditional efficacy numbers for preventing symptomatic disease from their randomized controlled trials.

Reviewing all the information, the FDA concluded that the benefits of the vaccines for young children outweighed the risks. Independent panels of experts advising the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed. Subsequent safety monitoring has continued to demonstrate that the vaccines are safe.

Ramaswamy Wrong on Jan. 6

In an attack on federal workers, which he collectively called the “deep state,” Ramaswamy embraced the conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job.”

“[I]f you want somebody who’s going to speak truth to power, then vote for somebody who’s going to speak the truth to you,” he said. “Why am I the only person on the stage, at least, who can say that Jan. 6 now does look like it was an inside job?”

Some conservatives have tried to blame undercover FBI agents for allegedly provoking the pro-Donald Trump crowd to attack the Capitol that day. But there is no evidence of such a government conspiracy, and, as we’ve written, FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, unequivocally denied the claim.

“To the extent that there’s a suggestion, for example, that the FBI’s confidential human sources or FBI employees in some way instigated or orchestrated Jan. 6 — that’s categorically false,” Wray said at a congressional hearing in November 2022.

The simple fact is that a throng of Trump supporters descended on the U.S. Capitol convinced by Trump that the election had been stolen. Trump made false claims about rampant voter fraud months before the Nov. 3, 2020, election, and long after it — including in his falsehood-filled speech at a rally on the day of the riot. (For a timeline, see our article “Road to a Second Impeachment.”)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Trump for provoking what he called an act of “terrorism” to prevent Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, from certifying Joe Biden as winner of the 2020 election.

“They did this because they’d been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth because he was angry he lost an election,” McConnell said in a floor speech on Feb. 13, 2021. “Former President Trump’s actions [that] preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.”

Repeats

  • As he did in the second debate — and using a term that some advocacy groups say should be avoided — Ramaswamy incorrectly said that “transgenderism is a mental health disorder.” Being transgender is not a mental illness, but some trans people experience gender dysphoria, which is a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It refers to intense distress over the mismatch between a person’s sex and their gender identity. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the diagnosis requires “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
  • In once again calling “the climate change agenda … a hoax,” Ramaswamy also repeated two of his favorite cherry-picked climate stats — that there’s been a “98% reduction in the climate disaster-related deaths in the last century,” and that eight times as many people currently die of cold temperatures than warm ones. Both statements are true, at least according to some data, but they don’t mean that continuing to warm the planet by burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases is a good idea. Climate change is expected to have numerous negative impacts, including on human health.

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