The Whoppers of 2023

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Summary

Another year of fact-checking is nearly done, which means it’s time for our review of the biggest whoppers we’ve written about over the last 12 months.

Which false and misleading claims made our annual roundup?

President Joe Biden expanded on a past whopper about reducing the federal deficit.

Former President Donald Trump claimed without evidence that countries are sending inmates and people with mental illness to the U.S. illegally.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a presidential candidate and well-known vaccine critic, wrongly said that vaccines are not tested for safety in clinical trials.

And there was more notable misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war, Hunter Biden, the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and other subjects.

Read on for our full list, which is in no particular order.

Analysis

Emptied prisons and “insane asylums.” In his speech announcing his candidacy for president in June 2015, Donald Trump famously said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume are good people.” For his 2024 campaign, Trump has ratcheted up his rhetoric, demonizing immigrants even further with unsubstantiated claims that a surge in unauthorized border crossings under Biden is the result of countries around the world “emptying out their prisons, insane asylums and mental institutions and sending their most heinous criminals to the United States.” Immigration experts we talked to said there’s simply no evidence that is happening. One expert told us Trump’s claim appeared to be “a total fabrication.” More recently, Trump has added to the claim that the people supposedly released from prison and mental institutions from all over the world are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

More deficit deception. Biden continued to misleadingly claim that his administration’s policies reduced the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion, a claim that made our 2022 Whoppers list. He doubled-down again this year, claiming to have “cut the federal deficit” by making some corporations pay a 15% corporate alternative minimum tax. In fact, the deficit in fiscal year 2023, when the tax went into effect, increased to about $1.7 trillion — up from nearly $1.4 trillion the previous year.

RFK Jr.’s misinformation campaign. This year, after announcing his bid for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. took his yearslong effort to spread misinformation about vaccines and health to the campaign trail. Now running as an independent, Kennedy has repeated so many false and misleading claims to voters that we ran a three-part series on what he gets wrong.

One of his most common falsehoods is that vaccines “are the only medical product that is not safety-tested prior to licensure.” All vaccines undergo safety testing prior to authorization or approval. He has continued to push the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism — despite extensive scientific study of childhood vaccines that has found no connection to autism. And then there are his distortions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccines. He falsely said that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may have been “ethnically targeted” to “attack Caucasians and Black people,” while Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people are the “most immune” to the disease. Kennedy also has advocated ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as effective treatments for COVID-19, contrary to several large, randomized controlled trials that have found no benefits for COVID-19 patients receiving the medications.

Involvement in Hunter Biden’s business deals. Immediately after Hunter Biden’s former business partner, Devon Archer, testified behind closed doors to the House oversight committee, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said Archer told the committee “that he heard Hunter Biden speak to Joe Biden more than 20 times about their business deals. Not about anything else, but about the business deals.” Rep. Lauren Boebert likewise said Archer confirmed that Joe Biden “participated in more than 20 of Hunter’s shady business deals.” But when the interview transcript was publicly released several days later, it showed that Greene and Boebert were wrong. What Archer said is that Joe Biden sometimes dropped in via speaker phone or in person while his son was meeting with business associates, but Archer said Joe Biden only exchanged pleasantries and never discussed business.

Republicans have repeatedly overhyped, oversold and misleadingly presented new information uncovered in the House impeachment investigation. But as we have written, so far, Republicans haven’t been able to establish that Joe Biden was involved in his family’s business dealings, that the president directly benefited from those deals or that he ever used his position as vice president to assist the companies.

Jan. 6 conspiracy claims. A mob of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, convinced by Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. More than 1,200 people have been charged with crimes in relation to the Jan. 6 attack, and 140 police officers were assaulted that day. Yet, Republican presidential candidate and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has embraced the baseless conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6 attack was an “inside job,” claiming that “there were federal law enforcement agents in the field.”

Earlier this year, then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson similarly said: “Federal agents encouraged the violence that day. … That obviously happened.” In November 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, called such claims “categorically false.” Carlson referenced the debunked idea that Ray Epps, a Jan. 6 protester, was really an undercover federal agent. Epps — who was charged in September with disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted area for his role in the Jan. 6 attack — filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News in July, alleging that Carlson’s false claims about him had “destroyed” his life.

Denying Hamas’ actions. After the deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants started a war in Gaza, some social media posts falsely claimed or suggested that elements of the attack did not happen.

A widely viewed and shared video supposedly correcting “lies about Palestine” said “250 people” were not “killed at a concert” on Oct. 7 and that it was “false” to claim that Hamas militants raped Israelis. But there was plenty of evidence at the time that “at least 260” people were killed at the Tribe of Nova music festival in Israel, as the Associated Press reported. Also, more evidence, including witness testimony, later emerged that “dozens” of Israeli women and men had been raped, according to the head of the Israeli police unit collecting evidence of sexual violence.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the 2023 Turning Point Action Conference in Florida in July. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Another video circulating online falsely suggested that children may not have been killed in the attack in Israel because a since-deleted Instagram post included the names of children killed in prior years. At least 29 children were among the roughly 1,200 people murdered when Hamas attacked Israel in October, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Wrong about Fani Willis. In an attempt to discredit Willis, the Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney who later filed a 41-count grand jury indictment against Trump and 18 co-defendants in August, the former president made the unsubstantiated claim that Willis had “an affair” with a “gang member” she was investigating for alleged crimes. Trump’s presidential campaign previously had attributed a similarly groundless claim about Willis to a Rolling Stone article that never even hinted at a romantic relationship between her and members of an Atlanta-based rap group she is prosecuting for suspected gang activity.

Falsehoods about “post-birth” abortion. In his presidential announcement in May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he thought California allowed abortions to occur “post-birth.” The same month, Trump claimed that before the Supreme Court in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, the ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion, “They could kill the baby … after the baby was born.” No, they could not. That would be homicide, and it was and is against the law — including in California.

Under Roe, states could outlaw abortion after fetal viability, but with exceptions for risks to the life or health of the mother — a position many Democrats support. Many Republicans have objected to the health exception, saying it would allow abortion for any reason. But DeSantis and Trump went well beyond that argument with their claims of infanticide.

Biden’s climate “doomerism.” Biden has been overly pessimistic in claiming that if the planet reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, of global warming, “we’re done,” “we lose it all” and a “whole generation is damned.” Scientists say that while crossing that threshold — which appears likely within the next two decades — would have dangerous effects, it’s not a point of no return.

President Joe Biden meets with senior advisers in the Oval Office in September. White House Photo by Adam Schultz.

“I think passing 1.5 C means social and economic ‘chaos,’ but ‘done’ sounds like nothing we do afterwards matters,” Stanford University climate scientist Rob Jackson told us. “That’s wrong. Every tenth of a degree matters, before and after 1.5 C.”

Climate scientist Michael Mann said Biden’s “unhelpful” statements contribute to the climate “doomerism” narrative. “If we miss the 1.5C exit ramp, we still go for 1.6C exit rather than give up,” Mann said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Classified documents case. As Trump’s federal indictment related to allegations that he mishandled sensitive documents winds its way through the legal system, Trump has wrongly claimed that the Presidential Records Act “allowed” him to take classified documents after leaving office. Trump has also wrongly claimed he was “negotiating” with the National Archives and Records Administration “just as every other president has done” and “the next thing I knew, Mar-a-Lago was raided by gun-toting FBI agents.” That’s a distortion of the more-than-yearlong effort by the federal government to retrieve classified material and presidential records Trump had at his Mar-a-Lago home.

In his defense, Trump has made numerous assertions about his case that are contradicted by evidence revealed in the indictment. And he has claimed that Biden’s classified documents case is worse than his, often wrongly claiming, for example, that Biden “won’t give back” 1,850 boxes of documents from his time in the U.S. Senate and “nobody even knows where they are.” They’re at the University of Delaware, and the Justice Department has reviewed them.

No surge in athlete deaths. Experts in sports medicine told us that there has been no increase in sudden death or cardiac injury among U.S. athletes since the COVID-19 vaccines became available. That contradicted anti-vaccine claims such as this one from Dr. Simone Gold: “I want to remind the public that athletes being incapacitated or dropping dead was not a ‘thing’ prior to 2020. We are now seeing this happen very frequently, and it’s extremely concerning.”

Gold and others who made similarly dubious claims relied on a published letter to the editor that cited a list of deceased individuals who had various causes of death, including suicide, car accidents and drug overdoses. As we previously reported, the list did not include the COVID-19 vaccination status of the deceased in nearly all cases, nor did it establish a causal relationship between vaccines and the deaths. In some instances, the deaths happened before the vaccines had even become available for use by the departed.

The baseless theory of a surge in athlete deaths took off after Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapsed after making a tackle during a football game in early January. Hamlin, who is alive, contrary to bogus claims that he died, said that doctors had diagnosed him with commotio cordis, with the hit to his chest triggering his cardiac arrest.

An old immigration falsehood. Conservative politicians, pundits and outlets resurrected a zombie claim about the federal government allegedly paying thousands of dollars each month to people who immigrate to the U.S. without authorization. In September, Boebert, the Colorado congresswoman, wrote on X, “Biden is giving each illegal family $2,200 per month plus a free plane ticket and free medical care.” Not true.

The claim conflates nonrecurring financial aid given to authorized refugees with the limited assistance available to immigrants who entered the country illegally. It started as a falsehood about refugee assistance in Canada in 2004, before someone changed it to the U.S. We wrote about versions of this claim in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2019.

For more, read our full stories on these claims:

FactChecking Trump’s Rally, Fox Interview, March 30

FactChecking Trump’s CNN Town Hall, May 11

Biden Spins the Facts in Campaign Speech, Dec. 5

FactChecking Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Aug. 9

What RFK Jr. Gets Wrong About Autism, Aug. 10

RFK Jr.’s COVID-19 Deceptions, Aug. 11

Republicans Oversell Archer’s Testimony About Hunter and Joe Biden, Aug. 14

FactChecking the Fourth GOP Primary Debate, Dec. 7

Explaining the Missing Context of Tucker Carlson’s Jan. 6 Presentation, March 10

What We Know About Three Widespread Israel-Hamas War Claims, Oct. 13

Trump Makes Unsubstantiated Claim About Fani Willis, Aug. 10

FactChecking Ron DeSantis’ Presidential Announcement, May 25

Warming Beyond 1.5 C Harmful, But Not a Point of No Return, as Biden Claims, April 27

FactChecking Trump’s Interview with Carlson, Aug. 24

Trump’s Distortions of Federal Indictment, June 13

No Surge in Athlete Deaths, Contrary to Widespread Anti-Vaccine Claims, Jan. 13

Damar Hamlin Is Recovering and Has Appeared Publicly, Contrary to Online Claims, Jan. 17

Conservative Politicians, Commentators Recirculate Old Falsehood on Aid for Immigrants, Oct. 4

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