FactChecking Trump’s Iowa Town Hall

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Summary

While his GOP primary rivals were debating on CNN on Jan. 10, former President Donald Trump took questions from Iowans in a town hall that aired on Fox News. We found several false and misleading statements:

  • Trump falsely claimed that his administration “would have started to pay down our debt” by selling U.S. energy to Europe and Asia, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. One budget expert called the idea “baffling.”
  • He stated definitely that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originated in a lab, despite a lack of credible evidence.
  • Trump repeated many talking points we’ve fact-checked before, on taxes, immigration, the economy, abortion and military conflicts.

We also fact-checked the debate between Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Iowa caucuses will be held Jan. 15.

Analysis

Trump’s Fantastical Debt Reduction Claim

As we have written before, the amount of federal debt held by the public increased by $7.2 trillion during Trump’s four years in office, Treasury figures show. The total national debt — which includes debt the federal government owes itself — went up by $7.8 trillion

During the town hall, Trump blamed COVID-19 for that increase and claimed that if not for the pandemic, his administration “would have started to pay down our debt” by selling energy to Europe and Asia.

Trump, Jan. 10: We were ready to start supplying energy, selling energy to Europe, Asia. We would have started to pay down our debt. And then when COVID came along, we had to do a little bit of a course change.

Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, called Trump’s remarks “baffling.”

“Despite what Trump seems to be saying, the federal government doesn’t produce and sell energy. Private companies do,” Gleckman told us in an email. “So increased oil exports would have only a trivial effect on the budget deficit. … Any realistic additional tax revenue from this sector would barely move the deficit needle.”

It’s true that the U.S. has been a net total energy exporter since 2019, and exports have been rising. Even so, the federal debt also has been rising. Energy exports were the highest on record in 2022, according to the Energy Information Administration, and yet the U.S. debt increased that year by nearly $1.4 trillion.

Trump had a point that the economic impact of COVID-19 — including the relief bills he signed — increased the federal debt. But even before COVID-19, the debt and deficits were already rising and projected to go higher.

On Jan. 31, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency for the “2019 novel coronavirus,” which would later become known as COVID-19. Prior to that, the federal public debt had increased by $2.79 trillion from Jan. 20, 2017, when Trump took office, through Jan. 30, 2020, the day before HHS declared COVID-19 a public health emergency.

Likewise, pre-pandemic federal deficits increased from $665.4 billion in fiscal year 2017 to $983.6 billion in fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30, 2019, according to the White House Office of Budget and Management. (See Table 1.1.)

On Jan. 28, 2020, two days before the HHS declared a public health emergency, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its annual budget and economic outlook, which covered the fiscal years 2020 through 2030. The CBO estimated that the federal debt held by the public would increase every year over the 10-year projection period, rising from an estimated $17.85 trillion in fiscal year 2020 to $31.4 trillion in 2030.

“We were absolutely not on course to start paying down our debt before COVID,” Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told us in an email. “In January of 2020, CBO projected deficits were on course to reach $1.3 trillion per year by 2025 and debt was going to continue to rise faster than the economy.”

In an analysis released earlier this week, the CRFB did find that Trump’s tariff policies will reduce the federal debt by $445 billion over a 10-year period. But other Trump actions — including his signature tax cut legislation that he signed in December 2017 — will result in a net increase in the federal debt.

The CRFB estimated that Trump’s laws and executive orders will add $8.4 trillion to the federal debt over a 10-year period.

“Of the $8.4 trillion President Trump added to the debt, $3.6 trillion came from COVID relief laws and executive orders, $2.5 trillion from tax cut laws, and $2.3 trillion from spending increases, with the remaining executive orders having costs and savings that largely offset each other,” the CRFB said.

Unsupported Theory on COVID-19 Origin

Without prompting, Trump shared his thoughts on how SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, originated, stating definitively — despite a lack of evidence — that the virus came from a lab.

“They were saying it came out of caves, bat caves, 2,000 miles away, came out of Italy, came out of France,” he said. “No, it came out of Wuhan, the labs.”

Trump then elaborated on what he thought happened, adding that he didn’t think a lab release was intentional, but “done out of incompetence.” 

“I believe that a scientist went out, said hello to his girlfriend, and that was the end of that,” he said. “She died, and then people started dying all over the place. But who knows? Who knows?”

Trump is entitled to his opinion, but there isn’t credible evidence that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab. On the contrary, several lines of evidence support the idea that the virus originated in bats and then spilled over to humans, most likely through an interaction with an intermediate animal on sale as part of the wildlife trade at a wet market in Wuhan, China. 

This is similar to how other novel coronaviruses have infected people in the past. Papers published in July 2022 in the journal Science show that geographically, the earliest COVID-19 cases cluster around the market — even those with no known connection to the market — and that genomic data suggests slightly different versions of the virus spilled over twice — an unlikely occurrence if SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab. Further, animals susceptible to the coronavirus, such as raccoon dogs, are known to have been sold in the market in late 2019.

While a lab leak cannot be ruled out, it is based on speculation and has largely centered on suspicions of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A lab at the WIV specialized in studying coronaviruses, collecting viruses from bats in the wild and sometimes genetically manipulating them to understand how risky they might be. But there is no evidence the lab ever possessed a virus similar enough to SARS-CoV-2 to have created the virus, nor do many experts believe it is plausible that scientists could have engineered the virus. The lab head has stated that as of March 2020, antibody testing showed all lab members did not have evidence of prior infection with SARS-CoV-2.

As for a specific scenario involving a girlfriend, there is little to corroborate those details. As PolitiFact reported, a Fox News report on an April 15, 2020, episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” floated the notion of an accidental lab leak from a worker “who then infected his girlfriend,” citing anonymous U.S. government sources.

Earlier the same day, Fox News’ John Roberts asked Trump about the issue at a coronavirus briefing, saying that “multiple sources are telling Fox News” that a virology lab “intern was infected, who later infected her boyfriend, and then went to the wet market in Wuhan where it began to spread.”

Neither story mentions the romantic partner dying, as Trump said, and more critically, no evidence has emerged that confirms any kind of spread from a lab. 

As we’ve written, various versions of the “sick” lab workers rumor have circulated since 2020, in part fueled by a January 2021 “fact sheet” released by the Trump administration that said the government “has reason to believe” that several WIV workers became sick prior to the outbreak “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

A declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released in June, however, explains that while several WIV researchers were “mildly ill” in the fall of 2019, “they experienced a range of symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with COVID-19, and some of them were confirmed to have been sick with other illnesses unrelated to COVID-19.” The report says that this information, therefore, “neither supports nor refutes either hypothesis of the pandemic’s origins,” meaning whether it was a natural origin or came from a lab.

U.S. intelligence agencies remain split on the origin of SARS-CoV-2, with four entities plus the National Intelligence Council landing on a natural origin, and the FBI and the Department of Energy concluding a lab origin is “most likely.” Two others are undecided. All agencies agree that the virus “was not developed as a biological weapon.”

Repeats

Trump repeated many claims that we have fact-checked before. Several are long-running talking points from his time in office:

ISIS. According to Trump’s own administration, about half of the territory held by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Iraq and Syria had been regained under President Barack Obama. But Trump glossed over that, saying, “We beat ISIS, knocked them out. It was supposed to take four years. I did it in literally three months.” The final stronghold was retaken by the Syrian Democratic Forces in March 2019, more than two years after Trump was inaugurated.

Taxes. The 2017 tax cuts were not “the biggest tax cuts in history.” There have been pricier tax laws in terms of percentage of gross domestic product and inflation-adjusted dollars.

Southern border. Apprehensions of those trying to cross the U.S. southern border illegally have gone up substantially under President Joe Biden, but Trump was wrong to say his administration “had the best border in the history of our country.” After dropping in 2017, apprehensions then rose. The total number of apprehensions was higher during Trump’s presidency than either of Obama’s four-year terms.

Economy. The country didn’t have “the greatest economy in history” under Trump. Economists look to real (inflation-adjusted) GDP growth to measure economic health, and that figure exceeded Trump’s peak year of 3% growth more than a dozen times before he took office.

Energy. The U.S. still relied on foreign sources of energy, including oil, under Trump, despite his claim that “we were energy independent.” He may be referring to other measures, such as producing more energy than the U.S. consumed or exports exceeding imports. But by those definitions, the U.S. has still been “energy independent” under Biden.

Gasoline prices. Trump boasted that gasoline prices were “down to $1.87 a gallon” or “even lower” during his presidency. That’s correct: The average price of regular gasoline was as low as $1.77 in April 2020 during the pandemic, but finished at $2.38 before he left office. He wrongly said gasoline is now “at $4 and $5.” It peaked at $5 in June 2022, but the latest price is $3.07, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Border wall. He said that “we built over 500 miles of wall.” There were nearly 500 miles — 458 miles to be exact — of “border wall system” built during Trump’s term. Most, 373 miles, was replacement barriers for primary or secondary fencing that was dilapidated or outdated, according to a January 2021 Customs and Border Protection status report

Inflation. Trump wrongly said that “Biden drove up the cost of energy. That’s what caused inflation.” Economists cite several reasons for an increase in inflation, first and foremost the unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. As for energy, the price of crude oil is set on the global market, not by presidents, and it began increasing toward the end of 2020 primarily, experts say, because the worldwide demand for oil began to exceed the international supply.

Illegal Immigration. Echoing a whopper of a claim he has been making since last year, Trump said that “many” of the millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. and others who may join them while Biden is in office “come from jails and prisons. Many of those people come from mental institutions and insane asylums.” Previously, Trump has claimed that countries around the world are “emptying out their prisons, insane asylums and mental institutions and sending their most heinous criminals to the United States.” Immigration experts told us there’s simply no evidence for that. One expert said Trump’s claim appeared to be “a total fabrication.” 

Illegal Immigration, round two. Trump added in the town hall, “And many of those people are terrorists.” There’s also no evidence for that. Customs and Border Protection has said that encounters of people on the U.S. terrorist watchlist at U.S. borders “are very uncommon.” The CBP watchlist statistics, which include “known or suspected terrorists” and “additional individuals who represent a potential threat to the United States,” show that officials have encountered more people on the watchlist trying to enter at legal ports of entry on the northern border in recent years than those apprehended trying to cross the southern border illegally. There’s no data on watchlisted individuals who aren’t stopped by CBP.

Iraq War. Trump dug up a popular 2016 campaign talking point, claiming that “I used to say, don’t go into Iraq. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” We found no evidence that Trump spoke against the Iraq War before it started. In fact, he gave a halfhearted endorsement for going to war six months before the conflict began. A few months after it started, he expressed concerns about the cost and direction of the war.

Abortion. Trump claimed that Democrats favor abortion “even after birth.” That’s homicide, and it’s illegal.

Afghanistan. He repeated the gross exaggeration that “Biden gave $85 billion worth of our military to Afghanistan so stupidly. Brand new tanks and planes and everything,” when the U.S. withdrew troops from the country. That figure — actually $82.9 billion — was the total amount spent on the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund since the war began in 2001. But it wasn’t all for military equipment, and most of the equipment purchased in those two decades had become inoperable, relocated, decommisioned or destroyed.

Wars. Trump made the inaccurate claim that he was “the only president in 72 years” who “didn’t have any wars,” a length of time that has grown since he claimed when leaving office that he was “the first president in decades who has started no new wars.” Even the latter assertion is debatable.

President Jimmy Carter, who held office from 1977 to 1981, didn’t declare war or ask Congress for authorization to use force, as PolitiFact has pointed out.

But does launching airstrikes count as “war”? As the Washington Post Fact Checker has noted, Trump ordered an airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani. His national security adviser told reporters that was authorized under a 2002 resolution giving the president the authority to take actions against “the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”


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