Debate fact check: Claims from President Trump, Joe Biden’s final debate

New York News
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Joe Biden met in person in Nashville for the final debate of the 2020 election.

NBC’s Kristen Welker was moderator for the 90-minute event and planned to focus on six main topics. On the first announced topic, fighting Covid-19, Trump has consistently misled the American public, including as recently as his “60 Minutes” interview. During an excerpt which the President released ahead of the episode’s airing this weekend, Trump falsely claimed the US has turned the corner on the pandemic.

COVID-19

TRUMP’S CLAIM on the toll of COVID-19 in the U.S.: “So as you know 2.2 million people, modeled out, were expected to die.”

THE FACTS: This was his first line in the debate, and it is false. The U.S. death toll from the pandemic was not expected to be that high.

Such an extreme projection was merely a baseline if nothing at all were done to fight the pandemic. Doing nothing was never an option and public-health authorities did not expect over 2 million deaths.

Trump often cites the number to put the reality of more than 200,000 deaths in a better light and to attempt to take credit for reducing projected mortality.

At an April 1 briefing, when Trump and his officials discussed an actual projection of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths, the president held out hope of keeping deaths under 100,000. “I think we’re doing better than that.” He has repeatedly moved the goal posts to make the massive mortality and infection numbers look better.

TRUMP’S CLAIM: Coronavirus is ‘going away’

Trump claimed the virus is going away. “We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away,” Trump said.

FACT CHECK: This is false. The US coronavirus situation — as measured by newly confirmed cases, hospitalizations and the test positivity rate — is getting worse, not better. There is no basis for his vague claim that we are “rounding the corner.”

New cases are on the rise toward their summer peak. Deaths have also been increasing.

According to data through Oct. 21 from Johns Hopkins University, the 7-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. rose over the past two weeks from over 42,300 on Oct. 7 to nearly 60,000 on Oct. 21.

According to data through Oct. 21 from Johns Hopkins University, the 7-day rolling average for daily new deaths in the U.S. rose over the past two weeks from 695 on Oct. 7 to 757 on Oct. 21.

Trump has baselessly claimed for eight months that the virus would disappear or was currently disappearing.

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TRUMP’S CLAIM: “Frankly, [Biden] ran the H1N1, swine flu, and it was a total disaster, far less lethal, but it was a total disaster. Had that had this kind of numbers, 700,000 people would be dead right now.”

FACT CHECK: While Trump is correct that the H1N1 virus was much less lethal than COVID-19, it is misleading to call the Obama administration’s response a “failure.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates up to 575,000 lives were lost to the swine flu worldwide. Of those, fewer than 13,000 were American, due in part to the Obama administration’s “complex, multi-faceted and long-term response,” the CDC later wrote. Thus far, COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 210,000 Americans, a little over eight months since the first known case of the virus was discovered in the United States.

“The team, in my opinion, in 2009, really demonstrated that the planning was worth it. Nothing is ever perfect. But I felt just so impressed and so proud of the job CDC did in 2009,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, a CDC director during the George W. Bush administration, told ABC News.

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BIDEN’S CLAIM: “The expectation is we’ll have another 200,000 Americans dead in the time between now and the end of the year. If we just wore these masks, the president’s own advisers have told him, we could save 100,000 lives.”

FACT CHECK: The president’s advisers haven’t used this estimate, though the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strongly recommended wearing them. A modeling study by the University of Washington estimated at one point that if most Americans wore masks, it could save 100,000 lives by the end of the year. That estimate has been repeated by Tom Frieden, who led the CDC under President Barack Obama.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the current head of the CDC under Trump, has not made such a statement.

According to his office, he has said that the pandemic could begin to come under control in eight to 12 weeks “if all people living in America wore a face mask, were smart about social distancing and crowds, and practiced good hand hygiene.”

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TRUMP’S CLAIM: “When I closed, he said, ‘This is a terrible thing. You’re xenophobic.’ I think he called me racist, even, and — because I was closing it to China. Now, he says I should have closed it earlier. It just — Joe, it doesn’t work.”

FACT CHECK: While Trump claimed that Biden opposed his decision to ban most travel from China at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic and that he called the restrictions “xenophobic,” the former vice president did not explicitly weigh in on the decision when it was announced on Jan. 31. He did call the president xenophobic minutes after the partial travel ban was announced, but did not call Trump a racist for the decision.

During a campaign event that same day in Fort Madison, Iowa, Biden discussed the growing concern over the COVID-19 outbreak and cautioned that Trump should let science “lead the way.”

“In moments like this, this is where the credibility of a president is most needed as he explains what we should and should not do,” Biden told the crowd at the event. “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysterical xenophobia … and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of science.”

The comments came just minutes after the White House announcement, so it was unclear if Biden was referring to the decision specifically, but the former vice president did tweet a similar sentiment the next day.

“We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus,” Biden posted. “We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering. He is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency.”

Throughout March, Biden used the word “xenophobic” in various speeches and tweets to criticize the president labeling COVID-19 as the “China virus.”

Biden did acknowledge the travel restrictions put in place by the Trump administration in a March speech, noting they “may” slow the spread.

“Banning all travel from Europe or any other part of the world may slow it, but as we’ve seen, it will not stop it. And travel restrictions based on favoritism and politics rather than risk will be counterproductive,” Biden said.

Biden’s campaign did not explicitly discuss the vice president’s view of the ban until April.

“Joe Biden supports travel bans that are guided by medical experts, advocated by public health officials and backed by a full strategy,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told CNN. “Science supported this ban, therefore he did too.

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TRUMP’S CLAIM: “Nobody knew where it was coming from, what it was. We’ve learned a lot. But Anthony said don’t wear masks. Now he wants to wear masks.”

FACT CHECK: Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the top infectious disease experts in the country, and other public health experts initially told Americans not to wear surgical or N95 masks in the early days of what has become the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, as well as Fauci and other top experts, initially discouraged wearing masks because of concerns that masks and other personal protective equipment were in short supply for health care workers who needed them. Public health officials were also concerned wearing masks could have unintended consequences if people touched their face more often to adjust them or fail to keep social distancing.

“There was this feeling that there would be a shortage just for those who really need them very early on,” Fauci said in a recent interview. “That was the big deal. We didn’t have enough PPE including masks. Then it became clear that cloth masks worked reasonably well. And therefore there was no more shortage. Then the different analyses, meta analyses and others came in that in fact, it does work.”

In early April, the CDC changed its recommendation about face coverings for the general public, based on evidence that a significant number of people who were asymptomatic or not yet feeling sick were transmitting the virus.

Duke University researchers have also concluded that “if 95 percent of people wear cloth masks when within 6 feet of other people in public, it will reduce COVID-19 transmission by at least 30 percent.”

Trump also said he thought Fauci was a Democrat, but Fauci is not registered as a member of any political party, according to D.C. voting records.

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TRUMP’S CLAIM: When asked how he would lead the country during the next phase of the pandemic, President Trump said that “there was a spike in Florida, and it’s now gone. There was a very big spike in Texas, it’s now gone. There was a very big spike in Arizona, it’s now gone. And there are some spikes and surges in other places. They will soon be gone.”

FACT CHECK: Although cases did “spike” and reach record levels in Florida, Texas and Arizona earlier this summer, then steadily decreased for a few months, cases in all three states have been on the rise for the last several weeks.

Since Oct. 1, the seven-day average of new cases has doubled in Arizona, according to an ABC News analysis of COVID Tracking Project data, recording an average of 880 new cases a day.

In Texas, more than 6,000 cases were reported on Thursday, increasing by 37% in the last two weeks, and in Florida, the seven-day average is still hovering at 3,300 new coronavirus cases a day.

Additionally, nationally, cases are not in fact, going away.

New cases have been rising rapidly for the last five weeks.

Since Sept. 12, the seven-day average of new cases has surged by 77.5%. Just in the last 10 days, the U.S. has reported eight days with over 50,000 new cases reported, and on Thursday, the U.S reported over 73,000 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily figure in nearly three months.

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TRUMP’S CLAIM: “We have a vaccine that’s coming. It’s ready. It’s going to be announced within weeks. And it’s going to be delivered.” // “Johnson & Johnson is doing very well. Moderna is doing very well. Pfizer is doing very well. And we have numerous others.”

FACT CHECK: A COVID-19 vaccine isn’t ready right now. But it is true that two companies — Pfizer and Moderna — could seek emergency use authorization in November or December.

Like Pfizer and Moderna, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is also in late-stage studies, but Johnson & Johnson paused its trial earlier this month earlier this month to investigate an unexplained illness.

As the chief adviser to the government vaccine distribution initiative Operation Warp Speed, Dr. Moncef Slaoui told ABC’s Bob Woodruff this week that if a vaccine is authorized before the end of the year approximately 20 million to 40 million doses of it will be stockpiled and ready for distribution for a limited population. At first, only high priority Americans, like those over 65, will have access, but by the springtime more Americans should have access.

Slaoui said that vaccine trials are going as fast as it’s safe to go, pledging to resign if he felt undue pressure from the White House. Slaoui said that by June 2021, it’s possible “everybody” in the United States could have been immunized.

AFFORDABLE CARE ACT

BIDEN: “Not one single person with private insurance would lose their insurance under my plan, nor did they under ‘Obamacare,’ they did not lose their insurance, unless they chose they wanted to go to something else.”

THE FACTS: He’s wrong about “Obamacare.”

Then-President Barack Obama promised if you liked your health insurance, you could keep it under his Affordable Care Act, but that’s not what happened for some.

When “Obamacare” took effect in 2014, several million people lost individual health insurance plans that no longer met minimum standards established by the law. A backlash forced the White House to offer a work-around, but the political damage was done.

Health insurance is such a complicated area that almost any action has the potential for unintended consequences.

TRUMP’S TAXES

TRUMP on his taxes: “They keep talking about $750, which I think is a filing fee. … Tens of millions of dollars (in income taxes) I prepaid.” On his China bank account: “I was a businessman in 2013 and I closed the account in 2015.”

FACT CHECK: Trump is not being honest about his taxes.

Reporting by The New York Times, which obtained his tax records, contradicts his claims.

The IRS does not charge taxpayers a filing fee, though tax preparation services do. The $750 that Trump paid in 2016 and 2017 in the income taxes was to the federal government, not a tax preparation service.

It’s not clear what Trump is talking about with regard to prepaying his taxes, but what matters is what he ultimately owed the government. Americans often have their income tax payments deducted from their paychecks. The Times reported that Trump, starting in 2010, claimed and received an income tax refund that totaled $72.9 million, which was at the core of an ongoing audit by the IRS. The Times said a ruling against Trump could cost him $100 million or more.

Nor did Trump close his Chinese bank account, according to Alan Garten, a lawyer for Trump’s company. He told the Times that the account remains open, though the company’s office in China has been inactive since 2015.

RUSSIA

TRUMP’S CLAIM: “Joe got $3.5 (million) from Russia. And it came through Putin because he was very friendly with the former mayor of Moscow, and it was the the mayor of Moscow’s wife. And you got $3.5. Your family got $3.5 million. Someday you’re going to have to explain why.”

FACT CHECK: There is no evidence of this. Trump is falsely characterizing a recent report by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who investigated Biden’s son, Hunter, and his business dealings in Ukraine.

The report did not allege that Joe Biden himself got $3.5 million or that Russia President Vladimir Putin had anything to do with such a payment. Nor does the report allege that Hunter Biden pocketed the money himself. The report said the sum went instead to an investment firm he co-founded. Hunter Biden’s lawyer has said in a statement to reporters that his client had no interest in and was not a founder of the firm.

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BIDEN’S CLAIM: “And to the best of my knowledge, I don’t think the president has said anything to Putin about [election meddling]. I don’t think he’s talking to him a lot. I don’t think he said a word. I don’t know why he hasn’t said a word to Putin about it.”

FACT CHECK: A smirking Trump, under pressure from members of Congress and his own intelligence community, did in fact tell Russian President Vladimir Putin at the “Group of 20” countries summit last year not to interfere in the 2020 election.

But Trump delivered the warning in a very casual way, playfully wagging his finger at Putin without making eye contact with him, saying, “Don’t meddle in the election please, don’t meddle in the election.”

Trump also pressed Putin in his first G-20 summit meeting on interference in the 2016 election after intelligence officials confirmed Russian involvement in manipulating the election, according to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“The president opened the meeting by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in 2016 election. Putin denied such involvement, as he has done in the past,” Tillerson said at the time.

SOCIAL SECURITY

BIDEN’S CLAIM: “The idea that we’re in a situation that is going to destroy Medicare, this is the guy that the actuary of Medicare said … if, in fact, he continues to withhold — his plan to withhold the tax on Social Security, Social Security will be bankrupt by 2023.”

FACT CHECK: Biden’s claim is misleading on a number of fronts, but is rooted in an action Trump took and comments he made in August.

Trump signed an executive order in August that temporarily halted the collection of the payroll tax, a tax on wages split by workers and their employers. He subsequently asserted that he would like to permanently eliminate the tax.

In 2019, the tax financed 89% of Social Security. Workers and employers each contribute 6.2% of wages, while self-employed people pay the full 12.4%.

However, following Trump’s signing of the executive order, he has said publicly that he will draw from the government’s “general funds” to cover any lost funding for Social Security, a scenario the actuary accounted for in his response to the group of Democratic senators, telling them that the solvency of the program will be essentially unchanged if Trump follows through and actually proposes legislation akin to his public comments.

But since Trump issued his order, and despite Biden’s claims that Trump put forward a full-fledged “proposal,” Trump and the GOP have not unveiled more detailed legislation on how they would prevent the elimination of the payroll tax from impacting the financial security of Social Security.

In late August, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden, Bernie Sanders, Chris Van Hollen and Chuck Schumer sent a letter to the chief actuary of the Social Security program asking what the effect of eliminating the payroll tax would be. In response, the chief actuary said he was not aware of any “hypothetical legislation” that had been proposed. In simply responding to the scenario posed by Senate Democrats, he said the Social Security benefit program would be depleted of funds by 2023 if there’s no additional stream of funding identified to offset eliminating of the payroll tax.

What Trump has not said thus far is what programs could potentially be impacted by the redirection of funds from the government’s general fund, only that he will protect Social Security benefits. The general fund finances the operations of the U.S. government, such as recording “funds received and distributed by the Department of the Treasury,” and it “includes assets held by government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae and the Internal Revenue Service.”

FAMILY SEPARATIONS

TRUMP’S CLAIM: “The children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels, and they’re brought here and they used to use them to get into our country.” // “They built cages. You know, they used to say I built the cages.” // “They are so well taken care of. They are in facilities that are so clean.”

FACT CHECK: Trump was defending his now-defunct policy known as “zero tolerance” that required every adult who crossed the border illegally – even those traveling with their children – be detained in a bid to deter border crossings.

The result was that thousands of children were separated from their parents in a matter of weeks. It was a major departure from past U.S. policy. In the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, families were separated in rare instances, such as cases of serious crimes like drug trafficking.

Critics of Trump’s policy questioned the conditions the kids were kept in initially at border stations after several died of the flu.

An internal investigation later found that the administration struggled to keep track of the parents, many of whom had been deported. The White House says the parents were contacted and abandoned the children, who were placed with U.S. sponsors, usually family members. The American Civil Liberties Union countered that parents have not been found and contacted and therefore could not give up rights to their children.

Homeland security officials have said that “coyotes” are often used to transport the families for a fee. But there has not been widespread evidence of cases of people falsely presenting themselves as related, with border patrol documentingthem as “family units.”

Trump’s suggestion that “cages” were built by the Obama administration is correct. Obama had faced an influx of children both traveling alone and with families as a result of violence in Central America. And at one point, the Obama administration tried housing the families in special detention centers.

But after a federal judge in California ruled that the arrangement violated a long-standing agreement barring kids from jail-like settings for extended periods, even with their parents, the government began releasing families into the U.S. pending notification of their next court date.

In 2018, photos taken by The Associated Press and posted online by liberal activists suggested the children in steel fencing was Trump’s doing. The photos were actually from 2014 when immigration detentions became flooded with families.

FUNDRAISING

TRUMP’S CLAIM: “Joe, you have raised a lot of money, tremendous amounts of money and every time you raise money, deals are made, Joe. I could raise so much more money as president and as somebody that knows most of those people. I could call the heads of Wall Street, the heads of every company in America. I would blow away every record, but I don’t want to do that because it puts me in a bad position.”

FACT CHECK: Trump targeted Biden for raising money for his campaign by claiming he could raise more but would be put in a “bad position” because he would owe donors something in return.

However, Trump himself regularly holds private, high-dollar fundraisers raking in millions of dollars and has raised over $1.5 billion so far this election cycle.

Just a week ago, the president attended a closed-door fundraiser at the home of Nicole and Palmer Luckey, an entrepreneur — where tickets ranged from $2,800 up to $100,000 per person.

CNN, The Associated Press and ABC News contributed to this report

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