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Fact-checking the second Republican primary debate

Fox News aired the second GOP debate of the 2024 election cycle from Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday night, featuring seven candidates. Not every candidate uttered facts that are easily checked, but the following is a list of 15 claims that caught our attention. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates. These claims are examined in the order in which they were uttered.

“We should look back at the first bill in Congress under Joe Biden. The first bill had $86 billion for the union pensions because they continue to overpromise yet under-deliver.”

— Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)

President Biden’s first bill was a $1.9 trillion proposal to bolster the economy in the aftermath of covid shutdowns, but Scott is right that it included $86 billion in grants to multi-employer pensions, which pay benefits to union workers in industries such as construction, manufacturing and entertainment. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government-sponsored entity, generally steps in to help pay benefits when pensions fail, but its program for multi-employer pensions was in danger of becoming insolvent. Democrats said that the pandemic had worsened the crisis facing the plans.

“We brought 12,000 factories back to America during our administration.”

— Former vice president Mike Pence

“Factories” conjures up images of smokestacks and production lines, but the data set Pence cited is not really about factories. He’s echoing what was a common Donald Trump talking point before the pandemic tanked the economy — based on a Bureau of Labor Statistics database known as the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

The data showed that the United States gained more than 12,000 additional “manufacturing establishments” between the first quarter of 2017 through the second quarter of 2019. (There was a gain of 10,000 in President Barack Obama’s second term.) But more than 80 percent of these “manufacturing establishments” employ five or fewer people. The statistics bureau considers any establishment “engaged in the mechanical, physical, or chemical transformation of materials, substances, or components into new products,” so that also means establishments “that transform materials or substances into new products by hand or in the worker’s home and those engaged in selling to the general public products made on the same premises from which they are sold, such as bakeries, candy stores, and custom tailors.”

So, not really factories.

“When you look at the fact that we are paying higher gas prices, higher grocery prices, $7,000 more a year for families.”

— Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley

In April, we checked a claim by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that families have lost the equivalent of $7,400 worth of income. We tracked down the source of that statistic — E.J. Antoni, a research fellow in regional economics with the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis. As of last month, he’d revised his estimate down to $6,800.

But, more to the point, economists we contacted were dubious about the math, which relied on a change in purchasing power and a change in borrowing power. The change in borrowing power relied on mortgage rates — and not every family is looking for a new home. As for Antoni’s reliance on average weekly wages, this measure does not follow the same workers across time, and consequently, the economists said, it was an imperfect basis for families’ income changing over time.

Several economists pointed to another metric — real disposable personal income per capita — as a better gauge. That figure is produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the Commerce Department.

Per capita income, rendered in 2009 dollars to make comparisons easier, was $46,790 in December 2020 and $46,741 in July 2023 — a decline of almost $50. That’s not great — but a far cry from a $7,000 dip.

“During the Trump administration, they added $7 trillion, $7 trillion in national debt. And now, the Biden administration has put another $5 trillion on, and counting.”

— Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie

Christie is in the ballpark, but his numbers are a bit low. According to the Treasury Department, the nation’s total public debt, including intragovernmental holdings, climbed from about $20 trillion to $27.8 trillion under Trump, a gain of $7.9 trillion. Under Biden so far, the debt has climbed to $33.2 trillion, a gain of $5.4 trillion.

Of course, it is arbitrary and somewhat silly to tag presidents with the debt increase, as much of the gain is because of events, such as the pandemic, and policies made long before they took office. More than half of the debt under Trump came in the last 10 months of his term because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the biggest drivers of the debt are spending on Social Security and Medicare, established decades ago. That spending happens automatically, not subject to annual appropriations made by Congress.

“Donald Trump failed on this as well. He said he was going to build a wall across the whole border. He built 52 miles of wall and said Mexico would pay for it. Guess what? I think if Mexico knew that he was only going to build 52 miles they might have paid for the 52 miles.”

— Christie

Christie is referring to the fact that only 52 miles of Trump’s border barrier was built where no previous barrier had existed. But’s it’s not a fair representation of what Trump did to the southern border. Overall, Trump built a barrier along 458 miles of the border, including secondary barriers. While much of this was replacement of existing barriers, our colleague Nick Miroff noted on social media in 2020 that “there is really no comparison between vehicle barriers made from old rail ties and 30-foot bollards. … The admin is installing a massive structure across fragile SW landscapes, at great cost and impact.”

Christie is correct that Mexico did not pay for the barrier — a claim Trump often makes. American taxpayers paid for it. The Trump administration directed $16.4 billion in funding to barrier construction along the southern border. About $10 billion was repurposed from Defense Department projects over the objection of Congress. Trump has falsely claimed that Mexico provided 28,000 soldiers along its northern and southern borders to stem migration “free of charge,” and that equals payment toward the wall. But he’s wrong about that.

“We reduced illegal immigration and asylum abuse by 90 percent.”

— Pence

Ninety percent is a cherry-picked number, apparently comparing May 2019, the highest month for border apprehensions during the Trump administration, with April 2020, when apprehensions plunged because of lockdowns at the start of the covid pandemic. Another complicating factor is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection changed the way it counted apprehensions during the pandemic, making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult because the numbers were inflated by people who were expelled for health policy reasons, not just enforcement actions. But generally, annual apprehensions increased during the Trump administration.

“You know, Ron, you talk a really good game about cutting spending, but you’ve increased spending in Florida by 30 percent.”

— Pence

As framed, this is misleading. Florida, like most states, requires a balanced budget. While spending went up 30 percent, so did revenue — by about the same percentage. In fact, the state’s gross domestic product went up about 38 percent from 2017 to 2022, meaning spending nearly kept pace with economic growth.

“We [Florida] have a 50-year low in the crime rate.”

— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

This statement is based on incomplete data, according to the Marshall Project, an online journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice issues.

“About half of the agencies that police more than 40% of the state’s population are missing from figures the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) used for a statewide estimation,” the news organization said. Participation in national data collection is even lower, with less than 8 percent of Florida’s police departments included in an FBI federal database. Many of the largest, such as the Miami Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department, are missing from the national numbers.

It is impossible, then, to compare Florida’s crime rate with that of other states. And in any case, the crime rate in Florida has been steadily declining for three decades.

“We’re going to make the Europeans do what they need to do” on Ukraine.

— DeSantis

According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research organization that tracks funding for Ukraine, European nations have contributed more to assisting Ukraine in its war with Russia than the United States.

As of July 31, European Union institutions had pledged $90 billion, compared with $74 billion for the United States. Moreover, 12 European nations have collectively pledged an additional $92 billion, bringing the total European commitment to $182 billion. However, the United States ranks first for military aid ($45 billion), followed by Germany ($18 billion) and Britain ($7 billion). (We have converted the Keil Institute figures, which are in euros, to dollars.)

When measured as a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product, the United States ranks 31st out of 40 countries that have supported Ukraine. With 0.3 percent of GDP pledged, the U.S. is far behind front-line countries such as Norway (1.7 percent), Lithuania (1.4 percent) and Estonia (1.3 percent).

“The reality is, just because Putin is an evil dictator does not mean that Ukraine is good. This is a country that has banned 11 opposition parties …”

— entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy, who advocates for cutting a deal with Russia that would allow Moscow to keep the Ukrainian territory it has seized, often paints an unflattering portrait of a country that is on a war footing. In the debate, he was cut off by another candidate before he could finish the rest of his talking point — that Ukraine “goes after religious minorities and churches and consolidated all media into one state media arm.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky has signed decrees that ban religious organizations with ties to Russia and suspended 11 Ukrainian parties with ties to Russia; most are small, but one, Opposition Platform for Life, has 44 seats in the 450-seat Ukrainian parliament. Both actions were aimed at Russia and earned Russian protests. He also consolidated the country’s television outlets into a single TV platform, citing the need for a “unified information policy” under martial law. The stated aim was to combat Russian propaganda on independent TV channels, but the effect is to limit freedom of speech.

“Donald Trump said Vladimir Putin was brilliant and a great leader.”

— Christie

Christie is basically correct. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Trump called Putin a “genius” and “very savvy.”

“You gotta say, that’s pretty savvy,” Trump said on a conservative talk radio show of Putin’s decision to declare certain breakaway regions in Ukraine as independent. “And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response. They didn’t have one for that. No, it’s very sad. Very sad.”

“Ron DeSantis is against fracking. He’s against drilling. He’s been against — you did it, every — he always talks about what happens on day one, you better watch out because what happens on day two is when you’re in trouble. Day two in Florida, you ban fracking, you ban offshore drilling.”

— Haley

This is complicated, but Haley’s framing is misleading. Running for president, DeSantis has advocated for fracking. But he has opposed it in Florida. When he ran for governor, he pledged “to pass legislation that bans fracking in the state.”

In November 2018, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that banned drilling under Florida waters, a stance supported by many of the state’s Republicans. But it did not mention fracking.

Two days into his term, on Jan. 10, 2019, DeSantis signed an executive order that implemented the measure. The order directed the Department of Environmental Protection to “take necessary actions to adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.” In effect, according to PolitiFact, that has meant no oil and gas permit authorizing hydraulic fracturing has been issued during his term as governor.

Tangling with DeSantis, Haley twice made a statement that was flat wrong: “You banned it before they voted.” The vote on the amendment took place before DeSantis was elected.

DeSantis has not yet fulfilled his pledge to pass legislation that would ban fracking. As a member of Congress in 2013, DeSantis voted for a bill that would prohibit the Department of Interior from imposing federal rules and regulations on states’ fracking operations, in effect deferring to state rules.

“I think we should hold the Democrats accountable for their extremism, supporting abortion all the way up until the moment of birth. That is infanticide, and that is wrong.”

— DeSantis

This is a common Republican talking point — that Democrats support nationwide abortion on demand up until the moment of birth — but DeSantis amps it up by calling it infanticide. The implication is that late-term abortions are common — and that they are routinely accepted by Democrats.

The reality, according to federal and state data, is that abortions past the point of viability are extremely rare. When they do happen, they often involve painful, emotional and even moral decisions.

About two-thirds of abortions occur at eight weeks of pregnancy or earlier, and nearly 90 percent take place in the first 12 weeks, or within most definitions of the first trimester, according to estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, which favors abortion rights. About 5.5 percent of abortions take place after 15 weeks, with just 1.3 percent at 21 weeks or longer.

Increasingly, there is a period when premature births and late abortions begin to overlap. In 2021, the CDC recorded almost 22,000 births between 20 and 27 weeks. Babies born before 25 weeks are considered extremely preterm, with vital organs such as heart, lungs and brain very immature. But the survival rate has climbed to 30 percent for 22-week babies and 55 percent for 23-week babies, according to a 2022 study.

Some states record whether a fetus was born alive during an abortion and whether efforts were made to save it. Seven were born alive in Florida in 2022, nine in Arizona in 2020, one in Texas in 2021 and five in Minnesota in 2021. A CDC study of 143 cases between 2003 and 2014 found that most died within hours, with only 4.2 percent surviving for more than 24 hours.

“I’m incredibly proud of that tax cuts and tax reform bill … the largest tax cut in American history.”

— Pence

Pence repeats one of Trump’s favorite falsehoods. Trump’s tax cut amounted to nearly 0.9 percent of the gross domestic product, meaning it was far smaller than President Ronald Reagan’s tax cut in 1981, which was 2.89 percent of GDP. Trump’s is the eighth-largest tax cut — and even smaller than two tax cuts passed under President Barack Obama. Trump’s tax cut was heavily tilted toward the wealthy and corporations.

“As the U.N. ambassador, you [Haley] literally put $50,000 on curtains and a $15 million subsidized location.”

— Scott

Haley shot back that Scott had “bad information,” and the facts back her up. The New York Times placed an editor’s note on top of the 2018 article that originally reported the spending of $52,701 for customized and mechanized curtains for a new ambassador’s residence leased for $58,000 a month.

“An earlier version of this article and headline created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase in question,” says the note, which appeared one day after the article was published. “While Nikki R. Haley is the current ambassador to the United Nations, the decision on leasing the ambassador’s residence and purchasing the curtains was made during the Obama administration, according to current and former officials. The article should not have focused on Ms. Haley, nor should a picture of her have been used.”

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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