AP FACT CHECK: Trump's wrongs on court, virus; Biden errs
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a momentous week, President Donald Trump painted a fantastical portrait of a coronavirus that affects “virtually nobody” among the young as he faced a grim U.S. milestone of 200,000 deaths and he asserted a constitutional basis that doesn't exist for rushing a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg over her dying wishes.
As Americans absorbed news of a grand jury decision not to prosecute Kentucky police officers for killing Breonna Taylor, Trump's campaign pointed to purported economic progress for Blacks under his administration that didn't tell the full story.
And with their first debate days away, Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden botched details about the pivotal Supreme Court vacancy and exaggerated his early statements on COVID-19, saying he declared it a pandemic in January when he didn’t.
A sampling of the misstatements on these topics and more:
TRUMP, speaking hours before the U.S. hit a milestone of 200,000 virus deaths: “It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems, and other problems. If they have other problems, that’s what it really affects. ... In some states thousands of people — nobody young — below the age of 18, like nobody — they have a strong immune system — who knows? ... It affects virtually nobody.” — rally Monday in Ohio.
THE FACTS: No, it's affected quite a few.
In all, the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 Tuesday, by far the highest in the world, hitting the once-unimaginable threshold six weeks before an election that is certain to be a referendum on his handling of the crisis. The number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 67 days. It is roughly equal to the population of Salt Lake City or Huntsville, Alabama.
Kids certainly aren't immune and Trump ignores racial disparities among those who get infected. He is also brazenly contradicting what he privately told journalist Bob Woodward.
“Now it's turning out it's not just old people, Bob,” he told Woodward in March. “It's plenty of young people.”
Although it’s true that children are less likely than adults to develop COVID-19, the CDC has nevertheless counted more than 419,000 infections in Americans younger than 18, or about 8.5% of all cases. Racial disparities in the U.S. outbreak also extend to children, with Hispanic and Black children with COVID-19 more likely to be hospitalized than white kids.
“It isn’t just the elderly,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, told CNN on Tuesday. He noted that a person of any age with underlying health conditions is at significantly higher risk of serious effects if they get COVID-19.
The total number of kids who have been infected but not confirmed is almost certainly far higher than the CDC figures, experts say, because those with mild or no symptoms are less likely to get tested. Kids also can spread disease without showing symptoms themselves.
The CDC in May also warned doctors to be on the lookout for a rare but life-threatening inflammatory reaction in some children who’ve had the coronavirus. The condition had been reported in more than 100 children in New York, and in some kids in several other states and in Europe, with some deaths.
TRUMP: “We’re rounding the corner — with or without a vaccine.” — interview Monday on “Fox & Friends."
TRUMP, asked if the virus will “go away” if there isn't a vaccine immediately available: “Sure, with time it goes away. And you’ll develop — you’ll develop herd-like, a herd mentality. It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen.” — ABC News town hall on Sept. 15.
THE FACTS: Trump appeared to promote a “herd immunity” approach to the virus if a vaccine isn't immediately available that would require millions more people to get infected and significantly higher deaths.
Public health officials say that to reach herd immunity, which is when the virus can no longer spread easily, at least 70% of the population, or 200 million people, would need to develop antibodies. The U.S. currently has 7 million COVID-19 cases.
“Developing herd immunity doesn’t just take time, it works by infecting over a hundred million and killing hundreds of thousands," University of Michigan professor Justin Wolfers tweeted. "He’s describing a massacre.”
Fauci last month called a herd immunity approach “totally unacceptable” because “a lot of people are going to die.”
He also disagrees the virus is “rounding the corner," saying Americans should not “underestimate” the pandemic and they will “need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter because it’s not going to be easy.” Fauci and other health experts such as Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have warned of a potentially bad fall because of dual threats of the coronavirus and the flu season.
TRUMP, on Ginsburg’s request that her replacement be chosen by the next president: “I don’t know that she said that, or if that was written out by Adam Schiff, and Schumer and Pelosi. That came out of the wind. It sounds so beautiful, but that sounds like a Schumer deal, or maybe Pelosi or Shifty Schiff.” — interview Monday with “Fox & Friends.”
THE FACTS: He’s making a baseless assertion that congressional Democrats invented Ginsburg’s request, which Trump is ignoring by announcing a new nominee Saturday.
In the days before her death on Sept. 18, Ginsburg told her granddaughter Clara Spera that “my most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” according to NPR’s Nina Totenberg, a longtime veteran Supreme Court reporter.
Totenberg, who is close to the Ginsburg family, reaffirmed her reporting this week. She told MSNBC on Monday that others in the room at the time also heard Ginsburg make the statement, including her doctor. “I checked because I’m a reporter,” Totenberg said.
There is certainly no evidence that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer manufactured Ginsburg’s request, as Trump asserts. “Mr. President, this is low. Even for you,” Schiff tweeted Monday.
TRUMP, on why he’s moving forward with a nomination so close to the Nov. 3 election: “I have a constitutional obligation to put in nine judges — justices.” — remarks Tuesday to reporters.
THE FACTS: To be clear, there is no constitutional requirement to have nine justices on the Supreme Court.
The Constitution, in fact, specifies no size for the Supreme Court, and Congress has the power to change its size.
Over its history, the high court has varied in size from five to 10 justices, depending on the number of judicial circuits in the U.S., according to Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center. He explained that a major duty of the justices until the late 19th century was to try cases in the old circuit courts. Congress decided on nine circuits in the late 1860s.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed to expand the high court in the 1930s in a bid to gain broader judicial support for his New Deal policies, but that effort failed.
BIDEN, arguing that a Supreme Court nomination should be decided by the next president so voters can “have their voice heard in who serves on the court”: “There’s no court session between now and the end of this election.” — remarks Sept. 20 in Philadelphia.
THE FACTS: He’s wrong on the scheduling. A new Supreme Court session begins Oct. 5, nearly one month before the election on Nov. 3. The justices are set to hear oral arguments in several cases during that time.
TRUMP: “We need nine justices. You need that. With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they’re sending, it’s a scam; it’s a hoax. Everybody knows that. And the Democrats know it better than anybody else. ... So doing it before the election would be a very good thing because you’re going to probably see it.” — remarks Tuesday to reporters.
THE FACTS: There’s nothing fraudulent about mail-in ballots, and Trump’s repeated false assertions certainly don’t provide a valid justification to speed up a judicial nomination.
First of all, there is no such thing as an “unsolicited” ballot. Five states routinely send ballots to all registered voters so they can choose to vote through the mail or in person. Four other states and the District of Columbia will be adopting that system in November, as will almost every county in Montana. Election officials note that, by registering to vote, people are effectively requesting a ballot, so it makes no sense to call the materials sent to them “unsolicited.”
More broadly speaking, voter fraud has proved exceedingly rare. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections.
In the five states that regularly send ballots to all voters who have registered, there have been no major cases of fraud or difficulty counting the votes.
Of the four states adopting the system of universal mail balloting this year, only Nevada is a battleground, worth six electoral votes and likely to be pivotal only in a national presidential deadlock.
It’s true that many states are expecting a surge in mail-in voting because of the coronavirus pandemic, which may lead to longer times in vote counting. But there is no evidence to indicate that massive fraud from “unsolicited” balloting is afoot.
BIDEN: “We can’t keep rewriting history, scrambling norms, ignoring our cherished system of checks and balances. That includes this whole business of releasing a list of potential nominees that I would put forward. They’re now saying, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, they said, ‘Biden should release his list.’ It’s no wonder the Trump campaign asked that I release the list only after she passed away.” — remarks Sept. 20 in Philadelphia.
THE FACTS: It’s not true that the Trump campaign waited until Ginsburg’s death last week to call for Biden’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Trump was calling for it last month.
On Sept. 9, Trump released a list of 20 additional people he would consider nominating to the high court if there were vacancies. He released a similar list in 2016.
In a press release that same day, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said “Voters deserve transparency and a clear view of what direction candidates for president would take our federal courts. We now forcefully demand that Joe Biden do the same.”
Trump called for a list from Biden even earlier, during the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24.
“Remember this, I’m saying that — I’m demanding actually, a list. Let Biden put up a list of the judges he’s going to appoint,” Trump said.
Biden has pledged to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court but hasn’t offered additional details.
TRUMP: “The historic action I'm taking today includes the first-ever executive order to affirm it is the official policy of the United States government to protect patients with preexisting conditions. So we're making that official.” — remarks Thursday in North Carolina.
THE FACTS: It's already been the official federal policy to protect people with preexisting medical conditions because “Obamacare” already does that, and it’s the law of the land. Trump is currently trying to dismantle that law. If he persuades the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional, it’s unclear what degree of actual protection the executive order would offer in place of the law.
President Barack Obama's health law states that “a group health plan and a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage may not impose any preexisting condition exclusion with respect to such plan or coverage.”
Other sections of the law act to bar insurers from charging more to people because of past medical problems and from canceling coverage, except in cases of fraud. In the past, there were horror stories of insurers canceling coverage because a patient had a recurrence of cancer.
It’s dubious that any president could enact such protections through an executive order, or Obama would never have needed to go to Congress to get his health law passed. Likewise, President Bill Clinton could have simply used a presidential decree to enact his health plan, or major parts of it, after it failed to get through Congress.
TRUMP, on Republicans: "Democrats like to constantly talk about it, and yet preexisting conditions are much safer with us than they are with them.” — North Carolina remarks.
THE FACTS: That's highly questionable.
Republicans were unable to muscle their replacement for “Obamacare” through Congress when they controlled the House and Senate in 2017 during Trump’s first year. Various GOP bills would have offered a degree of protection for people with preexisting conditions, but the proposed safeguards were seen as less than what the law already provided. The general approach in the Republican legislation would have required people to maintain continuous coverage to avoid being turned down because of a preexisting condition.
Trump has frequently claimed he will always protect preexisting conditions despite evidence to the contrary and has even asserted falsely that he was the one who “saved” such protections.
One of Trump’s alternatives to Obama’s law — short-term health insurance, already in place — doesn’t have to cover preexisting conditions. Another alternative: association health plans, which are oriented to small businesses and sole proprietors and do cover preexisting conditions. Neither of the two alternatives appears to have made much difference in the market.
Democratic attacks on Republican efforts to repeal the health law and weaken preexisting condition protections proved successful in the 2018 midterms, when Democrats won back control of the House.
TRUMP CAMPAIGN: “Black Americans don’t have to imagine what the economy would be like under Joe Biden because they’ve already lived through it. He oversaw the slowest recovery since the Great Depression, with stagnant wage growth and anemic job creation.” — statement Wednesday from Katrina Pierson, the campaign’s senior adviser.
THE FACTS: That’s not fully accurate. The economy was healthy when Trump arrived at the White House.
Even if the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis was agonizingly slow, Trump took office with unemployment at a low 4.7%, steady job growth and a falling federal budget deficit. The longest expansion in U.S. history began in the middle of 2009 and continued until the start of the year, spanning both the Obama and Trump presidencies.
The U.S. economy did benefit from Trump’s 2017 tax cuts with a jump in growth in 2018, but the budget deficit began to climb as a result of the tax breaks that favored companies and the wealthy in hopes of permanently expanding the economy. Annual growth during Obama’s second term averaged about 2.3%. Trump notched a slightly better 2.5% during his first three years, but the country swung into recession this year because of the coronavirus and will probably leave Trump with an inferior track record to his predecessor over four years.
TRUMP CAMPAIGN: “President Trump, on the other hand, has a real record of accomplishments for the Black community, including achieving record-low unemployment prior to the global pandemic. ...President Trump is a far better choice for Black Americans and it isn’t even a close call.” — Pierson’s statement.
THE FACTS: The campaign is skirting key facts.
Republicans can talk successfully about the decline in unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic workers. But that’s just one gauge — and plenty of troubles and inequalities abound for minorities. Minority groups still lagged behind white people with regard to incomes, wealth and home ownership before the pandemic. And when the coronavirus struck, it became clear that the economy did not work well for everybody as the job losses and infections disproportionately hit minorities.
Black unemployment now stands at 13%. Hispanic unemployment is 10.5%. The white unemployment rate is 7.3%. For every dollar of total wealth held by white households, Blacks have just 5 cents, according to the Federal Reserve. It’s 4 cents for Hispanics.
BIDEN, criticizing Trump for posing for pictures while holding a Bible in front of a church near the White House after protesters in a park were forcibly removed: The protesters were removed so Trump could “walk across to a Protestant church and hold a Bible upside down — I don’t know if he ever opened it — upside down, and then go back to a bunker in the White House.” — CNN town hall on Sept. 17.
THE FACTS: To be clear, Trump was not holding a Bible upside down.
His administration did fire off chemical irritants and smoke bombs in June to clear demonstrators who had gathered in Lafayette Park to speak out against the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee onto his neck. Trump then walked across the park to hold up a Bible at St. John’s Church for the cameras. Associated Press photos and other videos show the Bible was right side up.
Trump also took shelter in a White House bunker in the days before his visit to St. John’s, not after, as Biden asserts.
MORE ON THE VIRUS
BIDEN, contrasting his approach to the coronavirus vs. Trump's: “Imagine had he at the State of the Union stood up and said, when back in January, I wrote an article for USA Today saying, ‘We’ve got a pandemic. We’ve got a real problem.' Imagine if he had said something. How many more people would be alive?” — CNN town hall on Sept. 17.
THE FACTS: Biden is incorrect that Trump didn't mention the coronavirus in his State of the Union address. The former vice president also exaggerates what he himself said about it in a Jan. 27 op-ed in USA Today.
Trump made brief mention of COVID-19 in his Feb. 4 address, which came five weeks before it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. He said:
“Protecting Americans’ health also means fighting infectious diseases. We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”
A few days later on Feb. 7, Trump privately described the coronavirus to Woodward as “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” It's unclear if Trump knew or believed that at the time of his State of the Union address, although he later acknowledged in Woodward's book ”Rage" that he often played down the virus threat in public, so as to avoid panic.
Biden's op-ed makes clear his own view that the coronavirus in the U.S. “will get worse before it gets better,” but Biden does not declare it a pandemic. He wrote: “The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president.”
TRUMP, calling Biden's handling of the swine flu during the Obama administration a “disaster”: “Joe Biden’s incompetent ... They had no clue.” — interview Tuesday with Detroit's WJBK Fox 2 TV station.
THE FACTS: Trump frequently distorts what happened in the pandemic of 2009, which killed far fewer people in the United States than the coronavirus is killing now. For starters, Biden as vice president wasn’t running the federal response. And that response was faster out of the gate than when COVID-19 came to the U.S.
Then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu surveillance network sounded the alarm after two children in California became the first people diagnosed with the new flu strain in this country.
About two weeks later, the Obama administration declared a public health emergency against H1NI, also known as the swine flu, and the CDC began releasing anti-flu drugs from the national stockpile to help hospitals get ready. In contrast, Trump declared a state of emergency in early March, seven weeks after the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was announced, and the country’s health system struggled for months with shortages of critical supplies and testing.
More than 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. The CDC puts the U.S. death toll from the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic at about 12,500.
Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Seattle, Jessica Gresko, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Jill Colvin, Kevin Freking and Darlene Superville in Washington, Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.
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