Fact check: The first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election

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CNN
 — 

Republican presidential candidates delivered a smattering of false and misleading claims at the first debate of the 2024 election – though none of the eight candidates on stage in Milwaukee delivered anything close to the bombardment of false statements that typically characterized the debate performances of former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner who skipped the Wednesday event.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina inaccurately described the state of the economy in early 2021 and repeated a long-ago-debunked false claim about the Biden-era Justice Department. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie misstated the sentence attached to a gun law relevant to the investigation into the president’s son Hunter Biden. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis misled about his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, omitting mention of his early pandemic restrictions.

Below is a fact check of those claims and various others from the debate, some of which left out key context. In addition, below is a brief fact check of some of Trump’s claims from a pre-taped interview he did with Tucker Carlson, which was posted online shortly before the debate aired. Trump made a variety of statements that were not true.

DeSantis and the pandemic

DeSantis criticized the federal government for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, claiming it had locked down the economy, and then said: “In Florida, we led the country out of lockdown, and we kept our state free and open.”

Facts First: DeSantis’s claim is misleading at best. Before he became a vocal opponent of pandemic restrictions, DeSantis imposed significant restrictions on individuals, businesses and other entities in Florida in March 2020 and April 2020; some of them extended months later into 2020. He did then open up the state, with a gradual phased approach, but he did not keep it open from the start.

DeSantis received criticism in March 2020 for what some critics perceived as a lax approach to the pandemic, which intensified as Florida beaches were packed during Spring Break. But that month and the month following, DeSantis issued a series of major restrictions. For example, DeSantis:

  • Closed Florida’s schools, first with a short-term closure in March 2020 and then, in April 2020, with a shutdown through the end of the school year. (In June 2020, he announced a plan for schools to reopen for the next school year that began in August. By October 2020, he was publicly denouncing school closures, calling them a major mistake and saying all the information hadn’t been available that March.)
  • On March 14, 2020, announced a ban on most visits to nursing homes. (He lifted the ban in September 2020.)
  • On March 17, 2020, ordered bars and nightclubs to close for 30 days and restaurants to operate at half-capacity. (He later approved a phased reopening plan that took effect in May 2020, then issued an order in September 2020 allowing these establishments to operate at full capacity.)
  • On March 17, 2020, ordered gatherings on public beaches to be limited to a maximum of 10 people staying at least six feet apart, then, three days later, ordered a shutdown of public beaches in two populous counties, Broward and Palm Beach. (He permitted those counties’ beaches to reopen by the last half of May.)
  • On March 20, 2020, prohibited “any medically unnecessary, non-urgent or non-emergency” medical procedures. (The prohibition was lifted in early May 2020.)
  • On March 23, 2020, ordered that anyone flying to Florida from an area with “substantial community spread” of the virus, “to include the New York Tri-State Area (Connecticut, New Jersey and New York),” isolate or quarantine for 14 days or the duration of their stay in Florida, whichever was shorter, or face possible jail time or a fine. Later that week, he added Louisiana to the list. (He lifted the Louisiana restriction in June 2020 and the rest in August 2020.)
  • On April 3, 2020, imposed a statewide stay-home order that temporarily required people in Florida to “limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.” (Beginning in May 2020, the state switched to a phased reopening plan that, for months, included major restrictions on the operations of businesses and other entities; DeSantis described it at the time as a “very slow and methodical approach” to reopening.)

-From CNN’s Daniel Dale

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations, said: “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.”

Facts First: Haley’s figure is accurate. The total public debt stood at about $19.9 trillion on the day Trump took office in 2017 and then increased by about $7.8 trillion over Trump’s four years, to about $27.8 trillion on the day he left office in 2021.

It’s worth noting, however, that the increase in the debt during any president’s tenure is not the fault of that president alone. A significant amount of spending under any president is the result of decisions made by their predecessors – such as the creation of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid decades ago – and by circumstances out of a president’s control, notably including the global Covid-19 pandemic under Trump; the debt spiked in 2020 after Trump approved trillions in emergency pandemic relief spending that Congress had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Still, Trump did choose to approve that spending. And his 2017 tax cuts, unanimously opposed by congressional Democrats, were another major contributor to the debt spike.

-From CNN’s Daniel Dale and Katie Lobosco

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum claimed that Biden’s signature climate bill costs $1.2 trillion dollars and is “just subsidizing China.”

Facts First: This claim needs context. The clean energy pieces of the Inflation Reduction Act – Democrats’ climate bill – passed with an initial price tag of nearly $370 billion. However, since that bill is made up of tax incentives, that price tag could go up depending on how many consumers take advantage of tax credits to buy electric vehicles and put solar panels on their homes, and how many businesses use the subsidies to install new utility scale wind and solar in the United States.

Burgum’s figure comes from a Goldman Sachs report, which estimated the IRA could provide $1.2 trillion in clean energy tax incentives by 2032 – about a decade from now.

On Burgum’s claim that Biden’s clean energy agenda will be a boon to China, the IRA was specifically written to move the manufacturing supply chain for clean energy technology like solar panels and EV batteries away from China and to the United States.

In the year since it was passed, the IRA has spurred 83 new or expanded manufacturing facilities in the US, and close to 30,000 new clean energy manufacturing jobs, according to a tally from trade group American Clean Power.

-From CNN’s Ella Nilsen

With the economy as one of the main topics on the forefront of voters’ minds, Scott aimed to make a case for Republican policies, misleadingly suggesting they left the US economy in record shape before Biden took office.

“There is no doubt that during the Trump administration, when we were dealing with the COVID virus, we spent more money,” Scott said. “But here’s what happened at the end of our time in the majority: we had low unemployment, record low unemployment, 3.5% for the majority of the population, and a 70-year low for women. African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians had an all-time low.”

Facts First: This is false. Scott’s claims don’t accurately reflect the state of the US economy at the end of the Republican majority in the Senate. And in some cases, his exaggerations echo what Trump himself frequently touted about the economy under his leadership.

By the time Trump left office and the Republicans lost the Senate majority in January 2021, US unemployment was not at a record low. The US unemployment rate dropped to a seasonally adjusted rate of 3.5% in September 2019, the country’s lowest in 50 years. While it hovered around that level for five months, Scott’s assertion ignores the coronavirus pandemic-induced economic destruction that followed. In April 2020, the unemployment rate spiked to 14.7% — the highest level since monthly records began in 1948. As of December 2020, the unemployment rate was at 6.7%.

Nor was the unemployment rate for women at a 70-year low by the end of Trump’s time in office. It reached a 66-year low during certain months of 2019, at 3.4% in April and 3.6% in August, but by December 2020, unemployment for women was at 6.7%.

The unemployment rates for African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians were also not at all-time lows at the end of 2020, but they did reach record lows during Trump’s tenure as president.

-From CNN’s Tara Subramaniam

Scott said that the Justice Department under President Joe Biden is targeting “parents that show up at school board meetings. They are called, under this DOJ, they’re called domestic terrorists.”

Facts First: It is false that the Justice Department referred to parents as domestic terrorists. The claim has been debunked several times – during the uproar at school boards over Covid-19 restrictions and anti-racism curriculums; after Kevin McCarthy claimed Republicans would investigate Merrick Garland with a majority in the House; and even by a federal judge. The Justice Department never called parents terrorists for attending or wanting to attend school board meetings.

The claim stems from a 2021 letter from The National School Boards Associations asking the Justice Department to “deal with” the uptick in threats against education officials and saying that “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials” could be classified as “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” In response, Garland released a memo encouraging federal and local authorities to work together against the harassment campaigns levied at schools, but never endorsed the “domestic terrorism” notion.

A federal judge even threw out a lawsuit over the accusation, ruling that Garland’s memo did little more than announce a “series of measures” that directed federal authorities to address increasing threats targeting school board members, teachers and other school employees.

-From CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz

Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and governor of South Carolina, said the US is spending “less than three and a half percent of our defense budget” on Ukraine aid, and that in terms of financial aid relative to GDP, “11 of the European countries have given more than the US.”

Facts First: This is partly true. Haley’s claim regarding the US aid to Ukraine compared to the total defense budget is slightly under the actual percentage, but it is accurate that 11 European countries have given more aid to Ukraine as a percentage of their total GDP than the US.

As of August 14, the US has committed more than $43 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, according to the Defense Department. In comparison, the Fiscal Year 2023 defense budget was $858 billion – making aid to Ukraine just over 5% of the total US defense budget.

As of May 2023, according to a Council of Foreign Relations tracker, 11 countries were providing a higher share in aid to Ukraine relative to their GDP than the US – led by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

-From CNN’s Haley Britzky

Former Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the Trump administration “spent funding to backfill on the military cuts of the Obama administration.”

Facts First: This is misleading. While military spending decreased under the Obama administration, it was largely due to the 2011 Budget Control Act, which received Republican support and resulted in automatic spending cuts to the defense budget.

Pence, a congressman at the time, voted in favor of the Budget Control Act.

-From CNN’s Haley Britzky

Christie said President Biden’s son Hunter Biden was “facing a 10-year mandatory minimum” for lying on a federal form when he purchased a gun in 2018.

Facts First: Christie, a former federal prosecutor, clearly misstated the law. This crime can lead to a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, but it doesn’t have a 10-year mandatory minimum.

These comments are related to the highly scrutinized Justice Department investigation into Hunter Biden, which is currently ongoing after a plea deal fell apart earlier this summer.

As part of the now-defunct deal, Hunter Biden agreed to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and enter into a “diversion agreement” with prosecutors, who would drop the gun possession charge in two years if he consistently stayed out of legal trouble and passed drug tests.

The law in question makes it a crime to purchase a firearm while using or addicted to illegal drugs. Hunter Biden has acknowledged struggling with crack cocaine addiction at the time, and admitted at a court hearing and in court papers that he violated this law by signing the form.

The US Sentencing Commission says, “The statutory maximum penalty for the offense is ten years of imprisonment.” There isn’t a mandatory 10-year punishment, as Christie claimed.

During his answer, Christie also criticized the Justice Department for agreeing to a deal in June where Hunter Biden could avoid prosecution on the felony gun offense. That deal was negotiated by special counsel David Weiss, who was first appointed to the Justice Department by former President Donald Trump.

-From CNN’s Marshall Cohen

Burgum and Scott got into a back and forth over IRS staffing with Burgum saying that the “Biden administration wanted to put 87,000 people in the IRS,” and Scott suggesting they “fire the 87,000 IRS agents.”

Facts First: This figure needs context.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed last year without any Republican votes, authorized $80 billion in new funding for the IRS to be delivered over the course of a decade.

The 87,000 figure comes from a 2021 Treasury report that estimated the IRS could hire 86,852 full-time employees with a nearly $80 billion investment over 10 years.

While the funding may well allow for the hiring of tens of thousands of IRS employees over time, far from all of these employees will be IRS agents conducting audits and investigations.

Many other employees will be hired for the non-agent roles, from customer service to information technology, that make up most of the IRS workforce. And a significant number of the hires are expected to fill the vacant posts left by retirements and other attrition, not take newly created positions.

The IRS has not said precisely how many new “agents” will be hired with the funding. But it is already clear that the total won’t approach 87,000. And it’s worth noting that the IRS may not receive all of the $80 billion after Republicans were able to claw back $20 billion of the new funding as part of a deal to address the debt ceiling made earlier this year.

-From CNN’s Katie Lobosco

Trump repeated a frequent claim during his interview with Carlson that streamed during the GOP debate that his retention of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House was “covered” under the Presidential Records Act and that he is “allowed to do exactly that.”

Facts First: This is false. The Presidential Records Act says the exact opposite – that the moment presidents leave office, all presidential records are to be turned over to the federal government. Keeping documents at Mar-a-Lago after his presidency concluded was in clear contravention of that law.

According to the Presidential Records Act, “upon the conclusion of a President’s term of office, or if a President serves consecutive terms upon the conclusion of the last term, the Archivist of the United States shall assume responsibility for the custody, control, and preservation of, and access to, the Presidential records of that President.”

The sentence makes clear that a president has no authority to keep documents after leaving the White House.

The National Archives even released a statement refuting the notion that Trump’s retention of documents was covered by the Presidential Records Act, writing in a June news release that “the PRA requires that all records created by Presidents (and Vice-Presidents) be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at the end of their administrations.”

-From CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz

While discussing electric vehicles, Trump claimed that California “is in a big brownout because their grid is a disaster,” adding that the state’s ambitious electric vehicle goals won’t work with the grid in such shape.

Facts First: Trump’s claim that California’s grid is currently in a “big brownout” and is a “disaster” isn’t true. California’s grid suffered rolling blackouts in 2020, but it has performed quite well in the face of extreme heat this summer, owing in large part to a massive influx of renewable energy including battery storage. These big batteries keep energy from wind and solar running when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining. (Batteries are also being deployed at a rapid rate in Texas, a red state.)

Another reason California’s grid has stayed stable this year even during extreme temperature spikes is the fact that a deluge of snow and rain this winter and spring has refilled reservoirs that generate electricity using hydropower.

As Trump insinuated, there are real questions about how well the state’s grid will hold up as California’s drivers shift to electric vehicles by the millions by 2035 – the same year it will phase out selling new gas-powered cars. California state officials say they are preparing by adding new capacity to the grid and urging more people to charge their vehicles overnight and during times of the day when fewer people are using energy. But independent experts say the state needs to exponentially increase its clean energy while also building out huge amounts of new EV chargers to achieve its goals.

-From CNN’s Ella Nilsen

Trump and the border wall

Trump claimed to Carlson, “I had the strongest border in the history of our country, and I built almost 500 miles of wall. You know, they’d like to say, ‘Oh, was it less?’ No, I built 500 miles. In fact, if you check with the authorities on the border, we built almost 500 miles of wall.”

Facts First: This needs context. Trump and his critics are talking about different things when they use different figures for how much border wall was built during his presidency. Trump is referring to all of the wall built on the southern border during his administration, even in areas that already had some sort of barrier before. His critics are only counting the Trump-era wall that was built in parts of the border that did not have any previous barrier.

A total of 458 miles of southern border wall was built under Trump, according to a federal report written two days after Trump left office and obtained by CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez. That is 52 miles of “primary” wall built where no barriers previously existed, plus 33 miles of “secondary” wall that was built in spots where no barriers previously existed, plus another 373 miles of primary and secondary wall that was built to replace previous barriers the federal government says had become “dilapidated and/or outdated.”

Some of Trump’s rival candidates, such DeSantis and Christie, have used figures around 50 miles while criticizing Trump for failing to finish the wall – counting only the primary wall built where no barriers previously existed.

While some Trump critics have scoffed at the replacement wall, the Trump-era construction was generally much more formidable than the older barriers it replaced, which were often designed to deter vehicles rather than people on foot. Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff tweeted in 2020: “As someone who has spent a lot of time lately in the shadow of the border wall, I need to puncture this notion that ‘replacement’ sections are ‘not new.’ There is really no comparison between vehicle barriers made from old rail ties and 30-foot bollards.”

Ideally, both Trump and his opponents would be clearer about what they are talking about: Trump that he is including replacement barriers, his opponents that they are excluding those barriers.

-From CNN’s Daniel Dale

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Mike Pence was a congressman at the time he voted in favor of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

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