Fact-checking the first presidential debate | PolitiFact

Interruptions dominated the night.
President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, right, participate in the first presidential debate, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University, on Tuesday in Cleveland.
President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, right, participate in the first presidential debate, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University, on Tuesday in Cleveland. [ SCOTT OLSON | Getty Images North America ]
Published Sept. 30, 2020

Interruptions dominated the first debate of the fall 2020 campaign. Moderator Chris Wallace struggled to keep President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden from talking at the same time as they clashed over Trump’s taxes, the coronavirus crisis and racial justice protests.

Trump dusted off some of the falsehoods from his COVID-19 talking points, and Biden — when he was allowed to speak uninterrupted — floated some inaccuracies about Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Trump: “Why did (Hunter Biden) deserve three and a half million from Moscow?”

Rating: Limited and disputed evidence

Trump hit an unverified story about Biden’s son Hunter over and over again. “Why is it, just out of curiosity, the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son three and half million dollars,” Trump said.

A Senate Republican report said the widow of the ex-mayor sent $3.5 million to an American account in 2014.

Republicans tied Hunter Biden to the account, but refused to share any documents that might substantiate that. Hunter Biden’s lawyer said he had no connection to the account. Democratic Senate staff said they’ve seen the documents that Republicans have, and that they don’t tie Hunter Biden to the account.

Trump: “I’m getting (insulin) so cheap, it’s like water.”

Rating: Mostly False

Trump signed an executive order on insulin at the end of July, but the scope was limited. It targeted a select group of health care providers that represent fewer than 2 percent of the relevant outlets for insulin. Between 2017 and 2018, insulin prices for seniors rose.

“The truth is that patients who need drugs like insulin are having a hard time affording them, particularly for the many who are now uninsured,” said Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Stacie Dusetzina.

Trump: I paid “millions of dollars” in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.

Rating: Disputed

This is countered by reporting from the New York Times, which obtained years of tax-return data for Trump and his businesses. The Times reported that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, and no taxes at all in 10 of the 15 years before that.

Trump has refused to release his tax returns, pending an audit, and he likely pays other types of taxes. But on federal income taxes, he has not provided evidence to refute the Times report. There’s “no evidence of millions in income taxes,” said Edward McCaffery, a professor of law, economics and political science at the University of Southern California.

Trump: “If you had good forest management you wouldn’t be getting … calls (that California’s on fire).”

Rating: False

Forest maintenance does play a role in mitigating forest fires, but that doesn’t negate the fact that climate change has made California’s environment much more flammable. Climatologists, ecologists and wildfire experts all told us that climate change has not only fueled the fires but also worsened their impact.

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The area affected by wildfires in California has expanded tenfold over the last four decades. Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, told us that “about half” of that increase is attributable to the effects of global warming.

Biden: “The president has no plan” for the coronavirus pandemic.

Rating: Needs context

The Trump administration has announced a plan on how it will distribute vaccines. The plan shows that the federal government aims to make the two-dose vaccine free of cost, for instance.

However, public health experts have said that Trump and his administration did not have a plan to combat the pandemic or a national testing plan.

Biden: Says Trump suggested that “maybe you could inject some bleach in your arm and that would take care of (the coronavirus).”

Rating: Needs context

Trump did not explicitly suggest that people inject bleach in their arms. He did express interest in exploring whether disinfectants could be applied to the site of a coronavirus infection. The comment came after an administration official presented a study that found sun exposure and cleaning agents like bleach could kill the virus when it lingers on surfaces.

On disinfectant, Trump said: “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that, so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me.”

Trump: Biden “wants to shut down the country.”

Rating: Needs context

In an interview with CBS News, Biden was asked if he was prepared to shut down the country down to deal with the coronavirus.

“I would be prepared to do whatever it takes to save lives, because we cannot get the country moving until we control the virus,”  Biden said. “In order to keep the country running and moving and the economy growing, and people employed, you have to fix the virus, you have to deal with the virus.”

And then he said, “I would shut it down. I would listen to the scientists.”

Trump: “We guaranteed preexisting conditions.”

Rating: Misleading

President Trump signed an executive order on Sept. 24 that says those with preexisting conditions will be able to get affordable health care coverage. The executive order language was a response to criticisms about Trump’s efforts against the Affordable Care Act. However, legal and health policy experts said that the executive order guarantees nothing near the protections in the ACA. The experts said actual congressional legislation, not this type of order, is necessary to maintain these preexisting conditions protections if the ACA goes away.

Trump: “I don’t think (Kellyanne Conway) said that” riots, chaos and violence helps Trump’s cause.

Rating: She did

In an Aug. 27 interview with “Fox & Friends,” former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was asked about former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg blaming Trump for unrest in cities. “I guess Mayor Pete knows full stop that the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Conway said.

Trump: Says his rallies were “outdoors.”

Rating: Misleading

Trump has held many outdoor rallies, but he did hold indoor rallies in Nevada and Oklahoma in recent months. Trump held a rally June 20 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. Arena officials, who scanned tickets, said the crowd totaled around 6,200.

On Sept. 13, about 5,600 supporters gathered to hear Trump speak at Xtreme Manufacturing, a warehouse, in Henderson, Nev., despite a state rule prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people. Many people in the crowd were not wearing masks. The company was fined by the city for multiple violations.

Trump: Says Biden called African Americans “superpredators” when he did the 1994 crime bill.

Rating: No evidence

In a Nov. 18, 1993, Senate floor speech, Biden spoke about doing something for young people who did not have supervision or structure and who did not have opportunities. He said the country needed to focus on them, because otherwise, a portion of them would “become the predators 15 years from now.” Biden did not single out African Americans.

“Madam President, we have predators on our streets, and society has in fact, because of its neglect, created that,” Biden said, according to the Congressional Record.

The term “superpredators” also came up during the 2016 presidential campaign between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. We found that Clinton in 1996 used the term “superpredator” when referring to “gangs of kids.” Clinton did not specifically label superpredators as African American, but the context of her speech and her subsequent apology decades later suggests it was a reasonable inference.

Trump: Biden called members of the military “stupid bastards. He said it on tape. He said stupid bastards.”

Rating: Half True

Biden used the term “stupid bastards” as part of a joke in addressing a group of airmen during a trip overseas in 2016.

Biden’s presidential campaign confirmed that he called the service members in the audience “stupid bastards” and a “dull bunch,” but said his remarks were made not in disrespect, but in jest to generate applause for a female lieutenant he was referencing. In his full speech, Biden repeatedly complimented the troops and spoke about his late son Beau, who served as a major in the Delaware Army National Guard.

This report was written by PolitiFact staff writers Jon Greenberg, Louis Jacobson, Amy Sherman, Samantha Putterman, Miriam Valverde, Bill McCarthy, Noah Y. Kim and Daniel Funke and Kaiser Health News reporters Victoria Knight and Emmarie Huetteman.

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