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PolitiFact: Fact-checking the first Democratic debate

Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, smiles as Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, smiles as Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Published Oct. 15, 2015

The first Democratic presidential debate featured a surprising display of political harmony when Bernie Sanders agreed with Hillary Clinton that Americans are "sick and tired" of her email issues.

As Clinton grinned and the Democratic crowd hollered, you almost forgot that Clinton had attacked Sanders moments earlier for his votes against the landmark Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandated a five-day waiting period for background checks for gun purchases.

"Sen. Sanders did vote five times against the Brady Bill," Clinton said.

Her claim rates True. Before it became law in 1993, the Brady Bill underwent many transformations, and Sanders, then Vermont's sole U.S. House representative, voted against the legislation five times.

Other claims from Tuesday weren't so accurate. Here's the rundown of how they rated on PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter.

Minority employment

Sanders introduced himself to viewers as an advocate for minorities, saying he wanted to steer money away from prisons and into education and job training. He popped some dramatic statistics to make his case.

"African-American youth unemployment is 51 percent," Sanders said. "Hispanic youth unemployment is 36 percent."

That claim rates Half True.

Sanders has a point that minority youth groups have worse job prospects than their white counterparts. But his numbers are way off because he isn't using a standard measurement.

The most readily available data for working youth comes from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, covering Americans ages 16 to 19. According to September numbers, the official youth unemployment rate was 13.9 percent for whites, 18.6 percent for Hispanics and 31.5 percent for African-Americans.

The government data is well below the rate Sanders described. Sanders relied on estimates from a left-of-center think tank called the Economic Policy Institute, which looked at high school graduates who were not enrolled in further schooling. This measure factored in not only the unemployed graduates, but also those who were working part time — an attempt to capture those who were marginally attached to the job market amid a weak economy.

"What's odd about Sanders' choice is that he could have used the official unemployment statistics and still made his point that African-American and Hispanic youth have higher rates of unemployment than other groups," said Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist and chief economist at the jobs site Indeed.com.

Clinton's trade flip

The debate gave CNN moderator Anderson Cooper and Clinton's lesser-known opponents a national platform to question her recent policy announcements. Cooper asked Clinton how she could suddenly be against President Barack Obama's international trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, when she hailed it as the "gold standard" when she was secretary of state.

Clinton attempted to clarify her record, but she ended up distorting it.

"I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard," Clinton said. "It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn't meet my standards."

Her claim rates Half True. What she actually said about the trade deal in 2012 was, "This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements," which is a more confident claim than if she had said she "hoped" it would meet that standard. This is in contrast to more recent comments where Clinton said she had concerns about the deal and that she ultimately opposes it.

Clinton and Keystone

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said Clinton has reversed herself on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross the Canadian border. Clinton, who opposes the project, objected to the flip-flop allegation, saying, "I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone."

As secretary of state in 2010, she said the Obama administration was "inclined" to back the project, but she qualified that statement by noting that the analysis was not complete, and the administration had not taken a final position. While this shows a more positive attitude toward Keystone XL than Clinton's position today, it was not a firm stance.

Her claim rates No Flip on the Flip-O-Meter.

Jailed marijuana users

Sanders was asked for his position on a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Nevada, the site of the debate.

If he were a Nevada resident, Sanders said, "I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana."

Sanders' claim about jail sentences for pot smokers rates Mostly False. A prison sentence for marijuana possession alone can happen, but experts said it's exceedingly rare for sheer use. Most of the time, people who are in jail for marijuana possession have other offenses on their record.

The pro-marijuana-legalization group NORML and other groups have estimated that there are 50,000 to 110,000 cannabis-only offenders in U.S. prisons, yet "most, but not all, of those incarcerated on marijuana charges are there for cultivation, sales or trafficking," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre.

A whistle-blower?

Cooper pressed the candidates to offer their view of Edward Snowden, the government contractor considered a traitor or a hero for revealing the existence of massive national security databases of Americans' email and phone data.

Clinton said Snowden, who found asylum in Russia, shouldn't come home "without facing the music."

"He broke the laws of the United States," Clinton said. "He could have been a whistle-blower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistle-blower."

That claim rates Mostly False. The protections Clinton referenced do not seem to be as strong as she suggested.

While American law does shield government whistle-blowers, experts said it wouldn't necessarily apply in Snowden's case.

A key 1998 law called the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act does lay out a pathway Snowden could have followed. However, there is at least a significant legal debate over whether the issues Snowden wanted to raise would fall under that law.

Staff writers Lauren Carroll, Jon Greenberg, Louis Jacobson and Linda Qiu contributed to this report. These fact-checks have been edited for print. Read the full stories and more fact-checks of the debate at PolitiFact.com.