Democratic debate: CNN's Reality Check team vets the claims

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders met in Brooklyn for their last debate before New York's primary
  • CNN's Reality Check team spent the night putting their statements and assertions to the test

Washington (CNN)Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders met Thursday in Brooklyn for their last debate before New York's primary, and CNN's Reality Check team spent the night putting their statements and assertions to the test.

The team of reporters, researchers and editors across CNN listened throughout the debate, selecting key statements and rating them either true; mostly true; true, but misleading; false; or it's complicated.

    Bernie Sanders

    Reality Check: Sanders 'led the opposition' to war in Iraq
    By Sonam Vashi and Eve Bower, CNN
    Early in the New York debate, Sanders drew a contrast between what he called Clinton's lack of "judgment" in supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq and his own opposition to that war.
    "I led the opposition to that war," Sanders said. "Secretary Clinton voted for it."
    The claim is one he has made frequently on the campaign trail, including at a previous debate, when he said, "In 2002, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney said we should go to war in Iraq, Bernie Sanders listened very carefully and I said, 'No. I think that war is a dumb idea.' I helped lead the opposition to that war. And if you go to my website, listen to what I said, and sadly enough, it gives me no joy, much of what I feared would happen, did happen."
    Sanders was in the House of Representatives at the time. In October 2002, he made a statement on the floor of the House that criticized the idea of invading Iraq, citing concerns about international law and unintended consequences.
    "Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in an ensuing civil war that could develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists?" he asked.
    His 2002 statement is the best documented evidence of his opposition to the war, and he also voted against the authorization of military force in Iraq in 2002 (one of 133 members of Congress to do so). He also spoke out against the war in a 2007 address to the Senate.
    But was he at the forefront of the opposition? We can't find much evidence of that -- at least not to the point of other congressional opposition leaders on the issue, such as then-Sen. Russ Feingold, who gave several speeches against the war and introduced legislation to cut off its funding.
    The late Ted Kennedy did the same in the days before the war and after.
    Sanders voted against Iraq War funding six times but supported four funding bills after 2006 (his volunteer-run site offers justifications for why he did fund those bills).
    While perhaps not at the level of Feingold or Kennedy, Sanders spoke out against it during a time when opposition to the war in Iraq was rare. (For example, Clinton, then a New York senator, voted yes on the Iraq War resolution, as Sanders often notes). We rate his claim that he "helped lead" the opposition mostly true.
    Reality Check: Sanders on the major banks
    By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney
    It didn't take Sanders long to attack Wall Street banks.
    "When you have six financial institutions that have assets equivalent to 58% of the (gross domestic product) of this country, they were just too big, too much concentration of wealth and power," Sanders said.
    The nation's biggest financial institutions were JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, as of December 2015, according to Federal Reserve Bank data. Their assets totaled just under $9.7 trillion.
    Meanwhile, the U.S. GDP, a measure of the U.S. economy, was $18.2 trillion.
    So the assets of the six largest institutions totaled roughly 53.2% of the GDP.
    The size of bank assets and the GDP shift every quarter, but Sanders' stat is in the ballpark. For that reason, we rate his claim mostly true.
    Reality Check: Clinton was 'busy giving speeches' to banks during financial crisis, Sanders says
    Kevin Liptak, CNN
    Sanders hammered Clinton for giving speeches to financial institutions, suggesting they had influenced her decisions on how to respond to the financial crisis.
    Saying he'd supported breaking up large banks amid the financial meltdown, Sanders said, "Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech."
    Later, after Clinton detailed her efforts as a senator to pass the Dodd-Frank financial regulation, Sanders scoffed, "They must have been really crushed by this. And was that before or after you received huge sums of money by giving speaking engagements?"
    Clinton's record of delivering speeches to Goldman Sachs is well documented at this point in the campaign. Clinton's financial disclosure forms show she earned about $1.8 million for at least eight speeches to big banks.
    But those speeches were delivered in the years after her tenure as secretary of state, and well after her time as senator. Clinton left the Senate officially in January 2009 when she assumed her role as the top U.S. diplomat as the financial crisis was swelling.
    Her speeches to large banks came after she left her post as secretary of state: three speeches to Goldman Sachs in 2013 for $225,000 each, three speeches to UBS Bank of America for the same price, and a pair of addresses to Deutsche Bank for $225,000 and $260,000 each.
    Sanders' claims on Clinton's speeches are true and well documented. But to suggest that her speeches -- and their subsequent paychecks -- influenced Clinton's decision-making as a senator is false, since the paid speeches were delivered well after she left Capitol Hill.
    (Editor's note: We clarified our Reality Check to split the verdict on Sanders' claims.)
    Reality Check: Sanders on General Electric paying taxes
    By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney
    Sanders is no fan of General Electric. He and the iconic American company have been trading jabs ever since he attacked the firm in an interview with the New York Daily News earlier this month for sending jobs overseas and for trying to minimize its tax bill.
    The Vermont senator lashed out at GE and its CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, again at Thursday's Democratic debate.
    "And what we need to do is to tell this guy, Immelt, who's the head of General Electric, doesn't like me, but ... well, that's fine," Sanders said. "He has outsourced hundreds of thousands of decent paying jobs throughout the world, cut his workforce, he has substantially, and in a given year, by the way, turns out Verizon and General Electric, in a given year, pay nothing in federal income tax despite making billions in profit."
    It's true that GE has cut its U.S. workforce and sent jobs overseas. A CNNMoney analysis shows GE's domestic footprint has shrunk dramatically over the past two decades. Back in 1995, roughly 68% of GE's 222,000 total employees were in the United States, according to its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. By 2005, the percentage of American jobs declined to 51%, and by the end of 2015, just 38% of its employees were in the United States.
    GE's total global workforce has increased to 333,000. But it employs fewer American workers today -- 125,000 versus 161,000 in 2005.
    However, it's important to note that GE is a different company than it was 20 years ago. It has shed several businesses, including NBC Universal, and has sold off many of its finance units that were part of GE Capital.
    Also, it's certainly not alone in shifting jobs overseas.
    As for whether GE pays any federal income tax, it's impossible to know for certain without seeing the company's tax returns, which the company does not release and are not otherwise available.
    Some groups have tried to ascertain what the company has paid over the years. One left-leaning organization, Citizens for Tax Justice, uses public information to assess GE's annual tax liability. CTJ recently said that over the past 10 years, GE paid an effective federal income tax rate of -1.6% on $58 billion in profits.
    Our verdict on the tax claim is it's complicated since the company hasn't made its tax returns public.
    Our verdict on jobs moving overseas: true.
    Reality Check: Sanders on being one of the poorer members of the Senate
    By Lisa Rose, CNN
    Responding to a question about releasing his tax returns, Sanders said the filings would be boring to read. He sought to draw a contrast between himself and Clinton.
    "No big money from speeches, no major investments," Sanders said. "Unfortunately, I remain one of the poorer members of the United States Senate."
    That's a bit of false modesty from Sanders, whose net worth was estimated to be $436,000 in 2014, according to calculations by the Center for Responsive Politics.
    The watchdog organization ranked Sanders No. 81 on a chart listing personal wealth in the Senate. Sanders actually had a higher net worth than such high-profile Senate colleagues as Marco Rubio (86), Robert Menendez (87) and Lindsey Graham (88).
    Sanders earned more than $200,000 in 2014, according to a tax return he released last June. His Senate salary was $174,000 and he collected an estimated $40,000 in Social Security benefits.
    Although Sanders' income ranks him in the top 6% of American earners, he is indeed one of the "poorer" members of the Senate, in the bottom 20%.
    Verdict: True.
    Reality Check: Sanders 'raised millions' for his Senate colleagues
    By Tom LoBianco, CNN
    Defending his credentials to be the Democratic Party's nominee for president, Sanders argued he had "raised millions" for his Democratic colleagues in the Senate.
    "I have raised millions of dollars for my colleagues in the United States Senate to help them get elected. I will do everything I can to open the Democratic Party to the young people who are flocking into our campaign," Sanders said. "The truth is you can speak to my colleagues. We have raised millions of dollars for the (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee). I have written letters that have raised just a -- if I may use the word -- huge amount of money."
    It's unclear precisely how much Sanders is responsible for raising for the DSCC, but it is clear that he headlined top-dollar fundraisers for the group during his time in the Senate.
    The retreats, led by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid on Martha's Vineyard, were typically attended by at least 100 top Democratic donors -- just the type of big-money contributors Sanders regularly rails against -- who gave at least $33,400 to the DSCC, $100,000 to the Democratic Party, or both.
    Sanders has not "raised millions" for other Democrats through his presidential campaign, like Clinton has, but he was an active fundraiser for the Senate Democrats. He was one of many Democrats who attended the retreats and was part of the larger draw floated by Democratic leadership to pull in donors. However, it appears unlikely that any single senator "raised millions" at the DSCC donor retreats.
    Verdict: False.

    Hillary Clinton

    Reality Check: Clinton says she supported $15 minimum wage
    By Tom LoBianco, CNN
    Debating Sanders in New York, where state lawmakers recently approved a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Clinton strongly suggested that she had been pushing for that much throughout her campaign.
    "I have supported the fight for 15. I am proud to have the endorsement of most of the unions that have led the fight for 15. I was proud to stand on the stage with Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, with (Service Employees International Union) and others who have been leading this battle, and I will work as hard as I can to raise the minimum wage. I always have. I supported that when I was in the Senate," Clinton said.
    Sanders, who introduced a bill to set the federal minimum wage at $15, quickly shot back, "I am sure a lot of people are very surprised to learn that you supported raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour."
    Clinton has long supported raising the minimum wage, but only recently came around to supporting a $15 minimum wage.
    In November, she proposed a $12 federal minimum wage, and said it should be left to localities to decide whether they wanted to raise the wage further.
    The Clinton campaign explains on its website: "Hillary believes we are long overdue in raising the minimum wage. She has supported raising the federal minimum wage to $12, and believes that we should go further than the federal minimum through state and local efforts, and workers organizing and bargaining for higher wages, such as the Fight for 15 and recent efforts in Los Angeles and New York to raise their minimum wage to $15. She also supports the Obama administration's expansion of overtime rules to millions more workers."
    But cities and states already have the power to raise their own minimum wages -- something cities and states across the nation have been doing for more than a year now. Clinton placed a point on it when she stood by Cuomo earlier this month at a rally shortly after he signed the state's new $15 minimum wage.
    Verdict: True, but misleading.
    Reality Check: Clinton on Sanders' Libya 'vote'
    By Laura Koran, CNN
    Clinton defended the Obama administration's involvement in the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, and furthermore, suggested her opponent supported those actions as well.
    "I would just point out that there was a vote in the Senate as to whether or not the United States should support the efforts by the Libyan people to protect themselves against the threats -- the genocidal threats coming from (then-leader Moammar) Gadhafi, and whether we should go to the United Nations to seek Security Council support," Clinton said. "Senator Sanders voted for that and that's exactly what we did."
    In early 2011, the Senate approved a bipartisan resolution "strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including violent attacks on protesters demanding democratic reforms and for other purposes."
    Sanders was one of the co-sponsors of that resolution, which was approved by unanimous consent but didn't explicitly authorize U.S. military intervention in Libya.
    In fact, at no point did the U.S. Congress give the Obama administration formal authorization under the War Powers Resolution.
    An authorization bill was drafted by Sens. John Kerry and John McCain, but the legislation was tabled before it could be voted on by Sanders or anyone else.
    The Senate resolution, which was largely symbolic, did endorse actions taken by the United Nations Security Council, and urged that body "to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory."
    The resolution also welcomed the administration's outreach to opposition groups in Libya and noted support for "an orderly, irreversible transition to a legitimate democratic government in Libya."
    Because the resolution was approved by unanimous consent, Sanders didn't technically "vote" on it, but as a co-sponsor, it's clear he endorsed the measure.
    So did Sanders support the intervention?
    In a June 2011 interview, Sanders told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he had "reservations" about the Obama administration's military intervention in Libya.
    "I mean, we are in a huge deficit," Sanders said. "We are in two wars. And I would become somewhat conservative on that issue."
    Our verdict: Sen. Sanders co-sponsored a resolution endorsing U.N. Security Council action in Libya. He never technically voted on the measure, but his endorsement of it was clear. Clinton's assertion is therefore mostly true.
    Reality Check: On Social Security Cap, Clinton claims she and Sanders agree
    By Kate Grise, CNN
    During one of their many sparring matches during the debate, Clinton tried to convince her opponent that they had more in common than not on the issue of Social Security. Regarding raising the payroll income cap, Clinton said that she and Sanders actually share the same view.
    "I have supported it. We are in vigorous agreement here, senator," Clinton said.
    Sanders didn't appear convinced about his opponent's commitment to protect the Social Security trust fund by asking wealthier Americans to pay more.
    "If I hear you correctly, Madam Secretary, you are now coming out finally in favor of lifting the cap on taxable income and extending and expanding social security," Sanders said. "If that is the case, welcome on board. I'm glad you're here."
    During her campaign, Clinton has been warming to the idea of raising the cap on income that can be taxed for Social Security.
    Under current law, workers do not pay Social Security taxes on anything they earn above $118,500.
    According to Clinton's website, she aims to defend Social Security and "understands that there is no way to accomplish that goal without asking the highest-income Americans to pay more, including options to tax some of their income above the current Social Security cap, and taxing some of their income not currently taken into account by the Social Security system."
    Clinton, in campaign appearances, has also said she is committed to extending the life of the Social Security trust fund. She has pointed to taxing incomes at higher levels and applying Social Security taxes to passive income as ways of doing so, but, unlike Senator Sanders, she has stopped short of proposing any specific plans to ensure the longevity of Social Security.
    And these comments are a shift from her position in 2008 on lifting the cap. During her first run for the White House, Clinton spoke out against the idea. "I'm certainly against one of Senator Obama's ideas, which is to lift the cap on the payroll tax," Clinton said during a Democratic primary debate in 2008.
    We rate her claim as true, but given her lack of specific proposals, it's understandable Sanders is skeptical of his opponent's long-standing commitment on the issue.
    Reality Check: Clinton on out-of-state guns in New York crimes
    By Kate Grise and Eve Bower, CNN
    Clinton has recently suggested that places such as Sanders' home state of Vermont are responsible for much of the gun violence in New York.
    She didn't go that far Thursday night, but she did say: "The facts are that most of the guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from out of state. They come from the states that don't have the kind of serious efforts to control guns that we do in New York."
    The statistics on where guns used in crimes come from are complicated.
    The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recovered a total of 7,686 guns in 2014, but only 4,585 of those were traced back to the states where they were last registered. That means that a full 40% of those guns cannot be linked definitively to any state at all -- a fact that severely limits the validity of Clinton's claim.
    Of the 4,585 that can be linked to a state, more than 30% come from inside New York state itself.
    Furthermore, the ATF's database of traced weapons is itself limited to begin with. The ATF says "not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in crime." So we don't even know that all of the guns traced were used in violent crimes, as Clinton implies. Because of the imperfections in the data set, the ATF says the data "should not be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals." Even though the ATF's data is incomplete, it is still the best record of weapons that have been recovered by law enforcement and then traced.
    Clinton avoided wading into more trouble by staying away from her statement earlier in the week that "the state that has the highest per capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont."
    Of the guns traced to a state, only 55, or just over 1%, were traced to Vermont. Her emphasis on the phrase "per capita" makes all the difference: just 55 of the 4,585 guns that the ATF traced in New York in 2014 came from Vermont. As a share of Vermont's total population of some 626,000, that ends up being 8.7 guns per 100,000 residents. South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia are the next closest states with 5.3, 4.74, and 3.82 per capita, respectively.
    Both during Thursday night's debate and in her comments last week, Clinton is making a claim that is a big leap based on the evidence available. But because the evidence is too incomplete to prove her wrong, our verdict has to be it's complicated.
    Reality Check: Clinton's role getting NATO involved in Libya
    By Eve Bower, CNN
    During an extended exchange about America's role in the downfall of Gadhafi, Clinton and Sanders clashed over the nature of Clinton's influence within the Obama administration in early 2011. And though numerous senior officials at the time painted a picture of an active and influential Clinton, on the Brooklyn debate stage five years later, Clinton seemed to downplay her own role in crafting U.S. policy in Libya.
    In a recent interview, President Barack Obama said that his administration's "failing" to plan for the aftermath of the 2011 U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya was among his biggest mistakes in office. Echoing this, Sanders accused Clinton of having contributed to a "very dangerous foothold" for ISIS in Libya through her "active effort for regime change" as part of the Obama administration at the time.
    In her response, Clinton emphasized that the decision to intervene was Obama's, and that her role as secretary of state was -- merely, she implied -- one of "due diligence."
    But as the President announced his administration's decision to enforce a no-fly zone in March 2011, senior U.S. officials were clear that Clinton had been instrumental in persuading U.S. allies to join the coalition.
    Clinton traveled between Washington, Paris, Cairo, and Tunisia, pressuring her counterparts in other countries to send planes to Libya and support a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing intervention.
    In these actions, she is widely described as having been part of a strong alliance of powerful voices within Obama's administration that included U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and National Security Council member Samantha Power. Clinton's advocacy put her at odds, however, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had publicly argued against a no-fly zone, and Vice President Joe Biden, who was said to favor a much more cautious approach.
    Perhaps some of the clearest signs that Clinton herself, at one time at least, saw the importance of her own role can be found in emails she exchanged with advisers in 2011, and later made public as part of congressional inquiries into the deaths of four Americans in the 2012 Benghazi terror attack. In one email, she complained to staffers about timelines they had compiled for the media that did not show "much of what I did." One such timeline detailed a "tick-tock" of 22 milestones in Clinton's "leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country's Libya policy from start to finish."
    Clinton's minimized her efforts at Thursday's debate as mere "due diligence." Because the statement obscures the real impacts she had, we rate her statement as false.
    Reality Check: Clinton on toy guns
    By Lisa Rose, CNN
    During a contentious discussion of gun control, Clinton criticized Sanders for his vote supporting a 2005 law that protects firearms dealers and manufacturers from consumer lawsuits. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act limits the liability of gun companies when crime victims try to sue.
    Clinton described the law as a "gift" to the gun industry. She declared, "We have tougher standards holding toy gun manufacturers and sellers to account than we do for real guns."
    There actually are not rigorous rules for toy gun manufacturers and sellers, beyond the usual consumer product safety protections. Imitation firearms like air rifles and BB guns must be marked with an orange tip, in accordance with a law passed in 1990, but there are no further federal regulations on the controversial toys.
    Although it's clear that Clinton was trying to punctuate her point by comparing manufacturers of real guns with those of fake guns, her suggestion that there are tough standards for toy guns is, at the very least, an overstatement.
    Verdict: False.

    Bernie Sanders & Hillary Clinton

    Reality Check: Did Obama do enough to stave off global climate change?
    By Amy Gallagher, CNN
    Sanders and Clinton engaged in an heated exchange about whether incremental measures are enough in the face of the impending threat of climate change. Sanders threw down the gauntlet by comparing the threat of a climate change to the threat of an attack on the United States, saying, "we have an enemy" and going on to list "droughts, floods and extreme weather events" as the imminent threats we face from climate change.
    Clinton countered by touting her role, along with Obama, in bringing about the Paris Agreement for greenhouse gas emissions reduction, claiming that "putting together 195 countries ... was a major accomplishment ... and (Obama) deserves our appreciation." Sanders described this and other actions taken by Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state as" incremental" and said "we have a crisis of historical consequence here ... and those little steps are not enough."
    In question here is whether the Paris Agreement, also known as COP21, goes far enough to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. It is acknowledged that the reductions agreed to by the governments of those 195 countries do not go far enough to meet the goal of preventing average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius.
    What this means is that while compliance with the Paris agreement would lessen the effects of global warming, it would not prevent irreversible damage from occurring. The countries that produce the most greenhouse gases have not committed to reduce their emissions enough. We rate Sanders' claim as true that this step is incremental and does not go far enough to prevent a climate change crisis.
    However, it is generally conceded that when facing a threat that is imminent and complex and which requires massive changes to the way that energy is produced and consumed in residential, commercial and industrial settings, cooperation between governments is absolutely a critical piece of any response and is difficult to accomplish.
    In many cases, such as in strategic arms limitation agreements, a first agreement with small goals has built trust between governments that all parties will abide by their side of the agreement and thereby paved the way for further commitments to greater change in the future.
    Before the Paris agreement, China, India and the United States had not previously all participated in any greenhouse gas reduction agreement. We therefore also rate Clinton's claim as true that the accomplishment of Obama's administration, with her participation, in bringing China, India and the United States, the world's three largest polluters, together to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions was a major accomplishment and one that experts believe is a critical first step to a global climate change solution.