The stark differences between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden were on display during their competing town halls on Thursday night, and in no space was that clearer than the magnitude and frequency of their falsehoods.
The fact that the second debate was cancelled after Trump backed out of the proposed virtual format deprived Americans of a chance to see the two candidates sparring on the same stage. But where Biden scattered in a small number of exaggerations or misstatements over about an hour and a half, Trump unleashed a barrage of dishonest claims over about an hour.
Trump falsely claimed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 85% of people who wear masks get the coronavirus, again argued inaccurately that there is widespread fraud with mail-in voting, defended as mere “opinion” a baseless conspiracy theory he retweeted about Osama bin Laden and the US military, and repeated familiar false or misleading remarks about the state of the pandemic, Biden’s tax plan, job creation, and his own positions on DACA and pre-existing conditions.
Biden falsely claimed that Trump did nothing on unemployment after the initial round of congressional aid expired, wrongly asserted that there are more troops in Afghanistan today than there were when he left the vice presidency, and seemed to incorrectly deny that his website called the Green New Deal a “crucial framework.”
CNN’s team watched the dueling townhalls. Here are the facts.
Trump: 85% of people who wear masks get the coronavirus
Trump made a dramatic claim about Covid-19 during Thursday night’s town hall.
“Just the other day, they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it,” Trump said.
It was a repeat of a similar claim he had made two times earlier in the day, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the source for that number.
Facts First: Trump’s claim is false. A CDC study released in September, did not say that 85% of people who wear masks get infected with the coronavirus. In fact, it did not even attempt to figure out what percentage of people who wear a mask get infected with the coronavirus.
Rather, the study looked at the behavior of 154 symptomatic people who had tested positive for the coronavirus in July around the country and 160 people who reported symptoms but tested negative in July.
The study found that, of those 154 people, 85% said they had worn a mask either “always” or “often” over the 14 days prior to the onset of their illness. That’s where the 85% figure comes from.
Of the 160 people in the study who had tested negative, however, 88.7% said they had worn a mask either “always” or “often.” So there’s really no difference between people who wore masks and those who didn’t.
And that’s not even the point here.
Trump was suggesting that the CDC found that 85% of all people who wear masks get the coronavirus. But the CDC was just looking at the behavior of these 314 symptomatic people who sought out testing at 11 particular sites around the country in July.
Here’s how one of the co-authors, Christopher Lindsell, co-Director of the Health Data Science Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, described the study’s data on masks.
“The data suggest that among a group of patients who are already showing symptoms that prompted them to get testing for the virus, there was no statistical evidence of a difference in mask wearing behavior between those who tested positive and those who tested negative,” Lindsell said in an email. “This is very different from the question of whether wearing masks prevents you becoming infected with the virus, and it is also different to the question of how many or what percentage of people who wear masks contract the virus. The study was not designed to answer these questions.”
– Daniel Dale
Trump: US deaths from Covid will exceed 2 million
Trump claimed the US was “expected to lose 2,200,000 people and maybe more than that” from the coronavirus.
Facts First: This is misleading.
Trump is likely citing a report posted in March by scholars from the Imperial College in London that predicted that a total of 2.2 million Americans could die from Covid-19 if no preventative measures were installed on any level of society.
In other words, that would be the loss of lives if no action were taken at all to mitigate it.
The report did not analyze what would happen if just the federal government took no action against the virus but rather what would occur if there were absolutely no “control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour.”
– Holmes Lybrand and Tara Subramaniam
Trump: Biden called him ‘xenophobic’
After an audience member asked a question that mentioned his “travel ban” on China, Trump repeated the assertion that he imposed a “travel ban.” He also claimed that Biden called him “xenophobic and racist” over the policy.
Facts First: This is misleading. The phrase “travel ban” is an exaggeration. And although it’s not unreasonable for Trump to claim that Biden accused him of racism, Biden never explicitly linked the racism accusation to the travel restrictions.
While Trump did restrict travel from China in early February, he did not put a complete stop to it. His policy made exemptions for travel by US citizens, permanent residents, many of the family members of both groups, and some others. The New York Times reported April 4 that nearly 40,000 people had flown to the US from China since the restrictions went into effect in early February.
Biden’s campaign announced in early April that he supports the travel restrictions on China. But his campaign says Biden’s January 31 accusations – that Trump has a record of “hysterical xenophobia” and “fear mongering” – were not about the travel restrictions at all.
The campaign says Biden did not know about the restrictions at the time of his speech, since his campaign event in Iowa started shortly after the Trump administration briefing where the restrictions were revealed by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Given the timing of the Biden remarks, it makes sense for the Trump campaign to infer that the former vice president was talking about the travel restrictions. But Biden never took an explicit position on the restrictions until his April declaration of support.
– Daniel Dale
Biden: Trump said injecting bleach will combat coronavirus
Biden claimed that Trump said injecting bleach could help combat the virus.
“President Trump says things like…crazy stuff he’s walking away from now, ‘inject bleach in your arm and that’s going to work,’” Biden said. “I’m being a bit – I’m not being facetious though; he actually said these things.”
Facts First: This is misleading. Biden was recalling a moment from a Trump briefing that attracted broad derision. Biden, however, overstated some of the specifics.
During an April 23 press briefing, which included a discussion of tests that appeared to show disinfectants like bleach and isopropyl alcohol quickly killed the coronavirus on surfaces in lab studies, Trump expressed interest in exploring the possibility of “injection inside or almost a cleaning” with disinfectants. Here’s what he said:
“(T)hen 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.”
– Holmes Lybrand
Biden: Covid vaccines haven’t been tested on kids
Answering a question about vaccines, Biden talked about the coronavirus’ impact on children.
“Children are getting the virus, not with as serious consequences, but we haven’t, there’s been no studies done yet on vaccines for children,” he said.
Facts First: Biden is correct about research in the US, though a leading drugmaker just this week revealed plans to include children in its vaccine research.
Pfizer plans to start testing its experimental coronavirus vaccine in children as young as 12, the researcher helping lead the trial told CNN on Tuesday. It will be the first coronavirus vaccine trial to include children in the United States.
Biden: Redfield said masks would save more lives than a vaccine
Biden claimed that Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said wearing a mask would save more lives “between now and the end of the year than if we had a vaccine.”
Facts First: This goes beyond what Redfield said in congressional testimony.
Testifying in September before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Redfield made headlines for stating, “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take the Covid vaccine.”
But while he said he personally felt more shielded by a mask, he did not say that masks would save more lives than a vaccine.
He emphasized the importance of face coverings, saying “facemasks, these face masks, are the most important, powerful public health tool we have.”
“I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings,” Redfield added. “I’ve said it, if we did it for six, 8, 10, 12 weeks, we’d bring this pandemic under control.”
You can read more here.
– Holmes Lybrand
Trump: Biden wants to “quadruple” taxes
Trump said: “Our economy is going to be, next year, if we don’t have somebody that raises taxes and quadruples taxes, which they want to do – it kills everything – our economy is going to be phenomenal next year.”
Facts First: This is false. Biden’s plan would increase taxes for people making more than $400,000 per year. He has promised not to directly raise taxes for those making less than that.
Higher-income Americans would bear the brunt of the tax hikes proposed by Biden, according to analyses from left-leaning Tax Policy Center, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Penn Wharton Budget Model.
But even the most wealthy Americans would not see their taxes quadruple. For example, the Penn Wharton Budget Model found that the top 0.1% would see an increase of up to 12.4 percentage points on average when including both the individual and the corporate tax changes proposed by Biden.
– Katie Lobosco
Trump: We set a record on jobs
Trump repeated his usual boast about job creation, saying, “We just set a record: 11.4 million jobs.”
Facts First: This is misleading. While it’s true that the 11.4 million jobs are a record, Trump left out essential context about the amount of jobs lost during the pandemic.
Immediately before this record gain of about 11.4 million jobs over five months, there was a much larger record loss of about 22.2 million jobs over two months. In other words, as of August, the country was still down more than 10.7 million jobs since March. (And as of September, the economy was down about 3.9 million jobs since the beginning of Trump’s presidency.)
Also, many of the 11.4 million jobs “added” since May simply represent people returning to their previous jobs, from which they had been temporarily laid off. And the pace of the jobs recovery slowed significantly in September, with 661,000 jobs added – down from about 1.5 million in August.
– Daniel Dale
Biden: Trump did nothing on unemployment after congressional aid expired
Biden slammed Trump for not helping the jobless after the $600 weekly supplement for unemployment benefits – which Congress passed as part of its $2 trillion relief package – lapsed in late July.
“And then what happened was, when the first round of money for unemployment, enhanced unemployment went by, he didn’t do anything. He didn’t do anything,” Biden said.
Facts First: This is false.
The day after congressional talks to extend the federal boost to unemployment benefits collapsed, Trump signed an executive measure to use $44 billion in federal disaster aid to provide $300 a week to the jobless.
The effort provides out-of-work Americans in 49 states and the District of Columbia with these funds for up to six weeks. The money has already been fully distributed in many states.
South Dakota declined to participate in the Lost Wages Assistance program.
– Tami Luhby
Trump: People can decide if Osama bin Laden is alive
NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie, who was moderating the Trump town hall, asked about the QAnon-affiliated conspiracy theory Trump had retweeted earlier this week claiming Osama bin Laden was still alive and that the man killed in the raid was a body double.
Trump defended his actions, saying, “That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves. I don’t take a position.”
Facts First: This is a baseless claim with no evidence to back it up. The facts around the killing of bin Laden are not a debatable opinion.
In the early morning hours of May 2, 2011, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces during a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A DNA test was conducted, confirming it was bin Laden. He was buried at sea.
Those are the facts.
You can read more of the facts behind this conspiracy theory here.
– Tara Subramaniam
Trump: ‘Thousands of ballots’ were found in dumpsters
Trump expanded on a false claim that he’s made previously, saying that “thousands of ballots” had been found in dumpsters.
“Thousands of them are dumped in dumpsters and when you see ballots with the name Trump – military ballots, from our great military, and they’re dumped in garbage cans,” the President said in the NBC town hall.
He went on to claim that the “thousands of ballots” were found with “my name on it.”
Facts First: This is false. There have been two incidents where ballots were found in a dumpster or trash can: 99 ballots heading to voters in New Jersey and nine ballots “incorrectly discarded” by a temporary worker in Pennsylvania.
In New Jersey, the Justice Department charged a mail worker with two felonies for tossing 1,875 pieces of mail that included 99 ballots in two dumpsters. The ballots, which were being sent to voters, were immediately delivered after the US Postal Service learned about them being tossed in the trash.
This isn’t the first time the President has lied about ballots being found in the trash. He’s repeatedly lied about ballots being found in a trash can in Pennsylvania.
According to federal and local authorities, an election worker improperly threw out nine military ballots in Luzerne County. The Justice Department initially said all nine ballots were marked for Trump, then deleted its initial statement and issued a new one saying seven were Trump votes. Local officials said they would try to reach the affected voters and fix the ballots.
– Paul Murphy
Trump: He’ll protect people with pre-existing conditions
Trump reiterated his boast about protecting people with pre-existing conditions.
“We’re always protecting people with pre-existing conditions, and I can’t say that more strongly,” Trump said.
Facts First: This is false. The President has repeatedly asserted his support for covering individuals with pre-existing conditions, yet his administration has consistently taken steps to undermine the Affordable Care Act without presenting alternative plans that would offer similar benefits and protections.
In fact, the President is supporting a lawsuit brought by a coalition of Republican attorneys general that could topple the landmark health reform law and its provisions that ban insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums based on consumers’ pre-existing conditions.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on November 10, a week after the election.
Trump signed an executive order in September that stated that it’s US policy that people who suffer from pre-existing conditions will be protected. However, this is not actually a plan.
– Tara Subramaniam
Trump: He’ll ‘take care’ of DACA recipients
Trump repeated his claim that the administration is “going to take care” of recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—the Obama-era program that shields undocumented immigrants who arrived to the US as children from deportation—despite trying to end the program at the start of his presidency.
“We have the strongest border we’ve ever had. We want people to come into our country. They have to come in legally,” Trump said. “But we are working very hard on the DACA program, and you will be, I think, very happy over the course of the next year.”
Facts First: This is misleading. Trump is responsible for trying to terminate the Obama-era program that shields certain undocumented immigrants from deportation. Despite waffling on the issue publicly, his administration has shown little indication of reversing its position.
While the Department of Homeland Security has said it’s reviewing the program following a Supreme Court decision blocking its termination, there’s little indication that Trump is currently working to keep the program in place.
Instead, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf expressed ongoing concerns in a memo released earlier this year, saying: “I have concluded that the DACA policy, at a minimum, presents serious policy concerns that may warrant its full rescission.”
Amid that review, the administration has limited renewals to one year instead of two and not accepted new applicants. Immigrant advocates, lawyers and lawmakers have denounced the move, criticizing the delay and arguing the move ran afoul of the Supreme Court’s order.
– Priscilla Alvarez
Trump: Obama and Biden never tried criminal justice reform
Trump, boasting about the First Step Act criminal justice reform bill he signed, repeated a previous claim that Biden and President Barack Obama did not even attempt criminal justice reform during their administration.
“Criminal justice reform, everybody said it could not be done. President Obama and Biden never even tried to do it, they never even tried,” he said.
Facts First: This is false. The Obama administration did try to get a criminal justice reform bill passed; a bipartisan bill failed in the Senate during the 2016 presidential election, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided not to bring it up for a vote.
The Obama administration nonetheless took its own reform steps that did not require Republican approval, such as banning the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, working with state and local governments to reduce pre-trial incarceration and the incarceration of people with mental illnesses, and instructing federal prosecutors to try to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders.
Also, Obama signed a narrower criminal justice bill in 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act, that reduced the disparity between mandatory sentences imposed for crack cocaine offenses and sentences imposed for powder cocaine offenses.
And the Obama administration took multiple steps to try to improve policing. You can read more here.
– Daniel Dale
Trump: He has done more for the Black community than any president but Lincoln
Citing his efforts on criminal justice reform, Trump said he has “done more for the African American community than any president with the exception of Abraham Lincoln,” noting that “a lot of people agree.”
Facts First: This is false.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, monumental bills whose impact dwarfed the impact of any legislation Trump has signed.
It’s also worth mentioning that Black people themselves do not, on the whole, agree with Trump’s self-assessment. Trump has had a consistently abysmal approval rating with Black citizens – just 16% among Black likely voters in one recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, versus 82% disapproval.
– Tara Subramaniam
Biden: There are more American troops in Afghanistan than when Obama left office
Biden claimed that the Trump administration has more people in Afghanistan now than when the Obama administration left office.
“You know, you have Americans – bounties on American military’s heads in Afghanistan. They have more people there now, by the way, than when I left – when we left, in Afghanistan,” Biden said.
Facts First: If Biden was speaking strictly about levels of US troops, this is false.
In July 2016 President Barack Obama said he would leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of his administration. On December 9, 2016 CNN reported there were 9,800 American service members in Afghanistan.
While Trump did increase troop levels in Afghanistan earlier in his term, he has since pulled troops out of the country. National security adviser Robert O’Brien said on October 7 there are now fewer than 5,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
– Holmes Lybrand
Biden: Green New Deal calls for eliminating non-renewable energy by 2030
George Stephanopoulos asked Biden if he was for or against the Green New Deal, noting, “On your website, you call it a crucial framework.”
“My deal is a crucial framework, but not the New Green Deal,” Biden responded. “The New Green Deal calls for elimination of all non-renewable energy by 2030. You can’t get there. You’re going to need to be able to transition, George.”
Facts First: This is misleading.
The Green New Deal does include the goal of hitting net-zero emissions by 2050, but it does not call for the automatic elimination of all non-renewable energy by that date. Biden’s campaign website does call the Green New Deal a “crucial framework” on the environment, but while Biden’s climate plan and the Green New Deal share the overarching goal of curbing heat-trapping gas emissions, the plans differ in how they achieve net-zero emissions – and how quickly they get there.
After lauding the “framework” of the Green New Deal, Biden’s website lays out the bullet points of the candidate’s own plan to combat climate change, which includes items like building out energy-efficient infrastructure and setting a goal for the US to reach zero emissions by 2050.
While the two plans overlap on some environmental objectives, Biden’s plan does not include many of the social welfare proposals of the Green New Deal. For instance, he is not calling for a guaranteed job for each American with family and medical leave and paid vacations, as the deal proposes.
In other ways, the proposals differ less dramatically. Biden’s plan also has a goal of creating a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035, whereas the Green New Deal proposed reaching 100% clean power in 10 years.
– Drew Kann
This story has been updated.