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Fact check: The ninth Republican debate

February 14, 2016 at 6:01 PM EDT
The final six GOP candidates sparred in Saturday's ninth Republican presidential debate, taking on topics, including foreign policy, the Islamic State, 9/11 and replacing Justice Scalia. Jon Greenberg of Politifact joins William Brangham to fact check what they said.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The death of Justice Scalia was the focus of the start of last night’s presidential debate among the six Republican candidates in South Carolina, where the next primary will be held next Saturday.

The Republicans were united in calling on Senate leaders to block any Supreme Court nomination by President Obama.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Candidate: I think it’s up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It’s called delay, delay, delay.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ted Cruz underscored the stakes of this court vacancy for conservatives.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), Presidential Candidate: We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion adopted by the states. We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will reverse the Heller decision, one of Justice Scalia’s seminal decisions that upheld the Second Amendment right to keep and to bear arms.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On foreign policy, Jeb Bush again said the Obama administration has failed to contain ISIS.

JEB BUSH (R), Presidential Candidate: It’s a complete, unmitigated disaster. And to allow Russia now to have influence in Syria makes it harder, but we need to destroy ISIS and dispose of Assad to create a stable Syria, so that the four million refugees aren’t a breeding ground for Islamic jihadists.

DONALD TRUMP: Jeb is so wrong.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Donald Trump disagreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin could not be an ally in that fight.

DONALD TRUMP: That’s why we’ve been in the Middle East for 15 years, and we haven’t won anything. We’ve spent $5 trillion in the Middle East because of thinking like that.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Bush rebutted Trump’s attacks on his father and brother’s handling of the region during their presidencies.

JEB BUSH: I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind.


JEB BUSH: And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I’m proud of what he did.


JEB BUSH: And he has had the gall to go after my brother.

DONALD TRUMP: The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To help us fact-check the debate, I am joined from Washington by Jon Greenberg of PolitiFact, an independent, nonpartisan project overseen by The Tampa Bay Times.

Jon, the death of Scalia was announced only a few hours before the candidates took the stage last night, but all the Republicans running said President Obama shouldn’t nominate someone this election year, and, if he did, the Republicans said that the Senate should block it.

Here’s how Marco Rubio put it.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), Presidential Candidate: I do not believe the president should appoint someone. And it’s not unprecedented. In fact, it has been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Is Rubio right, 80 years since a similar situation has occurred?

JON GREENBERG, PolitiFact: You know, the number 80 years was kicking around really fast in the Twittersphere right before the debate.

And the problem with using that number, aside from the fact it is a little bit off no matter how you look at it, the problem is, is that Rubio used the term lame duck president. And so when you have got a president who is term-limited, so they are in their second term, all you have to do is go back to Ronald Reagan in 1987 and ’88 — 88 is an election year.

And in 1987, Ronald Reagan nominates Anthony Kennedy to be on the Supreme Court. And he, Kennedy is then confirmed in ’88. So there is Reagan. He’s clearly on his way out. He doesn’t know who his successor is. And he puts somebody on the Supreme Court. That really is quite recent, in relative terms. And so Rubio is mostly false on this one.


In the foreign policy section of the debate last night, New Hampshire primary winner Donald Trump, who has never held public office, said, as he has before, that he opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Here is what he said.

DONALD TRUMP: I’m the only one on this stage that said, “Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.” Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn’t a politician.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jon, is that right? Is there any proof that Trump said that back in 2003?

JON GREENBERG: No, he didn’t say it, so far as we know, going through transcripts and records, that he said it before the war.

About three months before we actually invaded — so, really, there was a big run-up there when there were protests and so forth — he was interviewed on FOX News. He was asked, oh, well, what is up with President Bush? Should he focus more on Iraq? Should he focus more on the economy?

And the most that Trump said is, well, you know, perhaps maybe we should wait for the U.N. to get on board here, but, really, the economy is where he should focus his attention.

And it wasn’t until a week after the invasion that he said in some brief interview that it was a mess. And it was about a year after the invasion that it really — he really came down hard.

So, in terms of how forcefully he put it, Trump really did rate false. He wasn’t loud and clear before the invasion about all the bad things that would happen, at least in terms of any record that we can find.


Last one. John Kasich, in his second term as Ohio’s governor, touted his economic record, cutting taxes, growing jobs, and balancing the budget. Here’s what he said.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), Presidential Candidate: What I would tell you is, we’ve gone from an $8 billion hole to a $2 billion surplus.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, Jon, how did that check out? Did Kasich turn Ohio’s deficit into a surplus?

JON GREENBERG: Well, aside from the fact that you really can’t give John Kasich credit for everything — big economic trends play a big role here — still, the numbers basically do work out, because there was a projected $8 billion deficit.

And then, by 2015, the state’s rainy day fund said, hey, we have got $2 billion to tide us over. That certainly counts as a surplus. So, yes, Mr. Kasich gets it right.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Jon Greenberg from PolitiFact, as always, thanks so much.

JON GREENBERG: My pleasure.