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AP FACT CHECK: Debate week’s twisted tales on virus, climate

WASHINGTON — Sidelined but not silenced, President Donald Trump demonstrated anew this past week he can’t be relied on to give a straight account of the disease that has afflicted millions, now including him. He heralded the arrival of a COVID-19 cure, which did not happen, and likened the coronavirus to the common flu even while knowing better.

The week featured the only vice presidential debate of the 2020 campaign and an emphasis on policy lacking in the virulent Trump vs. Joe Biden showdown of the week before.

Vice President Mike Pence asserted Trump respects the science on climate change when actually the president mocks it, and Pence defended a White House gathering that the government’s infectious disease chief branded a super-spreader event. His Democratic rival, California Sen. Kamala Harris, tripped on tax policy while wrongly accusing Trump of dismissing the pandemic as a hoax.

A review:


TRUMP, on those who get COVID-19. “Now what happens is you get better. That’s what happens, you get better.” — to Fox Business on Thursday.

THE FACTS: As a blanket assurance, that is obviously false. Most people get better. But more than 1 million people worldwide have died from the disease, more than 212,000 of them in the U.S. The disease also may leave many people with long-term harm that is not fully understood.

Trump’s doctor, Navy Cmdr. Sean Conley, said Friday that Trump was showing no evidence of his illness progressing or adverse reactions to the aggressive course of therapy prescribed by his doctors. That doesn’t mean he is over it.


TRUMP, on the experimental antibodies he was administered: “We have a cure. … I can tell you, it’s a cure and I’m talking to you today because of it.” — speaking to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show by phone Friday.

THE FACTS: We don’t have a cure. His statement is premature at best and may raise false hope. And his present condition cannot be pinned on a particular medicine in the combination of drugs he has been given.

Antibody drugs like the one Trump was given are among the most promising therapies being tested for treating and preventing coronavirus infections. But the medicines are still in testing; their safety and effectiveness are not yet known.

Trump was among fewer than 10 people who were able to access the Regeneron Pharmaceuticals drug without having to enroll in a study. Eli Lilly and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. are both asking the U.S. government to allow emergency use of their antibody drugs, which aim to help the immune system clear the virus.

Trump has routinely made too much of promising developments in the pandemic and given weight to bogus theories about how to prevent and treat the disease while dismissing the importance of true preventives such as wearing a mask and staying away from groups of people.


TRUMP: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” — tweet Tuesday.

THE FACTS: He’s contradicting science and himself.

First, he’s overstating the U.S. death toll from the seasonal flu. The flu has killed 12,000 to 61,000 Americans annually since 2010, not 100,000, a benchmark rarely reached in U.S. history. More than 212,000 Americans have died of COVID-19.

Second, health officials widely agree that the coronavirus seems to be at least several times more lethal than seasonal flu. At one point, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told Congress it could be as much as 10 times more lethal.

“There’s absolutely no doubt, no doubt at all, that this COVID-19 … is far more serious than a seasonal flu, no doubt about that,” Fauci told MSNBC this past week.

Trump’s tweet also flies in the face of what he told author Bob Woodward in February, that the virus was even more deadly than “your strenuous flus,” even while suggesting publicly that the pandemic was akin to the flu season. “This is deadly stuff,” he told the author.


TRUMP on Biden: “He gets up and he says, we’re not fracking. We’re not fracking. He was fracking. For six months he was fracking. He was raising his — his very thin hand and he was fracking. And now all of a sudden he’s not fracking. … It’s ridiculous. He said he’s not fracking.” — Thursday to Fox News.

THE FACTS: It’s OK to be very confused by this.

What Trump was trying to say is that Biden flip-flopped on whether he would ban fracking, though the president skipped the part about banning in his remark. Biden in a 2019 Democratic primary debate said he would ban fracking, but his campaign quickly said he misspoke and corrected the record. Biden supports banning new oil and gas leases on public lands but says he does not want a fracking ban and consider such a ban probably impossible.

Trump did add at the end of more fracking accusations, “They’re going to stop fracking the minute they get into office.” That’s false, but it is the accusation Trump was trying to make before.

Biden did not flip-flop but rather flubbed his position at one event, his campaign said.

Democrats are divided on fracking and not all of them appreciated the clarity that Harris brought to the issue in the vice presidential debate, when she stoutly declared a Biden administration would not ban fracking.

“Fracking is bad, actually,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.



U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris take part in the 2020 vice presidential debate moderated by Susan Page of USA Today, on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., October 7, 2020. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Reuters.


PENCE: “The both of you repeatedly committed to abolishing fossil fuel and banning fracking. … President Trump has made clear we’re going to continue to listen to the science” on climate change.

THE FACTS: In addition to being wrong about Biden’s position on fracking, Pence is wrong to say Trump follows the science on climate change. He conspicuously doesn’t.

Trump’s public comments as president all dismiss the science on climate change — that it’s caused by people burning fossil fuels and it’s worsening sharply. As recently as last month, Trump said, “I don’t think science knows” what it’s talking about regarding global warming and the resulting worsening of wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters. He’s ridiculed the science in many public comments and tweets.

As for his actions, his regulation-cutting has eliminated key Obama-era efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Pence is correct when he says Harris supported banning fracking. That was when she was running for president.

At a CNN climate change town hall for Democratic presidential candidates last year, Harris said, “There’s no question I’m in favor of banning fracking. Starting with what we can do from Day One on public lands.” Now, as Biden’s running mate, she is bound to his agenda, which is different.


PENCE: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “tells us that, actually, as difficult as they are, there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago, but many of the climate alarmists use hurricanes and wildfires to try and sell a bill of goods.”

THE FACTS: He’s evading what science actually says about climate change and hurricanes. The main studies don’t assert Earth is seeing more hurricanes than a century ago. They find that today’s hurricanes are worse because of the warming climate.

Research shows that intensification of the storms has increased tremendously since the 1980s in the Atlantic and the only explanation is human-caused climate change.

An analysis of 167 years of federal storm data by The Associated Press in 2017 found that no 30-year period in history has seen this many major hurricanes, with winds greater than 110 mph, this many days of those whoppers spinning in the Atlantic, or this much overall energy generated by those powerful storms.

Such findings are what alarm scientists and part of what Pence calls alarmist.

PENCE: “You know, what’s remarkable is the United States has reduced CO2 more than the countries that are still in the Paris climate accord.”

FACTS: True but hardly remarkable. With its giant economy, the U.S. has far more raw emissions of climate-damaging carbon dioxide to cut than any other country except China.

A more telling measure of progress in various countries is to look at what percentage of emissions they have cut. Since 2005, the United States hasn’t been even in the top 10 in percentage of greenhouse gas emission reductions.



PENCE: “Joe Biden wants to go back to the economic surrender to China, that when we took office, half of our international trade deficit was with China alone. And Joe Biden wants to repeal all of the tariffs that President Trump put into effect to fight for American jobs and American workers.”

THE FACTS: The tariffs were not the win claimed by Pence.

For starters, tariffs are taxes that consumers and businesses pay through higher prices. So Pence is defending tax increases. The tariffs against China did cause the trade deficit in goods with China to fall in 2019. But that’s a Pyrrhic victory at best as overall U.S. economic growth slowed from 3% to 2.2% because of the trade uncertainty.

More important, the Trump administration has not decreased the overall trade imbalance. For all trading partners, the government said the trade deficit was $576.9 billion last year, nearly $100 billion higher than during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency.


HARRIS, on Trump’s tax cuts: “On Day 1, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill.”

THE FACTS: No, that’s not what Biden proposes. He would repeal some of it. Nor can he repeal a law on his own, much less on his first day in office. Harris also said Biden will not raise taxes on people making under $400,000. If he were to repeal the Trump tax cuts across the board, he would be breaking that promise.



PENCE, on the Sept. 26 Rose Garden event after which more than 11 attendees tested positive for COVID-19: “It was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise.”

THE FACTS: His suggestion that the event followed public health safety recommendations is false. The event, introducing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, drew more than 150 people and flouted safety recommendations in multiple ways. And it was not all outside.

“We had a super-spreader event in the White House,” Fauci told CBS Radio News. “And it was in a situation where people were crowded together, were not wearing masks.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says large gatherings of people who have traveled from outside the area and aren’t spaced at least 6 feet apart pose the greatest risk for spreading the virus.

That’s exactly the type of high-risk event the White House hosted.

Guests were seated close together, not 6 feet apart, in rows of chairs outside. Many were captured on camera clapping backs, shaking hands and talking, barely at arm’s length.

The CDC also “strongly encourages” people to wear masks, but few in the Rose Garden wore them. There was also a private reception inside the White House after the Rose Garden ceremony, where some politicians, including North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who has since tested positive, were pictured not wearing masks.

HARRIS on the virus: “The president said it was a hoax.”

THE FACTS: That’s misleading.

She’s referring to a Feb. 28 campaign rally in South Carolina in which Trump said the phrases “the coronavirus” and “this is their new hoax” at separate points. Although his meaning is difficult to discern, the broader context of his words shows he was railing against Democrats for their denunciations of his administration’s coronavirus response.

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he said at the rally. “You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it.” He meandered briefly to the subject of the messy Democratic primary in Iowa, then the Russia investigation before returning to the pandemic. “They tried the impeachment hoax. … And this is their new hoax.”

Asked at a news conference the day after the rally to clarify his remarks, Trump said he was not referring to the coronavirus itself as a hoax.

“No, no, no.” he said. ”‘Hoax’ referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them, not — I’m not talking about what’s happening here. I’m talking what they’re doing. That’s the hoax.”



PENCE: “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect preexisting conditions for all Americans.”

THE FACTS: No, there is no clear plan. People with preexisting conditions are already protected by the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, and if the Trump administration succeeds in persuading the Supreme Court to overturn it, those protections will be in jeopardy.

Trump has signed an executive order declaring it the policy of the U.S. government to protect people with preexisting conditions, but he would have to go back to Congress to work out legislation to replace those “Obamacare” provisions.

Various Republican approaches offered in 2017 would have undermined the protections in the ACA, and Trump has not offered details of how his plan would work. Although Trump has been in office nearly four years, he has yet to roll out the comprehensive health care proposal he once promised.



PENCE: “He suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world. Joe Biden opposed that decision, he said it was xenophobic and hysterical.”

THE FACTS: Trump’s order did not suspend “all travel from China.” He restricted it, and Biden never branded the decision “xenophobic.” Dozens of countries took similar steps to control travel from hot spots before or around the same time the U.S. did.

The U.S. restrictions that took effect Feb. 2 continued to allow travel to the U.S. from China’s Hong Kong and Macao territories for months. The Associated Press reported that more than 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals based in those territories entered the U.S. in the first three months after the travel restrictions were imposed.

Additionally, more than 27,000 Americans returned from mainland China in the first month after the restrictions took effect. U.S. officials lost track of more than 1,600 of them who were supposed to be monitored for virus exposure.

Biden has accused Trump of having a record of xenophobia but not explicitly in the context of the president’s decision to limit travel from China during the pandemic. Trump took to calling the virus the “China virus” and the “foreign virus” at one point, prompting Biden to urge the country not to take a turn toward xenophobia or racism in the pandemic.


HARRIS, on the effects of the pandemic: “One in 5 businesses, closed.”

THE FACTS: That’s not accurate, as of now. We don’t know yet how many businesses have permanently closed — or could do so in the months ahead.

What we do know is that the National Federation of Independent Business said in August that 1 in 5 small businesses will close if economic conditions don’t improve in the next six months.

Many small businesses survived in part through the forgivable loans from the Payroll Protection Program. Larger employers such as Disney and Allstate insurance have announced layoffs, as have major airlines. Restaurants that survived the pandemic with outdoor eating will soon face the challenge of cold weather. So it’s too soon to tell how many businesses have closed or will.



PENCE, on the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation: “It was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion. Case closed.”

THE FACTS: That’s a mischaracterization of Mueller’s nearly 450-page report and its core findings.

Mueller did not absolve the president of obstructing the investigation into ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Instead, his team examined roughly a dozen episodes in which the president sought to exert his will on the probe, including by firing his FBI director and seeking the ouster of Mueller himself. Ultimately, Mueller declined to reach a conclusion on whether Trump had committed a crime, citing Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. But that’s different than finding “no obstruction.”

Mueller also didn’t quite find “no collusion.” His investigation identified multiple contacts between Russians and Trump associates and outlined sweeping Russian interference that he said the Trump campaign welcomed and expected to benefit from. Mueller said that he did not have enough to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia; collusion is not a precise legal term.


FILE PHOTO: Election volunteer Nancy Gavney verifies voter and witness signatures on absentee ballots as they are counted at the City Hall during the presidential primary election held amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beloit, Wisconsin, U.S. April 7, 2020. Photo by. Daniel Acker/Reuters.


PENCE: “President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail-in voting that will create a massive opportunity for voter fraud.”

THE FACTS: Pence is vastly overstating the potential for fraud with mail-in ballots, just as Trump frequently does.

Broadly speaking, voter fraud has proved exceedingly rare. A 2017 report from the Brennan Center for Justice ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections. A panel commissioned by the Trump administration to explore the issue uncovered no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud.

Trump and his allies have tried to argue that absentee balloting is fine — when someone has to request a ballot as opposed to automatically getting one in the mail — while universal mail-in balloting is open to fraud because all the state’s registered voters receive a ballot through the mail. It’s true that some election studies have shown a slightly higher incidence of mail-in voting fraud compared with in-person voting, but the overall risk is extremely low.

There is ongoing litigation in several states over a host of election issues, including absentee ballots. States nationwide expect a surge in mail-in voting due to the ongoing risk posed by the coronavirus.

Five states routinely send ballots to all registered voters, allowing them to choose to vote through the mail or in person. In November, four other states — California, New Jersey, Nevada and Vermont — and the District of Columbia will be adopting that system, as will almost every county in Montana.