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What did GOP candidates get wrong in debate on national security?

At the debate Tuesday night in Las Vegas, Republican presidential candidates competed to prove who would be best prepared as commander in chief to keep the country safe. Angie Holan of PolitiFact joins Gwen Ifill to examine some of the claims made by the candidates on vetting Syrian refugees and boosting border security.

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    But, first, nine candidates made it to the main stage for the final Republican debate of the year. Four others appeared in an earlier undercard face off. The candidates left Las Vegas much as they arrived, jockeying to survive into the new year.

    The cast of characters has shifted, but there has been one constant this Republican debate season: front-runner Donald Trump center stage.

    Last night, the candidates competed to prove who would be best prepared as commander in chief to keep the country safe.

    For Trump, it meant defending his plan to ban Muslims, at least temporarily, from entering the U.S.

  • DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    We are not talking about isolation. We're talking about security. We're not talking about religion. We're talking about security.


    For former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, it meant seizing the opportunity to try to take Trump down a peg.

  • JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    Look, this is not a serious proposal. In fact, it will push the Muslim world, the Arab world away from us, at a time when we need to reengage with them to be able to create a strategy to destroy ISIS. He's a chaos candidate. And he'd be a chaos president. He wouldn't be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe.


    And for the rest, the night was spent making the case that they are, in fact, qualified.

    Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has stumbled over foreign policy questions of late, said he would take the fight to ISIS, up to and including deploying U.S. ground troops in Syria.

  • BEN CARSON, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    You know, we have got a phobia about boots on the ground. If our military experts say we need boots on the ground, we should put boots on the ground and recognize there will be boots on the ground, and they will be over here, and they will be their boots if we don't get them out of there now.


    For two senators recently on the rise, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the clashes came over the tradeoff between safety and surveillance.

  • SEN. MARCO RUBIO, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    We are now at a time when we need more tools, not less tools. And that tool we lost, the metadata program, was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal.

  • SEN. TED CRUZ, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    The old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and he knows that that's the case.


    They also scrapped over immigration and border security, with Rubio turning his guns on Cruz to downplay his own support for a 2013 Senate bill that included a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.


    Does Ted Cruz rule out ever legalizing people that are in this country illegally now?


    Senator Cruz?


    I have never supported legalization.


    Will you rule it out?


    I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.


    For the non-senators on stage, especially former business executive Carly Fiorina and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the Cruz-Rubio disagreement left room for an outsider's attack.

  • CARLY FIORINA, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    We need a commander in chief who has made tough calls in tough times, and stood up to be held accountable over and over, not first-term senators who've never made an executive decision in their life.

  • GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    This is the difference between being a governor and being in a legislature. See, because when something doesn't work in New Jersey, they look at me, say, why didn't it get done? Why didn't you do it? You have to be responsible and accountable.


    The questions and answers stuck close to matters of terrorism and domestic security. And the debate drew another big audience, a hefty 18 million viewers. The GOP candidates meet next in mid-January.

    Let's take a closer look now at some of the claims made last night, and try to separate fact from fiction.

    Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact, an independent fact-checking Web site and a division of The Tampa Bay Times. Her team recently took stock of the statements they have checked out so far this election season. The takeaway? No candidate has been completely honest, Democrat or Republican. Some fared worse than others.

    For instance, out of more than 70 Donald Trump statements, three-quarters of them proved false. Jeb Bush tried to call attention to that last night.


    Look, two months ago, Donald Trump said that ISIS wasn't our fight, just two months ago. He said that Hillary Clinton would be a great negotiate with Iran. And he gets his foreign policy experience from the shows. That's not a serious kind of candidate.


    Other — from the amusement watching Donald Trump's faces while that accusation was being made. Is it true that Donald Trump said those things?

  • ANGIE HOLAN, PolitiFact:

    You know, we rated that mostly true.

    He did make the comments about ISIS not being our fight. Now, his most on-point comments were more than like five months ago, rather than just two. Now, looking at Donald Trump's statements about foreign policy, he seems to go back and forth between saying the U.S. should hit ISIS very hard and saying the U.S. needs not to get too entangled in foreign affairs.

    So, there is some dissonance there.


    When you talk about dissonance, I just want to follow up a little bit more on what you found overall looking at Donald Trump's statements. That's a big number of false statements.


    Yes. We haven't fact-checked anyone as many times as we have fact-checked Donald Trump with so much inaccuracy. He just gets a lot of factual matters incorrect.


    And it doesn't seem to hurt.


    Well, voters have not gone to the polls yet, is what I say. So, we will see.


    Let's move on to Ted Cruz. He was asked whether he — how he disagreed with Trump, and his response was to change the subject. Let's listen.


    We're looking at a president who's engaged in this double-speak where he doesn't call radical Islamic terrorism by its name. Indeed, he gives a speech after the San Bernardino attack where his approach is to try to go after the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens rather than to keep us safe.

    And even worse, President Obama and Hillary Clinton are proposing bringing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to this country when the head of the FBI has told Congress they cannot vet those refugees.


    Now, it is true that the president doesn't use the word — the phrase radical Islamic terrorism. He kind of goes out of his way not to use that phrase for lots of reason. But is it true that he has dropped the ball, that the administration has dropped the ball on vetting refugees?


    We looked at Cruz's statement that Comey said they can't vet Syrian refugees.


    The FBI director.


    That's correct.

    We rated Cruz's statement mostly false. There is a vetting process for the Syrian refugees. It's actually somewhat extensive. It's more than, say, a tourist visa would go through. The United Nations certifies refugees overseas. And then the U.S. government puts the refugees through a number of checks, such as from the Defense Department, Homeland Security Department, State Department.

    Now, we rated it mostly false because Comey did say he could not personally certify that every refugee didn't represent a security check. That's the standard the Republicans in Congress wanted him to meet. He said that that wasn't feasible, but they do have a standard vetting process that the refugees go through.


    That's interesting, because the Congress said they were going to do something about that, but that wasn't included in the budget bill that passed in Congress.

    Let's move on to the other big, I guess, fact-checkable moment of the night, where Senator Rand Paul accused Senator Rubio — there were three senators on the stage last night — that — he said of opposing increased border security. Let's listen.


    So Marco can't have it both ways. He thinks he wants to be this, "Oh, I'm great and strong on national defense."

    But he's the weakest of all the candidates on immigration. He is the one for an open border that is leaving us defenseless. If we want to defend the country, we have to defend against who's coming in, and Marco is — has more of an allegiance to Chuck Schumer and to the liberals than he does to conservative policy.


    I guess we can interpret that look on Marco Rubio's face that he doesn't believe it's true. What did you think?


    Well, PolitiFact didn't think it was true either. We rated Rand Paul's statement that Marco Rubio supports open borders as Pants on Fire. That's our worst rating, not only false, but ridiculous.

    And the reason we rated is this way that Marco Rubio has supported this comprehensive immigration legislation. It passed in the Senate. It failed in the House. It never became law. It included money and border agents to increase security.

    Open borders implies that the — there would be a border where people could come back and forth freely with very minimal checks. That's not at all what Marco Rubio has supported. You know, Rand Paul may have a point that Rubio supported this immigration legislation when other candidates didn't.

    But to say he supports open borders just crosses the line and is really at odds with what the legislation contained.


    We have talked before about how — the tenuous relationship between the truth and fact in this year's election so far on both sides of the aisle.

    I think the viewers would be interested in knowing, how do you do this, how you vet them, especially with nine candidates on the main stage last night, four candidates on the undercard, and then another three candidates on the Democratic side.


    You know, we're looking for claims that we think voters would care about and that would make them say, I wonder if that's true.

    So, we're definitely using our news judgment. We don't do a random sample or pick statements out of the hat. We are looking for what's most important and significant to voters. So, after we watch a debate like last night, we just think, what would people be talking about? What would they be wondering about?

    So, we fact-check statements about immigration, about ISIS, about national security. Those were the topics from this week.


    And what kind of feedback do you get from viewers, readers, or candidates?


    We get a lot of reader feedback that is thanking us for checking the facts. And then we get reader feedback that says, oh, you're biased against the candidate that I like.

    So, we get both.


    Both of them. Well, if you're getting them both, then you're probably somewhere right in the middle.

    Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact, thanks again.


    Thanks for having me.

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