Fact check: Trump on the wall, drugs, Russia, vets
Washington – It was a week of half-truths, changed stories and outright fabrications in President Donald Trump’s Washington.
Trump assailed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for playing on the beach in Puerto Rico, though she never went. His vice president echoed Trump’s declaration of victory against the Islamic State group despite a deadly suicide bombing for which the militants claimed responsibility. Trump overstated what he’s done for veterans.
A look at some of the rhetoric from Trump and his team as the president faced intensifying pressure over the partial government shutdown and scrutiny from Democrats over his dealings with Russia:
TRUMP: “If we build a powerful and fully designed see-through steel barrier on our southern border, the crime rate and drug problem in our country would be quickly and greatly reduced. Some say it could be cut in half.” – remarks from White House on Saturday.
TRUMP, on the virtues of a wall: “We can stop heroin.” – White House remarks Saturday.
THE FACTS: His comments fly in the face of findings by his government about how drugs get into the county. Drugs from Mexico are primarily smuggled into the U.S. at official border crossings, not remote lands that can be walled off. His proposal Saturday to end the government shutdown implicitly recognizes that reality by proposing money to improve drug-detection technology specifically at land ports of entry.
Even so, Trump pitched a wall as a solution to drugs and crime.
The Drug Enforcement Administration says “only a small percentage” of heroin seized by U.S. authorities comes across on territory between ports of entry. It says the same is true of drugs overall.
Even if a wall could stop all drugs from Mexico, America’s drug problem would be far from over. For example, the government says about 40 percent of opioid deaths in 2016 involved prescription painkillers, made by pharmaceutical companies. Some feed the addiction of people who have prescriptions; others are stolen and sold on the black market. Moreover, illicit versions of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have come to the U.S. from China.
On crime, many researchers have found that people in the U.S. illegally are less likely to commit violence than U.S. citizens.
TRUMP: “Nancy Pelosi’s in Hawaii over the holidays, now she’s in Puerto Rico with a bunch of Democrats and lobbyists, you know, enjoying the sun and partying down there.” – Fox News interview on Jan. 12.
TRUMP: “I’d rather see the Democrats come back from their vacation and act. … I’m in the White House, and most of them are in different locations. They’re watching a certain musical in a very nice location.” – Fox News interview.
TRUMP: “A lot of the Democrats were in Puerto Rico celebrating something. I don’t know, maybe they’re celebrating the shutdown.” – comments Monday.
THE FACTS: Far from “enjoying the sun” in Puerto Rico, Pelosi stayed in Washington, which got a big snowfall. She spent that weekend working at the Capitol, said Drew Hammill, her deputy chief of staff.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer did not go to Puerto Rico, either. The senator from New York spent that weekend in New York, said spokesman Justin Goodman.
Most Democratic lawmakers were somewhere other than Puerto Rico. Most who went are members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They attended the annual winter retreat of the caucus’s political and fundraising arm.
Some attended “Hamilton” as the musical opened a two-week run in Puerto Rico expected to raise millions of dollars for artists and cultural groups struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Referring to Democrats at the fundraising performance in his Fox News interview, Trump called it “frankly, ridiculous.”
During the trip, lawmakers indeed met political contributors but also made several visits to local and federal institutions, said Marieli Padro, spokeswoman for Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez. Last Saturday, a small group visited the veterans’ hospital to learn about its needs post-hurricane, while another group met U.S. Coast Guard officials.
Trump is correct that Pelosi visited Hawaii over the Christmas holiday.
KEVIN HASSETT, Trump economic adviser: “You know as soon as it’s resolved, then people get their paychecks and the government will go back to acting normal and the economy will go back to the 3 percent growth that President Trump’s policies have delivered.” – interview Tuesday with Fox Business Network.
THE FACTS: It’s true the economy probably will get a boost once the shutdown ends, but few independent economists think that boost will be sustained. The economy is facing other headwinds that make it unlikely growth will return to 2018’s pace. Before the shutdown, most independent economists already were forecasting that growth would slow this year as the impact of President Trump’s tax credit fades and trade tensions and slowing global growth take a toll.
Even if the government shutdown ends up being a wash in economic terms, with strong growth in the second quarter offsetting weakness in the first, the economy is likely to be weaker this year than last. Scott Anderson, an economist at Bank of the West, expects last year’s stock market drop will cause many wealthier households to pull back on spending, a drag on growth this year.
He’s not alone. A group of 15 economists at major U.S. banks earlier this month projected that growth would slow to just a 2.1 percent pace in 2019, down from roughly 3 percent in 2018.
The economy’s current health is difficult to gauge because the partial shutdown means many economic statistics aren’t being released. Recent signs are mixed: The job market is strong, with few layoffs in sight, and manufacturing output rose in December. But higher interest rates have also caused home prices and sales to fall.
TRUMP: “We need strong barriers and walls. Nothing else is going to work.” – remarks Thursday at the Pentagon.
TRUMP: “You can have all the people you want dressed in military. You can have ICE. You can have Border Patrol. If you don’t have that barrier, there’s not a thing you can do. You know, they all say, ‘We like technology.’ I like technology, too. But we can have all the drones in the world flying around; we can have all the sensors in the world, but if you don’t have a strong steel or concrete barrier, there’s no way you’re going to stop these people from rushing.” – remarks Monday in New Orleans.
THE FACTS: The evidence is inconclusive on the effectiveness of border walls or other barriers.
Congress’ main watchdog reported in 2017 that the government does not have a way to measure how well barriers work to deter immigrants crossing illegally from Mexico. Despite $2.3 billion spent by the government on such construction from 2007 to 2015, the Government Accountability Office found that authorities “cannot measure the contribution of fencing to border security operations along the southwest border because it has not developed metrics for this assessment.”
Few people dispute that fences contributed to a sharp drop in crossings in cities such as San Diego and El Paso, Texas. Before fences were built in San Diego, crossers played soccer on U.S. soil as vendors hawked tamales, waiting until night fell to overwhelm agents. But those barriers also pushed people into more remote and less-patrolled areas such as in Arizona, where thousands of migrants have perished in extreme heat.
When barriers were built in the Border Patrol’s Yuma, Arizona, sector in the mid-2000s, arrests for illegal crossings plummeted 94 percent in three years to 8,363 from 138,438. When barriers were built in San Diego in the 1990s and early 2000s, arrests fell 80 percent over seven years from 524,231 in 1995 to 100,681 in 2002. But both areas also saw sharp increases in Border Patrol staffing during that time, making it difficult to pinpoint why illegal crossings fell so dramatically.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: “The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.” – remarks Wednesday at State Department.
THE FACTS: Pence’s remark followed the deadly suicide bombing claimed by IS, which demonstrated the extremist group, however weakened, has not been vanquished. The bombing underscored Pentagon assertions that IS is still a threat and capable of deadly attacks.
The attack killed at least 16 people in Syria, including two U.S. service members and two American civilians. It was the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.
A tweet Wednesday morning by Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, indicated the vice president had been briefed on the attacks before he delivered his remarks claiming the defeat of IS. Pence later released a statement acknowledging the fatalities and IS “remnants” but reaffirming Trump’s plan to withdraw troops.
“We will never allow the remnants of ISIS to re-establish their evil and murderous caliphate,” he said.
Trump, in a Dec. 19 tweet, announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. He said: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” He said the troops would begin coming home “now.” That plan triggered immediate pushback from military leaders and the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Over the past month, however, Trump and others have appeared to adjust the timeline, and U.S. officials have suggested it will probably take several months to withdraw American forces from Syria safely.
RUDY GIULIANI: Trump’s lawyer: “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign (and Russia).” – interview Wednesday with CNN.
THE FACTS: Actually, he did deny in the past that there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians.
Asked by Fox News in July if that was his position, he said, “Correct.” Giuliani has previously called the idea of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia “total fake news.” “No collusion,” he also said.
Giuliani continued to deny that Trump himself was involved any collusion, whatever others in his campaign may or may not have done.
He sought to clarify his remarks after, saying he had no knowledge of collusion “by any of the thousands of people who worked on the campaign.”
Evidence so far points to a broad range of Trump associates who had Russia-related contacts during the 2016 presidential campaign and transition period, and some have been caught lying about it.
TRUMP: “Just announced that Veterans unemployment has reached an 18 year low, really good news for our Vets and their families. Will soon be an all time low! Do you think the media will report on this and all of the other great economic news? – tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Trump is wrong in terms of up-to-date monthly data, right when measuring veterans’ unemployment over a longer term.
It is true that the average veterans’ unemployment rate for 2018 was 3.5 percent, the lowest annual figure since 2000, when it was 2.9 percent.
On a monthly basis, the rate is more volatile. The lowest vets’ unemployment rate under Trump was 2.7 percent in October 2017, and it has risen a bit since then to 3.2 percent in December, the latest data available. In the 18 years that the government has tracked veterans’ unemployment data, the lowest monthly rate was 2.3 percent in May 2000.
Veterans’ unemployment has fallen mostly for the same reasons that joblessness has dropped generally: strong hiring and steady economic growth for the past eight years.
TRUMP: “We got Veterans Choice. We got Veterans Choice approved, which is pretty amazing. They’ve been trying to get that for years and years – decades and decades.” – remarks Monday in New Orleans.
THE FACTS: No, he is not the first president in “decades and decades” to get Congress to pass a private-sector health program for veterans. Congress first approved the Veterans Choice program in 2014 during the Obama administration.
The program was approved after some veterans died while waiting months for appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center. It allows veterans to see doctors outside the VA system if they must wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility.
Trump did sign legislation in June to expand the Choice program, part of his campaign promise to give veterans greater access to private care at government expense. The exact scope of that new program will be subject to yet-to-be-completed rules that will determine veterans’ eligibility as well as federal funding. The VA has yet to resolve long-term financing due to congressional budget caps that could put money for VA or other domestic programs at risk later this year.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Christopher Rugaber in Washington and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.