Fact check: Trump spreads distortions at Davos
Washington – On a rarefied world stage in the Swiss Alps, President Donald Trump cited accomplishments on clean air that aren’t real, a level of economic progress he hasn’t achieved and a blue-collar boom yet to be seen.
His preening performance at the Davos economic conference was rife with distortion.
A sampling of his remarks:
TRUMP, on historically black colleges and universities: “I saved HBCUs. We saved them. They were going out and we saved them.”
THE FACTS: That’s a big stretch.
Trump signed a law in December restoring money that lapsed for several months when Congress failed to reauthorize some $255 million in financing on time. The money came back because Senate education leaders reached a compromise on a broader dispute that had entangled financing for black schools.
Neither the lapse nor the restoration was directly tied in any way to the Trump administration.
The Trump administration generally has supported historically black colleges, as previous administrations have done, and it’s true that such schools have faced financial struggles and some have closed. The Trump administration has expanded access to federal support for black schools with religious affiliations and in 2018 forgave federal loans given to several of them after hurricanes.
But this segment of university education was not vanishing and Trump is not its savior.
TRUMP: “This is a blue-collar boom. Since my election, the net worth of the bottom half of wage earners has increased by plus-47% – three times faster than the increase for the top 1%.”
THE FACTS: It isn’t a boom for blue-collar workers.
They haven’t done much better than everyone else, and some of their gains under Trump have faded in the past year as his trade war hurt manufacturing. The mining and logging industry, for example, which includes oil and gas workers, lost 21,000 jobs last year. Manufacturers have added just 9,000 jobs in the past six months, while the economy as a whole gained more than 1.1 million jobs during that period.
The U.S. economy is still heavily oriented toward services. While factory jobs have grown, other jobs have grown faster, so manufacturing has slightly shrunk as a proportion of the work force since Trump took office.
He’s right that net worth among the bottom half has risen, but from such a low base that no boom can be claimed. The Federal Reserve says the bottom half has just 1.6% of the nation’s wealth, up from 1.1% when Trump took office. That’s down from 2.1% in 2006.
TRUMP: “For the first time in decades we are no longer simply concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. We are concentrating and creating the most inclusive economy to ever exist.”
THE FACTS: That’s not true. Wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a few: The richest 1% of Americans own 32% of the nation’s wealth, about the same as in early 2017 when the president was inaugurated. The middle-class share – defined by the Fed as those from the exact middle of the wealth distribution up to the top 10% – remains at about 29%. This, despite the slight gains of the bottom half.
The percentage of Americans who own their own homes, a key source of wealth-building, has improved modestly under Trump but remains below the level seen as recently as 2013.
TRUMP: “We have the greatest economy we’ve ever had in the history of our country. And I’m in Europe today because we’re bringing a lot of other companies into our country with thousands of jobs – millions of jobs, in many cases. ”
THE FACTS: His persistent depiction of the U.S. economy as the greatest ever is false. As for jobs pouring into the country, investment by foreign companies has slumped under Trump, according to a report by the Organization for International Investment, a Washington-based association that represents foreign businesses.
Foreign companies directly invested $268 billion into the U.S. economy in 2018, a decrease of nearly $220 billion from its record-breaking level in 2016 when Barack Obama was still president.
On the broader picture, economic growth under Trump is not nearly the greatest ever.
In the late 1990s, growth topped 4% for four straight years, a level it has not reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth reached 7.2% in 1984. The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 – the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama – and hasn’t hit historically high growth rates.
The unemployment rate is at a 50-year low of 3.5%, but the proportion of Americans with a job was higher in the late 1990s. Wages were rising at a faster pace back then, too.
This much is true: The Obama-Trump years have yielded the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. But not the greatest.
Air & Water
TRUMP: “I’m proud to report the United States has among the cleanest air and drinking water on Earth – and we’re going to keep it that way. And we just came out with a report that, at this moment, it’s the cleanest it’s been in the last 40 years.”
THE FACTS: No, air quality has worsened under the Trump administration. And it’s a stretch to say the U.S. is among the countries with the cleanest air. Dozens of nations have less smoggy air.
In the U.S. and other countries, air is better than it was during the days of full-on coal power, leaded gasoline and belching smokestacks, before the advent of modern pollution regulation decades ago. But by multiple measures, air quality has deteriorated in the last few years.
The Environmental Protection Agency declined to identify what new report Trump might be talking about, referring the question to the White House, which did not answer.
Trump made the claim after he proposed this month the latest enforcement rollbacks for the bedrock environmental acts credited with beginning that clean-up of U.S. air and water a half-century ago.
As to water quality, one measure, Yale University’s global Environmental Performance Index, finds the U.S. tied with nine other countries as having the cleanest drinking water.
But after decades of improvement, progress in air quality has stalled.
There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America in 2017 and 2018 than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when the U.S had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980, according to an AP analysis of EPA data.
A recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that deadly air particle pollution increased 5.5% in the United States between 2016 and 2018 after declining by 24.2% from 2009 to 2016.
The Obama administration set records for the fewest air-polluted days.
Trump’s most recent proposals for rolling back environmental regulations include greatly cutting back on a decades-old requirement that federal agencies consider whether a big construction project would hurt the environment before they approve it. He’s also proposing to pull back restrictions on major sources of air and water pollution, like coal-fired power plants and autos.
TRUMP: “Just last week alone, the United States concluded two extraordinary trade deals – the agreement with China and the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement – the two biggest trade deals ever made.”
THE FACTS: No, there have been larger trade deals.
For instance, 123 countries signed the Uruguay Round agreement that liberalized trade and produced the World Trade Organization in 1994. The organization’s initial membership accounted for more than 90% of global economic output, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found, and that was before China joined the organization.
Also bigger: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have joined North America with Pacific Rim countries in freer trade. Trump took the U.S. out after the deal was negotiated and before the U.S. ratified it. The European Union, with its liberalized trade regimen, was itself formed from a giant deal.
The China deal leaves tariffs in place on about $360 billion in imports from China and pushes substantial remaining disputes ahead to a second phase of negotiations. Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement is much larger, though it’s an update of the long-standing North American Free Trade Agreement worked out by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
TRUMP: “Real median household income is at the highest level ever recorded.”
THE FACTS: Not really, but it would be misleading even if it were true. Real median household income in 2018 matched the previous high of $63,200 first reached in 1999. That’s according to adjusted figures the Census Bureau released to account for changes in its surveys over time.
Trump is presumably referring to an unadjusted number that does show the 2018 figure as the highest on record. Either way, what the data show is that income for the median household – the one at the exact middle of the income distribution – essentially stagnated for nearly 20 years. The Census data also show that household income fell sharply after the Great Recession, then began rebounding in 2015, before Trump took office.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Davos, Switzerland, Hope Yen, Ellen Knickmeyer and Cal Woodward in Washington and Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed to this report.