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Politics What it's been like fact-checking Joe Biden through 100 days

16:10  02 may  2021
16:10  02 may  2021 Source:   cnn.com

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Things have been quieter around here in presidential-fact-check land.

a man in a suit and tie: US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at an event marking Amtrack's 50th Anniversary at the William H. Gray III 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 30, 2021. © OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at an event marking Amtrack's 50th Anniversary at the William H. Gray III 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 30, 2021.

Not because President Joe Biden is accurate all the time. He certainly isn't.

But through his first 100 days in the Oval Office, Biden has given us intermittent false claims rather than the staggering avalanche of daily wrongness we faced from his predecessor.

By CNN's rough count, Biden has made 29 total false claims in his first 100 days, about one every three-and-a-half days on average. That's not cause for celebration. But I counted 214 false claims from Trump over his own first 100 days in office, more than two per day on average -- and that was a very slow Trump period compared to what came later. Trump averaged about eight false claims per day in the full year I tracked as a CNN reporter, from August 2019 through July 2020.

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Trump was a distinctively prolific liar, so it's neither a surprise nor a compliment to note that his successor has been far more accurate than he was. And Biden also just talks much less in public than Trump did. According to data provided to CNN by Factba.se, a website that tracks presidential utterances, Biden said about 28% fewer public words than Trump through April 29 of their respective terms.

When Biden does make public remarks, he is much more likely to be reading from a prepared text than the famously freewheeling Trump was. Biden's prepared texts have been quite factual.

Then, of course, there is the Twitter gap. Trump used the social media service to deliver off-the-cuff and oft-inaccurate boasts and attacks. Biden prefers to post conventionally presidential messages, a large number of which do not contain checkable claims of any kind.

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False ad-libbed numbers

When Biden has made false claims, he has tended to be ad-libbing rather than reading a text. And he has often been ad-libbing about some sort of statistic.

At a CNN town hall in February, for example, Biden claimed that the majority of undocumented immigrants in the US are not Hispanic (experts put the actual figure at two-thirds or more Hispanic), that China has more retired people than working people (it has hundreds of millions more working people than retired people), that community health centers would be sent one million Covid-19 vaccine doses a week (the plan was to send one million in the "initial phase" of the program, not every week), and that the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage would be $20 per hour today if it had been linked to inflation upon its creation (Biden was not even close -- the White House said Biden got mixed up with another statistic).

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At a press conference in March, Biden claimed the US was sending back "the vast majority of families" who arrived at the southern border. While the US was indeed expelling the majority of all migrants encountered at the border, it was sending back less than half of the families in particular.

In a March interview with ABC News, during which Biden got three statistics wrong, he claimed "all" of the tax breaks from his pandemic relief law would go to the bottom 60%. The think tank estimate he was referring to actually said that about 67% of the tax benefits, not "all" of the benefits, would go to the bottom 60%.

Wrong on two hot-button issues


Video: Analyzing the media's coverage of Biden's first 100 days (CNN Money)

Biden's false claims have not been limited to numbers.

In late March and early April, Biden weighed in on the hot-button issue of the new Georgia elections law. And he either deceived or didn't have his facts straight -- wrongly suggesting that the law requires polling places to close at 5 p.m. (You can read a detailed fact check here.) While the new law does reduce voter access in other ways, Biden gave the law's supporters ammunition to argue that the law's opponents were being dishonest.

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In an April speech on another delicate issue, Biden's push for additional gun control measures, he exaggerated about gun manufacturers' immunity from lawsuits, claiming that the gun industry is the only big industry that "can't be sued." While gun manufacturers are shielded from liability over the unlawful use of guns, they can and have been sued for other reasons, such as negligence and their marketing practices. And vaccine manufacturers also have significant liability protections.

Inaccuracies when jabbing at Trump

Biden has sometimes been inaccurate in his attempt to favorably compare himself to Trump.

Talking about Covid-19, Biden said in March, "A year ago, we were hit with a virus that was met with silence and spread unchecked." Trump's early rhetoric on the virus was deceptive, but "silence" is not true. (Biden didn't specify that it was the Trump team that supposedly met the virus with silence, but that was his clear suggestion.)

Biden claimed twice that Trump "eliminated" the Obama administration's funding for Central America. While annual aid funding for Central America did decline under Trump, and while Trump did temporarily suspend aid in 2019, "eliminated" is an exaggeration.

As the Washington Post and New York Times noted, Biden also exaggerated the extent to which the Trump-era federal government awarded contracts to foreign companies.

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And Biden has repeatedly claimed that Trump signed a tax law that gave 83% of the benefits to the top 1%. In reality, that 83% figure is a think tank's estimate for what would happen in 2027 if the law's corporate tax cuts remained in place but its individual tax cuts expired as scheduled after 2025. Between 2018 and 2025, conversely, the think tank estimated that the top 1% would get between 20.5% and 25.3% of the benefits.

We wouldn't call the "83%" claim flat false -- depending on how Biden has said it, it has been misleading or lacking context -- but it's worth noting that there's more to the story than Biden keeps suggesting.

Needless exaggerations

Some of Biden's false claims have been needless exaggerations.

Boasting of how well he knows Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden claimed three times in office that he has traveled 17,000 miles or more than 17,000 miles "with" Xi. As the Washington Post first noted, that number is nowhere close to accurate. Biden could have accurately made the same point by saying he has spent a lot of time with Xi.

Before Biden visited wounded members of the military at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in January, he claimed to reporters that, as vice president, he had visited the facility "every single Christmas." In fact, there is evidence that he went on five of the eight Christmases; he could've demonstrated his commitment to the troops just as well by saying that.

In an impassioned flourish at the CNN town hall in February, Biden claimed the US spends almost $9 billion on a tax break "for people who own racehorses." Experts have no idea where Biden got that figure for this tax break, and the White House declined to explain.

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Course corrections

Unlike the Trump White House, Biden's team has often appeared receptive to fact-checking -- and sometimes have appeared responsive to it.

In my first fact check of Biden's presidency, in January, I noted Biden was wrong when he told reporters that when he initially announced his goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days, "you all said it's not possible." Biden switched to softer, accurate language in subsequent comments on the subject -- saying in March, for example, that his goal was initially "considered ambitious" and that "some even suggested it was somewhat audacious."

In April, I pointed out that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and another Biden administration official had been wrong when they claimed Moody's Analytics expected Biden's infrastructure plan to create 19 million jobs; in reality, Moody's credited the infrastructure plan with about 2.7 million of the 19 million additional jobs it discussed in its forecast. I noted that Biden's own description of the "19 million" figure had been technically accurate but still pretty misleading.

And then something interesting happened. When Buttigieg was challenged on television about his inaccurate figure, he acknowledged his error and correctly explained the nuances of the Moody's analysis. And Biden and the White House stopped proactively deploying the "19 million" figure at all -- even in the narrowly correct form Biden had initially used it.

We aren't throwing a party for the Biden team here; it would have been better if the administration hadn't gotten it wrong in the first place. But after four years dealing with a Trump White House that appeared not to care about fact-checking at all, the Biden White House's response was a welcome development.

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