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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking Trump’s Press Conference

Donald Trump’s recent press conference garnered a lot of media attention for his put downs of two high-profile journalists, but he didn’t treat the facts much better:

  • Trump claimed “59 percent of our bridges are in trouble.” That’s way off. The Federal Highway Administration says 24 percent of the nation’s bridges were “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” in 2014.
  • Trump said a recent poll in Florida showed him at 28 percent and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, “much lower.” Bush wasn’t that much lower. The most recent poll, released Aug. 20 by Quinnipiac University, showed Trump at 21 percent and Bush at 17 percent in Florida.
  • Trump said under Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker the state is “borrowing to a point that nobody thought possible.” Actually, the rate of borrowing has slowed under Walker. It was 5.8 percent over his first four years in office compared with 31 percent over the previous four-year period.
  • Trump said the U.S. debt is $19 trillion, adding “it’s actually much more than that.” Actually, it’s a little less — $18.2 trillion — and that includes money the federal government owes itself. The U.S. debt held by the public is $13.1 trillion.

Trump’s Aug. 25 press conference in Iowa was marked by a confrontation with Emmy Award winning TV host Jorge Ramos of Univision that made news and generated punch lines. Ramos was kicked out of the press conference after he asked a question without being called on and refused to “sit down,” as instructed by Trump.

Trump also had some cross words for Fox News TV anchor Megyn Kelly that made headlines, continuing a feud with the TV news star that began at the first Republican debate.

But what about the facts? Our review found Trump swung wildly — and missed — on more than one occasion.

Bridges in ‘Serious Trouble’

Trump, Aug. 25: Our bridges, 59 percent of our bridges are in trouble. Think — whoever heard of that? I mean, in trouble. Serious trouble.

Whoever heard of that? Not the Federal Highway Administration. The agency annually produces a report on the state of the nation’s bridges. The FHWA’s most recent report found 61,365 bridges were “structurally deficient” and 84,525 were “functionally obsolete” in 2014. That’s a total of 145,890 “deficient bridges,” or 24 percent, of the 610,749 bridges in the U.S.

Functionally obsolete, by the way, doesn’t mean the bridge is unsafe. “A Functionally Obsolete bridge may be perfectly safe and structurally sound, but may be the source of traffic jams or may not have a high enough clearance to allow an oversized vehicle,” according to National Bridges, a website that tracks the conditions of U.S. bridges.

We don’t mean to minimize the number of bridges in need of replacement, repair or other attention, but the number is simply not as high as Trump says. Where did he get the figure 59 percent? We don’t know. His campaign did not respond to our questions. If it does, we will update this item.

Trump vs. Bush

At one point in the press conference, Trump is asked about polls in Wisconsin that show he is trailing the state’s governor, Scott Walker. Trump deflected the question and talked instead about Florida, which has two candidates in the Republican field: former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Trump, Aug. 25: I haven’t been thinking about Wisconsin right now and Governor Walker certainly has been. I don’t know what the poll is. I know this, in Florida, they just came out with a poll and I’m at 28 and Bush is much lower and Senator Rubio who is a sitting senator is much, much lower.

The latest poll does show that Trump has pulled ahead of both Floridians in their home state. A Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 20 put Trump at 21 percent and Bush at 17 percent. Rubio was at 11 percent. But Trump’s four-point lead is within the margin of error, so to say that Bush is “much lower” is wrong.

Real Clear Politics, which aggregates polling data, says Trump’s polling average in Florida, as of Aug. 27, was 24 percent. Bush’s average was 21.5 percent, and Rubio’s was 9 percent.

Trump vs. Walker

Trump also took a swipe at Walker’s fiscal management of Wisconsin. He repeated the false claim that Wisconsin has a $2.2 billion budget deficit. As we wrote once before, state fiscal officials projected a $2.2 billion budget shortfall based on state agency budget requests. But those requests were trimmed back, and Walker signed a balanced budget into law.

After claiming the state has a budget deficit, Trump added this: “They are borrowing to a point that nobody thought possible.” Actually, the state’s total outstanding debt has grown at a far lower rate under Walker than under previous governors.

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau, which supplies budget data and analyses for the Legislature, gave us a chart labeled “Outstanding Principal on State Bonding Programs” for 1996 through 2014. The debt figures are all as of the month of December.

The historical data show that total outstanding state debt has increased slightly from $13.2 billion in December 2010, a month before Walker took office, to $14 billion in December 2014, which is the most recent data available. That’s a 5.8 percent increase, or a little less than 1.5 percent per year.

By comparison, in the previous four-year period, from December 2006 to December 2010, the state’s outstanding principal increased 31 percent, from $10.1 billion in December 2006 to $13.2 billion in December 2010. The rate of increase was even higher the prior four-year period, from December 2002 to December 2006, when the state’s total debt rose from $6.6 billion to $10.1 billion.

(Wonky note: The historical data chart transposed two numbers for December 2014. The bureau tells us that the accurate number can be found in the January 2015 report on State Level Debt Issuance, which we used for the calculations above.)

U.S. Debt

Trump also criticized the size of the U.S. debt, which is indeed large. “We owe now $19 trillion. It’s actually much more than that but it’s $19 trillion,” he said.

Actually, the total U.S. debt is a little less than $19 trillion — $18.2 trillion — not “much more.” And that includes money the federal government owes itself, such as special Treasury securities held by the Social Security Trust Fund.

The U.S. debt held by the public is $13.1 trillion, according to the U.S. Treasury.

— Eugene Kiely