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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the CNN Republican Debate

The candidates flubbed claims on vaccines, immigration, Hillary Clinton and more.


The Republican presidential candidates met for their second debate on Sept. 16, this one hosted by CNN at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California. We found they strayed from the facts on numerous issues, including:

  • Donald Trump told a story linking vaccination to autism, but there’s no evidence that recommended vaccines cause autism. And Sen. Rand Paul suggested that it would be safer to spread out recommended vaccines, but there’s no evidence of that, either.
  • Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Trump donated to his gubernatorial campaign to get him to change his mind on casino gambling in Florida. But Trump denied he ever wanted to bring casino gambling to the state. A former lobbyist says he did.
  • Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that Hillary Clinton was “under investigation by the FBI” because she “destroyed government records.” Not true. She had the authority to delete personal emails.
  • Trump said that “illegal immigration” cost “more than $200 billion a year.” We couldn’t find any support for that. Actually, it could cost taxpayers $137 billion or more to deport the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, as Trump proposes.
  • Trump again wrongly said that Mexico doesn’t have a birthright citizenship policy like the United States. It does.
  • Carly Fiorina said that the Planned Parenthood videos released by an anti-abortion group showed “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” But that scene isn’t in any of the videos.
  • Fiorina repeated familiar boasts about her time at Hewlett-Packard, saying the size of the company “doubled,” without mentioning that was due to a merger with Compaq, and she cherry-picked other statistics.
  • Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said that U.S. policies to combat climate change would “do absolutely nothing.” The U.S. acting alone would have a small effect on rising temperatures and sea levels, and experts say U.S. leadership on the issue would prompt other nations to act.
  • In the “happy hour” debate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham glossed over the accompanying tax increases when he said only that Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill “found a way to save Social Security from bankruptcy by adjusting the age of retirement from 65 to 67.”


Wrong on Vaccines

Several candidates made false or misleading statements about vaccines. Donald Trump told a brief story linking vaccination to autism, but there is no evidence that recommended vaccines cause autism.

Trump: Just the other day, 2 years old, 2 and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.

The fact is, the link between childhood vaccinations and autism has no scientific basis — a point that was made by one of Trump’s rivals, Dr. Ben Carson, who said “there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism.”

A link was first suggested by a paper published in 1998 in the journal The Lancet and retracted in 2010. Its author, Andrew Wakefield, had his medical license in the United Kingdom stripped. In fact, an investigation by the British Medical Journal found that Wakefield perpetrated an “elaborate fraud.”

Many studies have since examined a potential link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, on which Wakefield’s paper focused, and found no such connection. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine released a report summarizing vaccine safety in general, and found sufficient evidence to reject the link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Trump began his point by saying that “[a]utism has become an epidemic.” Though diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders has indeed risen, recent research has pinned the blame for this on changes to diagnostic and reporting criteria, and not to vaccines or any other medical therapy.

We covered related vaccine issues in February, when Sen. Rand Paul claimed that he had heard of “many” children that developed “profound mental disorders” after receiving vaccinations. Paul, a physician by training, again erred on vaccine science during the debate. Paul, Trump and Carson said that vaccines should be spread out more or that parents should have a choice to do so, suggesting it would be safer.

Paul: So I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom. I’m also a little concerned about how they’re bunched up. My kids had all of their vaccines, and even if the science doesn’t say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread out my vaccines out a little bit at the very least.

Paul is right that “the science doesn’t say” this is an issue. There is no evidence that the vaccine schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually raises risk of any complications. Earlier this year, University of California professor of pediatrics and vaccine expert James Cherry told us this idea of spreading out vaccines is “stupid. … [T]hat will allow these illnesses to occur.”

Several studies have addressed this issue. One found that there is no increased risk of autism spectrum disorders with increasing exposure to the compounds in vaccines. Another found that there were no adverse neuropsychological effects in children who were vaccinated according to the CDC schedule, and in fact those who had delayed vaccinations performed worse on some measures. Another, similarly, found that delaying the MMR vaccine increased the risk of seizures.

Trump’s Bid for Florida Casinos

In a spirited back and forth between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Trump, Bush claimed that Trump donated generously to his campaign for governor in order to get Bush to change his mind about casino gambling in Florida. Trump did not contest that he had raised money for Bush, but denied that he ever tried to get casino gambling in Florida. A former state Senate president once testified that Trump did.

“The one guy that had some special interests that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something — that was generous and gave me money — was Donald Trump,” Bush said in the debate. “He wanted casino gambling in Florida.”

“I didn’t,” Trump said.

“Yes you did,” Bush said.

“Totally false,” Trump said.

“You wanted it and you didn’t get it because I was opposed to casino gambling before during and after,” Bush said. “And that’s not — I’m not going to be bought by anybody.”

Had he wanted it, Trump said, “I promise I would have gotten it.”

Bush reiterated the point moments later, saying, “When he asked Florida to have casino gambling, we said no.”

“Wrong,” Trump interjected.

“We said no. And that’s the simple fact. The simple fact is –” Bush said.

“Don’t make things up. Jeb, don’t make things up. Come on,” Trump said.

Despite Trump’s protestations, CNN reported on Sept. 1 that in the late 1990s, Trump had hoped to build a multimillion dollar casino with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. In 2005, Bloomberg Business reported that a former state Senate president, Mallory E. Horne, was hired by Trump to lobby to increase the types of gambling allowed in the state, something Bush opposed. In a court affidavit obtained by Bloomberg, Horne testified that after Bush’s election in 1998, he told Trump that state officials wouldn’t budge on the issue and Trump replied, “That’s the end of it.”

CNN noted that Trump hosted a fundraiser for Bush’s gubernatorial campaign in 1997, and that he donated $50,000 to the Florida Republican Party in 1998, all at the time Trump was pursuing the casino project. CNN added, however, that it was “not clear that Trump’s political contributions were aimed at needling Bush and Republican lawmakers toward a more flexible posture toward the gaming industry.” And a Bush aide told CNN that Trump did not personally lobby Bush on the gambling issue. So whether Trump’s fundraising efforts were an attempt to change Bush’s mind on casino gambling cannot be settled definitively. But Trump’s denial that he was ever interested in bringing casino gambling to Florida is contradicted in a legal affidavit by a former Senate president who says he was hired by Trump to do just that.

Huckabee on Clinton Emails

At the outset of the debate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made an inaccurate remark about an ongoing investigation into Hillary Clinton’s personal server and her use of a personal email account while secretary of state.

Huckabee made his comment while favorably comparing the Republican candidates to the top two candidates for the Democratic nomination, Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Huckabee: None of us are a self-professed socialist. None of us on this stage are under investigation by the FBI because we destroyed government records, or because we leaked secrets.

Clinton is not being investigated because she “destroyed government records.” As we have written, Clinton had more than 60,000 emails on her personal server, and she determined about half of them were work related. So she turned them over to the State Department at the department’s request. She deleted the rest, which she described as personal. But the Justice Department said in a recent court filing that she had the authority to delete personal emails.

In a Sept. 11 story, the New York Times quoted from the court filing: “There is no question that former Secretary Clinton had authority to delete personal emails without agency supervision — she appropriately could have done so even if she were working on a government server,” the filing said. “Under policies issued both by the National Archives and Records Administration and the State Department, individual officers and employees are permitted and expected to exercise judgment to determine what constitutes a federal record.”

Huckabee is referring to a “security referral” that was made to the Justice Department by I. Charles McCullough III, the inspector general for the intelligence community, after he discovered that some of Clinton’s emails contained unmarked classified material. The inspector general stressed that it was not a “criminal referral.” The referral was made to determine if there were any “potential compromises of national security information,” McCullough said.

Trump’s $200 Billion Immigration Claim

Trump twice made an unsupported claim that the cost of unauthorized immigration is $200 billion annually:

Trump: I will say this. Illegal immigration is costing us more than $200 billion a year just to maintain what we have.

And again a few minutes later:

Trump: As I said, we are spending $200 billion — we are spending $200 billion a year on maintaining what we have.

We cannot find any support for Trump’s claim. Quite the opposite, it could cost taxpayers $137 billion or more to do what Trump proposes: deport all of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are currently in the U.S. illegally, based on the current $12,500 cost of deporting a single individual.

Back in 2009, we debunked a false but widely circulated chain email claiming that those here illegally cost exactly $338.3 billion annually. That was clearly wrong — the cited numbers didn’t even add up to the claimed total.

The most extreme estimate we found was a 2010 study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbies for less immigration. It estimated that the net cost of illegal immigration on the federal and state and local levels was $99 billion a year — half the sum Trump claimed.

A more neutral source is a 2007 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which examined 29 reports on state and local costs published over 15 years and concluded that while it is “difficult to obtain precise estimates of the net impact of the unauthorized population on state and local budgets,” the impact “is most likely modest.”

CBO didn’t put a number on such costs nationwide, saying: “No agreement exists as to the size of, or even the best way of measuring, that cost on a national level.”

And it should be noted that these are estimates for costs of keeping the status quo. Granting legal status to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally potentially would bring some benefits to the economy, such as increasing the workforce and the number of taxpayers.

In 2013 the CBO estimated that a bipartisan bill to do just that for many who lack legal status — which passed the Senate by a vote of 68 to 32 only to die in the House — would have boosted economic output by 3.3 percent in 2023 and by 5.4 percent in 2033, compared with current projections.

Taking that into consideration, CBO estimated that “the legislation would decrease federal budget deficits by $197 billion over the 2014–2023 period and by roughly $700 billion over the 2024–2033 period.” That’s the opposite of what Trump claimed.

Trump on Birthright Citizenship

Asked about his opposition to birthright citizenship, Donald Trump repeated the incorrect assertion that Mexico does not have such a policy. It does.

Trump also said “almost every other country anywhere in the world doesn’t have” a birthright citizenship policy. While the majority of countries do not have such a policy, at least 30 of them do, including Canada and a number of other countries in Central and South America.

Trump argued that the 14th Amendment — which holds that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside” — does not guarantee birthright citizenship to immigrants in the country illegally.

“And by the way Mexico and almost every other country anywhere in the world doesn’t have that,” Trump said, referring to birthright citizenship. “We’re the only ones dumb enough, stupid enough to have it.”

As we noted when Trump made a similar claim at a rally in Alabama in August, the U.S. and Mexico use different terminologies, but the two countries’ policies are actually very similar. According to Article 30 of the Mexican Constitution, “The Mexican nationality” is acquired by birth if someone is born within Mexican territory, “whatever their parents’ nationality might be.”

Technically, according to the Mexican Constitution, people don’t become “citizens” of Mexico until they turn 18, at which point they can vote, be elected to public office and join the military. That’s true even of babies born in Mexico to Mexican parents.

As for Trump’s claim that “almost every other country anywhere in the world doesn’t have” a birthright citizenship policy, it’s true that America’s policy is in the minority in the international community.

According to a 2010 analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for lower immigration, at least 30 of the world’s 194 countries grant automatic birthright citizenship to the children of immigrants in the country illegally. The U.S. and Canada are the only ones among those 30 countries that have advanced economies as defined by the International Monetary Fund. Outside North America, most of the 30 countries that have birthright citizenship policies are in Central and South America. No country in Europe has such a policy.

Fiorina on Planned Parenthood

Carly Fiorina spoke out against Planned Parenthood regarding the controversial videos released over the last few months. The scene she described, though, does not exist in any of the videos.

Fiorina: I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.

We are aware of no video showing such a scene. The videos, released by the Center for Medical Progress beginning on July 14, have focused on fetal tissue being collected for research and have shown some aborted fetal tissue. As we wrote before, the use of donated fetal tissue has been important in several areas of scientific research.

Fiorina’s description matches up with one of the videos in a series the Center for Medical Progress has called “Human Capital” — but only with regard to how an interviewee describes her experience. Holly O’Donnell, an “ex-procurement technician” for StemExpress, a company that procures fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood clinics, relates a story of an intact fetus. She says that a Planned Parenthood doctor “taps the heart and it starts beating,” and then instructs her to remove its brain for collection.

The video does contain images of what appear to be intact fetuses, but they don’t fit Fiorina’s description. In one, where a fetus does appear to move, there is a caption saying that the footage is from the pro-life Grantham Collection and Center for Bio-Ethical Reform; there is no indication as to where the footage was shot. In the other, it was revealed after the video’s release that the image was of a stillborn baby, rather than an aborted fetus.

Though we cannot verify if part or all of O’Donnell’s story is true, the scene Fiorina “dares” others to watch is not present in any of the Planned Parenthood videos.

Trump on Polls

Trump boasted at one point that he is “number one in every polls (sic) by a lot.” Not in every poll, at least not lately.

Trump has held a double-digit lead in the national polls for several weeks, but a CBS News/New York Times poll released Sept. 15 shows Trump and Carson are in a virtual tie. Trump leads Carson by 4 percentage points, 27 to 23, but that is within the margin of error.

Also, Carson pulled even with Trump in Iowa, according to a Monmouth University Poll released Aug. 31.

Trump on Wisconsin Budget

In a sharp exchange between Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the billionaire businessman falsely claimed that Wisconsin under Walker has “a huge budget deficit.”

Trump: So, look, we brought it out, you were supposed to make a billion dollars in the state. You lost 2.2 — you have right now, a huge budget deficit. That’s not a Democratic point. That’s a point. That’s a fact.

That is not a fact.

As we have written before, Wisconsin had a projected $2.2 billion shortfall based on budget requests submitted by state agencies. But those budget requests were pared back, and Walker signed a two-year balanced budget into law on July 12. Wisconsin, like most states, requires that the governor submit and the Legislature pass a balanced budget.

Fiorina’s HP Boasts

Carly Fiorina repeated one of her standard talking points about her rocky tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina, who was fired in 2005 after nearly six years as head of the company, said, “[W]e doubled the size of the company, we quadrupled its topline growth rate, we quadrupled its cash flow, we tripled its rate of innovation.” She neglects to mention that the increase in revenue (or size) came after HP acquired Compaq and was accompanied by a decrease in net earnings. And she uses a different time frame to come up with a quadrupling of the growth rate and cash flow.

We wrote about these claims in May. Fiorina compares the fiscal 1999 revenue of $42.4 billion with the fiscal 2005 revenue of $86.7 billion, though fiscal 2004 ($80 billion) would better align with Fiorina’s time at the company. That’s close to a doubling. But a controversial merger with Compaq in May 2002 was a major reason for the increase.

HP’s revenue in 2001 was $45.2 billion and Compaq’s was $33.6 billion. In the first full fiscal year after the merger, 2003, HP’s revenue totaled $73 billion.

It’s worth noting that while revenues doubled, net earnings declined over Fiorina’s time at HP, from $3.1 billion in 1999 to $2.4 billion in 2005, the same time period Fiorina used for her claim on revenues.

Fiorina has repeatedly touted a quadrupling of the “growth rate,” specifically saying in the past that it went from 2 percent to 9 percent. She’s talking about revenue, but instead of using fiscal 1999 and 2005, as she does for the size of the company, her super PAC told us it compared the second quarter of 1999 to all of 2005.

Using the same comparison as Fiorina’s “doubled” claim, we see the growth didn’t come anywhere close to quadrupling. Instead, it went from 7.5 percent in 1999 to 8.5 percent in 2005. Plus, the revenue growth in 2005 was only 6 percent on a constant currency basis, which is an adjustment due to foreign currency fluctuations. Over her six years, revenue growth year-to-year fluctuated significantly.

Fiorina again uses a different time frame to claim a quadrupling of “cash flow.” Her super PAC told us she was comparing cash and short-term investments from Oct. 31, 1998 to Oct. 31, 2005. But the figures increased by 150 percent (more than a doubling) if we use 1999 as the starting point, as she did for her “doubled” revenue claim.

Finally, Fiorina said HP “tripled its rate of innovation,” and there’s support for that in terms of the rate of obtaining patents in 1999 compared with 2004. But the Compaq merger again had an impact on that, as it did for other financial indicators.

Rubio on Climate Change

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said that U.S. policies to combat climate change would “do absolutely nothing.” Though the U.S. acting alone would have a relatively small effect on rising temperatures and sea levels, Rubio went too far:

Rubio: We are not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate, to change our weather, because America is a lot of things, the greatest country in the world, absolutely. But America is not a planet.

Rubio is correct that “America is not a planet,” of course, but that does not mean that policies at the national level will have absolutely no effect on the climate. When we covered this issue in January, an expert told us that U.S. emissions alone, if left unchanged, would cause about half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century. Efforts to cut these emissions, including the recently released Clean Power Plan, which would limit emissions from power plants, and other policies such as fuel efficiency standards, will have a small but non-zero effect on that temperature change, and related sea level rise.

Furthermore, many experts say that U.S. leadership on climate is important in convincing other nations to also cut their carbon pollution. In both senses, Rubio is wrong that cutting emissions will do “absolutely nothing” to fight climate change.

FactChecking the ‘Happy Hour’ Debate

We found some missteps among the four Republican presidential candidates who didn’t make the cut for the prime-time debate, and instead participated in the so-called “happy hour” debate.

  • South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham oversimplified when he said Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill “found a way to save Social Security from bankruptcy by adjusting the age of retirement from 65 to 67.” In fact, much more was required. The 1983 law to which Graham referred also provided for increases in the payroll tax, and broadened the tax base by requiring employees of nonprofits and new federal employees to be covered and pay into the system. And it made a portion of Social Security benefits subject to federal income tax for the first time, for certain high-income people.
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said, “Every Republican says they will shrink the size of the government. I’m the only one that has done it. Cut our budget 26 percent.” As we have written before, the 26 percent “cut” reflected a decline in federal aid. The Times-Picayune wrote that the 26 percent cut “is explained by waning hurricane recovery appropriations and the end of federal stimulus aid.”
  • Former Sen. Rick Santorum said legislation he sponsored that would have codified sanctions against Iran failed by four votes. “The four people who opposed on the floor: Joe Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,” he said of the 2006 vote. That’s true, but the Bush administration lobbied against Santorum’s bill, and 14 Republican senators also voted against it, as we have written before. The bill passed three months later after a compromise was worked out with the Bush administration, which opposed the bill because it was negotiating with Iran at the time.

— by Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley and Dave Levitan


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