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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the Fifth GOP Debate

The Republican field meets for its final debate of 2015.


The Republican presidential candidates’ fifth debate focused on national security and included misleading claims on terrorism, immigration and foreign oil.

  • Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush misconstrued the words of businessman Donald Trump in claiming that Trump said that “ISIS was not our fight” and that “ISIS was not a factor.”
  • Sen. Ted Cruz wrongly claimed that the immigration bill Sen. Marco Rubio cosponsored in 2013 would have allowed the president to admit refugees without “any background checks whatsoever.” And Cruz claimed that the FBI director told Congress “they cannot vet [Syrian] refugees.” That’s not exactly what the director said.
  • Sen. Rand Paul was wrong when he said that Rubio supported an “open border” policy.
  • Rubio and Cruz disagreed over the impact of the USA Freedom Act, which amended government surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act. But their argument was mainly over which system of information collection each candidate favors.
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham repeated the claim that the U.S. spends $350 billion “to buy oil from people who hate our guts.” Thirty-seven percent of those oil imports in 2014 came from Canada, with another 9 percent from Mexico.
  • Former Sen. Rick Santorum was incorrect in claiming Muslim immigration to the U.S. has doubled since 9/11. Estimated legal immigration by Muslims has gone up that much from 1992 to 2012.
  • Santorum also said “10 years ago I put the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.” He sponsored a bill that largely codified existing sanctions.
  • Trump said the mother of the San Bernardino shooter had advance knowledge of her son’s plans, but officials have made no such charges or accusations.


The CNN Republican debate in Las Vegas featured nine candidates on the main stage: businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former CEO Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul. Four candidates debated in the earlier undercard debate: Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Bush: Trump Said ISIS ‘Not Our Fight’

In a contentious back-and forth, Bush insisted that three months ago, Trump said that “ISIS was not our fight” and that “ISIS was not a factor.” Trump grimaced and claimed he never said that, and we agree that Bush misconstrued Trump’s position.

The comments Bush assigned to Trump seem to be starkly at odds with Trump’s recent comments about the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS — just last month he was saying that he would “bomb the s— out of em” — but Trump’s comments back in September were more focused on whether to fight ISIS in Syria. Trump said he would be happy to let ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the backing of Russia, duke it out, while the U.S. took on ISIS in Iraq. We’ll let readers decide if that amounts to saying ISIS is “not our fight,” but it is inaccurate to say that Trump’s comment was that ISIS is “not a factor.”

Bush was making the point that Trump displayed a “lack of seriousness” as a presidential candidate and cited the comments Trump made about ISIS in late September as an example.

“Look, two months ago Donald Trump said that ISIS was not our fight,” Bush said.

On a split-screen, Trump was seen shaking his head and saying, “Never said that.”

After some back and forth, Bush continued, “You said on Sept. 30 that ISIS was not a factor.”

We reached out to the Bush campaign to clarify to which Trump comments Bush was referring, and the campaign cited a Sept. 29 article in the Washington Times that ran under the headline “Donald Trump: ‘Let Russia fight ISIS’ in Syria.” The article cites a Sept. 28 interview on CNN in which Trump said that while the U.S. ought to fight ISIS in Iraq, it should let Assad and the Russians take on ISIS in Syria (starting at the 8:48 mark).

Trump, Sept. 28 on CNN: We have ISIS, and ISIS wants to go after Assad, but we’re knocking the hell out of ’em — even though it’s not a very full-blown thing, we’re still dropping bombs all over the place and, you know, look, they’re not exactly loving life over in Syria. So we’re stopping them, to a certain extent, from going after Assad. You have Russia that’s now there. Russia’s on the side of Assad, and Russia wants to get rid of ISIS as much as we do, if not more, because they don’t want ’em coming into Russia. And I’m saying, ‘Why are we knocking ISIS and yet at the same time we’re against Assad?’ Let them fight, take over the remnants. But more importantly, let Russia fight ISIS, if they want to fight ’em … in Syria. …

Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care? Let ISIS and Syria fight. And let Russia, they’re in Syria already, let them fight ISIS. Now look, I don’t want ISIS … ISIS is bad, they’re evil … I don’t want them. But let them fight it out. Let Russia take care of ISIS. How many places can we be? …

We have to get rid of ISIS, very importantly, but I look at Assad, and Assad to me looks better than the other side. And you know, this has happened before. We back a certain side, and that side turns out to be a total catastrophe. Russia likes Assad, seemingly a lot — let them worry about ISIS. Let them fight it out. Now in Iraq, we have to do it.

Again, Bush claimed Trump said “ISIS was not our fight” and that “ISIS was not a factor.” Bush could rightly argue that Trump was saying the U.S. should sit out the fight with ISIS in Syria, but in the same interview, Trump made it clear he thought the U.S. ought to combat ISIS in Iraq. And he never suggested ISIS was “not a factor.”

Cruz on Refugee Background Checks

Cruz repeated his false claim that the immigration bill Rubio cosponsored in 2013 would have allowed the president to admit refugees into the U.S. without “any background checks whatsoever.”

Cruz: Border security is national security, and you know one of the most troubling aspects of the Rubio-Schumer Gang of Eight bill was that it gave President Obama blanket authority to admit refugees — including Syrian refugees — without mandating any background checks whatsoever.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, S. 744, would have authorized the president, under Section 3403, to declare certain groups with common characteristics refugees for special humanitarian purposes.

In order to qualify for refugee status, individuals would only have to prove that they were a member of the refugee group designated by the president instead of demonstrating, as required under current law, that they can’t or won’t return to their home country because of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

But those individuals would still be subject to the required screening process of refugees before they could come to the U.S.

“Even if they somehow were found to fit the criteria as laid out (including having a specific vulnerability, justified in the national interest, etc.) and be designated as a group, they would still need to go through all of the same security vetting as other refugees,” wrote Joanne Kelsey, assistant director for advocacy with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in an email to FactCheck.org.

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, another migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S., said the same thing.

“The provision does NOT waive or ease any of the security or other admissibility requirements. So, in fact, it would allow the Department of Homeland Security to focus on security concerns, not whether or not the applicant has a well founded fear of persecution. It makes the process faster and more efficient for designated groups, but not less secure.”

The process for admitting a refugee has multiple steps including background checks.

First, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or sometimes a U.S. embassy, refers a refugee for resettlement in the U.S. After that, there’s an initial multi-step security clearance that is followed by an in-person interview abroad with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has to approve the application. That’s followed by a medical screening and a match with one of the voluntary agencies in the U.S. that sponsor refugees. And then there’s another security clearance to complete the process.

According to the State Department, on average, the process, from the UNHCR referral to finally being admitted into the U.S., takes 18 to 24 months.

Cruz Twists FBI Director’s Words

In discussing his legislation to ban the U.S. from accepting Syrian refugees for three years, Cruz claimed that FBI Director James Comey told Congress “they cannot vet those refugees.” That’s not exactly what Comey said. He said he could not give an “absolute assurance that there’s no risk” associated with admitting Syrian refugees.

At an Oct. 22 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Raul Labrador asked Comey about “security gaps” in vetting Syrian refugees (at 1:47:28 into the hearing). Comey recalled that some “serious actors” from Iraq were admitted to the U.S. as refugees during the Iraq War, but he said the intelligence community “has gotten much better” since then about working together to review the available records.

“We learned some good lessons from the less than excellent screening of Iraqi refugees eight years ago,” he said.

But, he acknowledged, there are unique challenges with Syrian refugees. The U.S. military controlled Iraq and as a result the U.S. had a rich data set of fingerprints, iris scans and other records of Iraqi citizens. That’s not the case in Syria.

“The challenge we face with Syria is that we don’t have that richest set of data, so even though we have gotten better, in querying what [records] we have we certainly will have less,” Comey said.

Comey disagreed with Labrador’s characterization of the database for Syrians as “obsolete.” Comey said it is a “less robust database, dramatically” than what was available from Iraq, but the intelligence community is committed to mitigating the risk by “querying well” the records that do exist and seeking additional sources of information.

“I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this,” Comey said.

Cruz has a point that the FBI director expressed concerns about how to effectively vet Syrian refugees when little or no records are available, but Comey didn’t say that the U.S. intelligence community “cannot vet those refugees.”

As we have written before, the refugee review process is lengthy and involves multiple federal agencies.

Paul on Rubio’s Border Policy

Paul went too far with his false claim that Rubio is “for an open border,” which essentially means anyone who wants to come to the country could do so.

In fact, the Senate immigration bill that Rubio cosponsored in 2013 (but has since distanced himself from) includes numerous border security measures including the construction of hundreds of miles of border fencing and thousands of new border patrol agents. If Rubio supported an open border, what need would there be for that?

According to Paul, Rubio “thinks he wants to be this, ‘Oh, I’m great and strong on national defense.’ But he’s the weakest of all the candidates on immigration. He is the one for an open border that is leaving us defenseless.”

Paul has criticized Rubio for his one-time support of S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which included a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally. While some have argued that border security measures in the bill were inadequate, the bill did include $46 billion worth of border security enhancements, including 700 miles of barriers/fencing, the addition of more than 38,000 border security agents and the requirement that employers use an electronic employment eligibility verification system (E-Verify).

The immigration plan that Rubio currently espouses on his campaign website outlines a departure from a comprehensive plan to one that begins with better border enforcement.

“The first step must be enforcement measures that are effective and verifiable,” Rubio states. “Such measures would include securing the most vulnerable and most trafficked sectors of the southern border, mandatory E-Verify and the full implementation of an entry-exit tracking system.” Then, he said, the country should transition from a family based system to one that prioritizes “merit-based, high-skilled immigration.” None of that is consistent with an open-border policy.

Cruz and Rubio on NSA

Rubio and Cruz disagreed over the impact of the USA Freedom Act, which renewed and amended provisions of the Patriot Act related to government surveillance. But their argument boils down to which record-collection method each thinks is better for combating terrorism.

Cruz: [T]he prior program only covered a relatively narrow slice of phone calls. When you had a terrorist, you could only search a relatively narrow slice of numbers, primarily land lines.

The USA Freedom Act expands that so now we have cell phones, now we have Internet phones, now we have the phones that terrorists are likely to use and the focus of law enforcement is on targeting the bad guys. …

What [Rubio] knows is that the old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and he knows that that’s the case. …

Rubio: There is nothing that we are allowed to do under this bill that we could not do before.

This bill did, however, take away a valuable tool that allowed the National Security Agency and other law — and other intelligence agencies to quickly and rapidly access phone records and match them up with other phone records to see who terrorists have been calling.

There’s a mix of facts and opinions here: Cruz is right that the old program — in which the government collected bulk phone call data from phone companies — only affected a percentage of phone numbers. But the USA Freedom Act, which Cruz supported and Rubio didn’t, limits government access to those phone records. In that regard, the legislation did “take away a … tool” of the NSA, as Rubio said. But it’s a matter of opinion just how “valuable” that tool was.

The USA Freedom Act ended the government’s controversial bulk collection of phone customer data, carried out under the Patriot Act. Instead of a sweeping collection of data from phone carriers, the NSA must now make specific requests of certain data, limited “to the greatest extent reasonably practicable” by a “specific selection term.” That term could be “a person, account, address, or personal device, or any other specific identifier,” according to the legislation.

The government can’t request information based on a zip code, or ask for everything from a certain carrier, and it must demonstrate “reasonable” suspicion that the matter concerns terrorist activity. The legislation, which became law in June and was implemented in late November, also included provisions for increased transparency, requiring the disclosure of proceedings from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — unless they could affect national security.

Cruz said that “the old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers,” and it’s true that major news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, reported in February 2014 that the bulk collection wasn’t rounding up even half of Americans’ phone records. The Post reported: “The National Security Agency is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records because of an inability to keep pace with the explosion in cellphone use, according to current and former U.S. officials.”

Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA would potentially have access to all records, but as we explained, it would have to make a specific request for certain records, not automatically receive bulk data from phone carriers, as it did in the past.

Rubio said the recent legislation took away “a valuable tool,” but whether it’s more valuable to collect bulk records or have a process to request specific records is a matter of opinion.

Graham’s Shopworn ‘Hate Our Guts’ Claim

Graham repeated an exaggerated and shopworn claim about oil imports that we debunked after the first GOP debates in August.

Graham: I’d like to stop sending $350 billion overseas to buy oil from people who hate our guts, wouldn’t you?

It’s true that the U.S. spent nearly $351 billion in 2014 on imported crude oil and other petroleum products, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

But 37 percent of that came from Canada, by far the biggest supplier, and another 9 percent came from neighboring Mexico. That’s according to annual figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And according to the most recent polling by the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Canadians and 66 percent of Mexicans view the U.S. favorably.

All Persian Gulf countries combined supplied only a little over 20 percent of what the U.S. imported. And most of that came from Saudi Arabia, which just announced it has formed a coalition of 34 Muslim nations to fight terrorism and counter Islamic extremism.

Furthermore, the $350 billion figure for all petroleum imports will be far lower this year, due to falling oil prices. U.S. refiners paid an average of $41.61 per barrel for imported oil in October, close to half the $82.75 price paid a year earlier, according to the EIA.

Santorum’s Immigration Claim

Santorum incorrectly claimed that Muslim immigration to the U.S. has doubled since the attacks of September 11, 2001:

Santorum: The reality is that under this president, since 9/11, this anti-Muslim United States of America has doubled the rate of Muslim immigration. Since 9/11.

Note that first Santorum started to say Muslim immigration has doubled “under this president [Obama],” who took office in January 2009. Then he caught himself and moved the date back to “9/11” — in 2001.

Either way, he’s wrong about the date. There has indeed been a doubling of legal immigration to the U.S. by Muslims, according to a 2013 estimate by the Pew Research Center. But the increase — from about 50,000 per year to about 100,000 — occurred in the two decades starting in 1992, Pew said. That was nine years before 9/11, and 17 years before “this president” first took office.

Other reports have said the number of Muslims living in the U.S. has doubled since 9/11. But that’s not only due to immigration. Populations grow when births outnumber deaths, as well as from immigration. They can also grow when people convert from one religion to another.

Santorum Exaggerates Role in Sanctions

In his closing statement, Santorum said “10 years ago I put the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.” As we have written before, that’s an overstatement.

Santorum sponsored a bill that largely codified existing sanctions. He did not put them in place.

The Iran Freedom Support Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law Sept. 30, 2006, was sponsored in the House by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and in the Senate by Santorum. It did three major things with respect to Iran:

  • “[C]odified the ban on U.S. investment in Iran,” which was imposed on May 6, 1995, by President
    Clinton, through Executive Order 12959, according to an Oct. 23, 2014, Congressional Research Service report.
  • Authorized funding for pro-democracy groups, which was a goal of earlier legislation introduced by Santorum.
  • Allowed for new sanctions against “any entity that contributes to Iran’s ability to acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons,” as described by the Washington Post. But the president has the ability to waive those sanctions. The CRS report says no sanctions have been imposed on any entities under that provision.

As the CRS report documents, there were more sanctions in later years that were put in place by legislation and executive orders — so for Santorum to describe his legislation as “the sanctions” is also a stretch.

Trump’s Premature Jump

Trump — without proof — flatly accused the mother of the San Bernardino shooter of having advance knowledge of her son’s plans.

After being asked to defend his earlier call to kill the families of terrorists, he said:

Trump: We have to be much stronger than we’ve been. We have people that know what is going on. You take a look at just the attack in California the other day. There were numerous people, including the mother, that knew what was going on.

They saw a pipe bomb sitting all over the floor. They saw ammunition all over the place. They knew exactly what was going on.

The FBI is currently investigating what — if anything — the mother of Syed Farook knew prior to the mass shooting on Dec. 2 that officials say was the work of Syed and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who later died in a shootout with police.

“Obviously, it’s something that we’re looking at very, very closely,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Dec. 6. But she also said, “I can’t characterize the knowledge of any of the other witnesses in the case. ”

NBC has reported that the mother, Rafia Farook, lived in the same house where her son and his wife were building pipe bombs and stockpiling ammunition. The London Daily Mail later reported that FBI agents found shooting targets inside a car owned by the mother.

But so far officials have not brought any charges or made any accusation against the mother, whose lawyer says that his client didn’t know what her son was planning. So Trump was jumping to a conclusion, and his opinion may or may not be supported by the facts as they unfold.

— by Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, Eugene Kiely and D’Angelo Gore, with Joe Nahra


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