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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the 11th GOP Debate

Claims by and about Donald Trump dominate our report.


Our wrap-up of false and misleading claims in the 11th debate includes:

  • Sen. Marco Rubio said businessman Donald Trump inherited $100 million from his father for his business, while Trump said he started with only $1 million. Both are stretching the facts.
  • Trump claimed the government could save “hundreds of billions of dollars in waste” through negotiating prescription drug prices. But that’s well above the entire yearly spending for Medicare Part D.
  • Trump grossly exaggerated the U.S. trade deficit with China, and falsely claimed that the U.S. runs a trade deficit with “every country.”
  • Sen. Ted Cruz claimed that a study showed the 1994 assault weapons ban “did nothing to reduce violent crime.” Not true. The study reported “mixed” results.
  • Trump repeated a bogus claim that the wife of a 9/11 terrorist left the U.S. two days prior to the 2001 attacks and that she “knew exactly what was happening.”
  • Trump said he was “always against going into Iraq.” He was an early critic of the war, but there is no record of him speaking against the war before it started.
  • Trump claimed that Trump University has an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau, but the last rating we could find was a “D-.”
  • Rubio and Trump disagreed on whether Trump had “expressed admiration” for Russian President Putin. Trump had said it was “a great honor” to be complimented by the “highly respected” Putin.
  • Trump falsely claimed that Rubio was the first person who ever disparaged the size of Trump’s hands. Vanity Fair‘s editor did so more than 25 years ago.

And Trump, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all repeated claims we’ve fact-checked before.


Fox News hosted the March 3 debate in Detroit between Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich.

Rubio/Trump on Trump’s Inheritance

Rubio said Trump built his business with $100 million he “inherited” from his father, Fred, who also was a developer. Trump said that’s wrong and claimed that he “started with $1 million” and turned that into a $10 billion company. Rubio is exaggerating, and Trump is underestimating the value of his father’s contributions to his business.

We don’t know how much Trump may have inherited, but the $100 million figure isn’t supported by Rubio or anything in the public record. However, Trump got significant help from his father to build his company beyond $1 million.

Rubio raised the issue of Trump’s inheritance when moderator Chris Wallace noted that Rubio has been critical of Trump’s business savvy and asked Rubio how many jobs he had created. Rubio said, “He talks about these great businesses that he’s built. He inherited over $100 million.” Trump interrupted, saying, “Wrong. Wrong.”

This exchange was similar to the last debate, on Feb. 25, when Rubio claimed that Trump inherited $200 million.

How much did Trump inherit? His campaign declined to tell us. However, we have some information that is in the public record.

Fred Trump, who was also a developer, died in 1999, and the New York Times at the time wrote that “his estate has been estimated by the family at $250 million to $300 million.” More recently, the Times in a Jan. 2 story wrote that Fred’s will “divided the bulk of the inheritance, at least $20 million, among his children and their descendants, ‘other than my son Fred C. Trump Jr.,’ ” who died in 1981. At the time, there were four surviving children, Robert, Donald, Maryanne and Elizabeth.

So, it would appear, that Donald Trump did not receive $100 million or $200 million, as Rubio claimed.

The Rubio campaign did not respond last month when we asked about the $200 million inheritance claim. But the senator seems to be referring to the value of Fred C. Trump’s business at the time Donald joined the family business in the 1970s. In the 1991 book, “Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump,” former Trump executive John R. O’Donnell writes that Fred Trump was a developer of middle-income apartments in the New York boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. It was Donald Trump who moved the family business into Manhattan.

“Over the years, Fred Trump had forged strong connections with the city’s Democratic party machine,” O’Donnell writes. “In the late 1970s, his son brought those connections and an estimable family fortune of $200 million to Manhattan, where he parlayed them into a real estate empire that would ultimately be worth over $2 billion.”

That brings us to Trump’s claim that he started his company with just $1 million — which underestimates his father’s contributions.

In his response to Rubio, Trump said, “Believe me, I started off with $1 million. I built a company that’s worth more than $10 billion. And I say it not in a bragging way, but that’s the kind of thinking we need.”

Trump’s campaign told us that he borrowed $1 million from his father, but it did not tell us when or for what reason. Fred Trump’s obituary in the Times said that he “lent support — and a small amount of money — to his son Donald’s aspirations of becoming a developer.”

However, as O’Donnell’s book suggests, Donald Trump’s success wasn’t built just on a $1 million loan. Another Trump author, Gwenda Blair, who wrote “The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders,” told us in an email that Donald Trump benefited from his father’s “considerable financial and political clout.”

“I would note that what was just as important as any cash loan to Donald’s success was Fred’s willingness to co-guarantee the construction loan on Donald’s first Manhattan project, the Grand Hyatt, and also Fred’s willingness to put his own considerable financial and political clout at Donald’s disposal,” Blair told us.

Blair also said that Fred Trump loaned more than $1 million on at least one occasion. It occurred in December 1990, “when Donald Trump’s finances were in a dire state,” she said.

“His father loaned him $3.3 million by sending an emissary to buy poker chips in that amount at Trump Castle Casino in Atlantic City and not cashing them in. The loan, which allowed Donald Trump to make an interest payment to Castle bondholders, was illegal because only sources certified by the Casino Control Commission are allowed to make loans to casinos,” Blair wrote to us. “The Castle was fined $65,000, but the Commission declined to investigate Fred’s or Donald’s role in this illegal transfer; instead it certified Fred as a lender and allowed the Castle to pay the loan back over time rather than immediately.”

In the end, both Trump and Rubio are stretching the facts with their claims about Trump’s finances.

Trump on Medicare Drug Savings

Trump claimed that the federal government could save “hundreds of billions of dollars in waste” by having prescription drug companies “bid properly.” But Medicare, which isn’t allowed to negotiate drug prices now, spent an estimated $77 billion total in federal funds on its prescription drug program in 2015.

When moderator Chris Wallace pointed out that Medicare’s entire federal spending on Part D, its prescription drug component, was well under the $300 billion a year savings figure Trump had cited in the past, Trump countered that he was talking about “saving through negotiation throughout the economy.” He then broadened that, saying, “I’m not only talking about drugs, I’m talking about other things. We will save $300 billion a year if we properly negotiate.”

But Trump has indeed claimed several times that he could save $300 billion a year through negotiating drug prices. Our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post looked at Trump’s claim last month, and found the figure to be “nonsense.”

Among Trump’s claims using the number is this from a Feb. 17 interview with MSNBC: “We’re the largest drug buyer in the world. We don’t negotiate. We don’t negotiate. You pay practically the same for the country as if you go into a drug store and buy the drugs. If we negotiated the price of drugs, Joe, we’d save $300 billion a year,” Trump said.

But it’s difficult to save money that the government doesn’t even spend. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on Medicare Part D totaled $65 billion in 2014 and is expected to be $77 billion in 2015 and $88 billion in 2016. Total Medicare Part D spending for those three years doesn’t even add up to $300 billion.

All national spending on retail prescriptions, whether through Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance or out of pocket, totaled nearly $300 billion ($297.7 billion) in 2014, according to the National Health Expenditure Data compiled by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (see Table 16). So Trump would be talking about saving all of the money the country spends on drugs per year.

The Post pointed out that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has cited a much lower estimate for savings from negotiating Medicare drug prices: between $230 billion to $541 billion over 10 years, numbers from the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s 2013 report on “Reducing Waste with an Efficient Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.”

Trump on Trade

Trump grossly exaggerated the U.S. trade deficit with China, and falsely claimed that the U.S. runs a trade deficit with “every country.”

Trump: With China we’re going to lose $505 billion dollars in terms of trades. You just can’t do it.
Mexico, $58 billion dollars. Japan, probably about, they don’t know it yet, but about $109 billion dollars.
Every country we lose money with.

Actually, the U.S. imported $366 billion more in goods from China last year than it exported to that country, according to official Census Bureau figures. That’s far short of the $505 billion figure Trump floated (which is close to the $532 billion net trade deficit with all countries in 2015).

Trump’s figure for Mexico was correct — a $58 billion deficit for 2015. But his figure for Japan was way off: Census put it at less than $69 billion last year, not the $109 billion Trump claimed.

And it’s simply false to say that the U.S. has a negative trade balance with “every country.” The U.S. does run a deficit with all but three of its top 15 trading partners. But the fact is, contrary to Trump’s sweeping claim, the U.S. had positive trade balances last year with Brazil ($4 billion), Netherlands ($24 billion) and Belgium (nearly $15 billion).

The U.S. also made money on trade last year with Singapore ($10 billion), Australia ($14 billion) and Argentina ($5 billion), just to cite a few more.

Cruz on Assault Weapons Ban

When asked about his views on the Second Amendment, Cruz pointed to the 1994 assault weapons ban, claiming a study showed the “ban did nothing to reduce violent crime.” But that’s false. As we wrote in 2013, the ban’s success in reducing crimes committed with banned guns was “mixed,” according to a 2004 study. Gun crimes involving assault weapons declined. However, that decline was “offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns equipped with [large-capacity magazines].”

Cruz: Well, listen, unlike Donald, I would not support banning firearms. In that instance [with the assault weapons ban], Bill Clinton banned many of the most popular firearms in America. And by the way, the study showed that ban did nothing to reduce violent crime. It just took away the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.

The 2004 study, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003,” was the last of three studies on the ban. The ban itself was enacted in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Ultimately, the research concluded that it was “premature to make definitive assessments of the ban’s impact on gun crime,” largely because the law’s grandfathering of millions of pre-ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines “ensured that the effects of the law would occur only gradually” and were “still unfolding” when the ban expired in 2004.

Trump on 9/11 Terrorist’s Wife

To justify his call for killing the families of terrorists, Trump repeated a bogus claim that the wife of a 9/11 terrorist left the U.S. two days prior to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that she “knew exactly what was happening.”

Trump: The wife knew exactly what was happening.

They left two days early, with respect to the World Trade Center, and they went back to where they went, and they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon …

Trump’s awkward reference to “they” and “their husband” must have left the audience confused about whether he was talking about one wife or several. In fact, when he first made the claim on CBS’ “Face the Nation” last Dec. 6, he said the 9/11 conspirators “put their families on airplanes a couple of days before, sent them back to Saudi Arabia, for the most part.”

That claim rated a four-Pinocchio rating from our friend Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column. Kessler, citing the report of the 9/11 Commission and an interview with its former executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, noted that all or nearly all of the 9/11 hijackers were unmarried. Furthermore, Zelikow stated that “none of them brought female companions to the United States.”

Lebanese hijacker Ziad Jarrah (who was on United flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania) did keep in touch with a girlfriend of Turkish descent who lived in Germany. She later testified that she visited him in the U.S. in early 2001, but saw him for the last time in July, in Germany, and knew nothing of the impending attacks.

Trump’s Position on Iraq

Trump said he was “always against going into Iraq.” He was an early critic of the war, but there is no record of him speaking against the war before it started.

Trump: And I was always against going into Iraq. In fact, I — believe me, I was always against it. There was some cases where I sort of — in one interview with a great friend of mine, and yours, Howard Stern — said that — said that … I said very meekly, long before we went in, I said very meekly, well, maybe, maybe, I don’t know. By the time it got to that point, I was always against Iraq.

Was Trump “always against going into Iraq”? That’s what he has been saying repeatedly throughout the campaign, usually in more forceful language than this.

Trump said, for example, in the Feb. 13 debate: “I said it loud and clear, ‘You’ll destabilize the Middle East.’ ” In the Sept. 16, 2015, debate, Trump claimed that he “fought very, very hard against us … going into Iraq,” saying he could provide “25 different stories” to prove his opposition.

But Trump has yet to provide any evidence that he was opposed to the war before it started, and no news or fact-checking organization has been able to find any stories or interviews that prove Trump right. In fact, radio shock jock Howard Stern asked Trump on Sept. 11, 2002, if the U.S. should attack Iraq, and Trump said: “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish it was, I wish the first time it was done correctly.” That was six months before the war started on March 19, 2003.

A timeline of Trump’s public statements on the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003 can be found in our story “Donald Trump and the Iraq War.” It shows Trump was an early critic of the war.

In July 2003 — four months after the war started — Trump said that he wished the money being spent in Iraq could be spent in New York City. On Sept. 11, 2003 — the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and six months after the war started — Trump said, “It wasn’t a mistake to fight terrorism and fight it hard, and I guess maybe if I had to do it, I would have fought terrorism but not necessarily Iraq.”

Trump on Trump University

Trump falsely claimed that the now defunct Trump University has an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau, and he made the misleading claim that “we have a 98 percent approval rating from the people who took the course.”

Trump: This is a case I could have settled very easily, but I don’t settle cases very easily when I’m right. Ninety-eight percent approval rating, we have an “A” from the Better Business Bureau …

Rubio: … That’s false…

Trump: … We have a 98 percent approval rating from the people who took the course. We have an “A” from the Better Business Bureau. And, people like it.

As we’ve written before, Trump University was a series of seminars in which paying customers could get tips on real estate. The program was never officially licensed as a university and eventually changed its name to The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative in May 2010. Now, Trump and the program are the subjects of three ongoing lawsuits alleging fraud.

The Better Business Bureau website does not currently list a rating for The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative. It says that is “because BBB has information indicating it is out of business.”

But, in a statement to a reporter with PolitiFact.com, a Better Business Bureau spokeswoman said that “over the years, the company’s BBB rating has fluctuated between an ‘A+’ and a ‘D-.’ ” The spokeswoman declined to say when the program received the “A+” rating.

However, the most recent rating that we could find for the program was a “D-” in 2010. That is based on news reports from the Washington Post and the New York Times in 2011, and the New York Daily News and the BBB’s own website in 2010, as recorded by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

That suggests that the program was downgraded over a period of time from an “A+” to a “D-” rather than upgraded from a “D-” to an “A,” as Trump also claimed during the debate.

In addition, Trump’s claim that “we have a 98 percent approval rating from the people who took the course” is misleading.

While it may be the case that many attendees initially filled out positive evaluations, one of the class-action lawsuits alleges that the surveys were filled out under pressure or with the expectation that participants would receive additional benefits in the future.

Tarla Makaeff v. Trump University, complaint, Sept. 26, 2012: While Trump University’s website has publicly claimed that 95% to 98% of students are satisfied with its course, this figure is far from the truth. While it may be true that Trump University received some positive ratings in surveys given to the students while the Seminars were in session or immediately afterward, at this point, many of the students actually still believe that they will eventually get the information and mentoring they need, since they have been promised a one-year apprenticeship or one-year mentorship. Also, these surveys are not anonymous, but have the students’ names on them, and students are often reluctant to criticize the instructors and mentors who they have paid a lot of money to help them throughout the year. It is not until later, when students see that the help and information they need is never coming — that they realize they have been scammed.

For example, Kevin Scott, who paid more than $30,000 for the courses, said that he gave his instructor a positive review “because I did not think that the problems with the mentorship were his fault.” And Robert Guillo, who also paid more than $30,000 on the program, said that he gave his instructor a positive assessment “because I believed that that was the only way to get my Certificates of Completion for the seminars that I attended.”

Update, March 4: After the debate on March 3, Trump tweeted an image of a screenshot showing the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative had received an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau. The rating is undated. We have asked the campaign when it was awarded, but have yet to receive a response.

However, Trump University changed its name to the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, effective May 21, 2010, as the screenshot tweeted by Trump shows. And the program has not accepted any new students since 2010, as Alan Garten, an attorney for Trump and his former school, told CNN in an interview in September 2015.

So, as we wrote in our story, the last rating we could find for Trump University was a “D-” in 2010.

For the record, we found 17 archived pages for the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative between Aug. 25, 2011, and March 4, 2016. The highest recorded rating that we could find was a “B” on Feb. 2, 2014, and the lowest recorded rating was a “C” on Nov. 11, 2012. But those ratings were awarded at a time when the program was no longer accepting students. BBB issued a statement March 4 saying: “The BBB Business Review of Trump Entrepreneur Initiative (formerly Trump University) has shown ‘No Rating’ continually since September 2015. The photo tweeted out after the debate last night did not show the current BBB Business Review or the current rating.”

Admiration for Putin?

Rubio claimed that Trump “expressed admiration for” Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump countered that Rubio was “wrong.” In fact, Trump said that it was “a great honor” to be complimented by a “highly respected” man.

Here’s part of the exchange between Rubio and Trump at the debate:

Rubio: And Vladimir Putin, who you’ve expressed admiration for, Donald …

Trump: Wrong. Wrong.

Rubio: You’ve expressed admiration for him.

Trump: Wrong.

Rubio: Donald, you said he’s a strong leader.

Trump: Wrong. …

Trump: He said very good things about me, and I said …

Trump: Let me just tell you, first of all, I’ve been hearing this man so long talking about Putin. Putin said about me — I didn’t say about Putin — Putin said very nice things about me. And I say very nicely, wouldn’t it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia, we could get along with foreign countries, instead of spending trillions and trillions of dollars?

In July 2015, Trump said he would “get along very well with Vladimir Putin.” But when specifically asked what he admires about him, according to CBS News, Trump said, “I didn’t say I admire him.”

Then, in December, Putin said at a press conference in Russia that Trump “is a bright and talented person without any doubt,” and that Trump is “an outstanding and talented personality.”

Trump, in response, didn’t use the words “admiration” or “strong leader,” but returned Putin’s compliments, calling the Russian leader “so highly respected.”

Trump, Dec. 15, 2015: It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond. …

I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.

Trump’s Hands

Trump falsely claimed that Rubio was the first person who ever disparaged the size of Trump’s hands.

Trump: He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I have never heard of this. Look at those hands. Are they small hands?

Actually, Rubio was not the first. Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, related last October how he got Trump’s goat more than 25 years ago with a jab at what he called Trump’s “stubby fingers”:

Graydon Carter, Oct. 10, 2015: Just to drive him a little bit crazy, I took to referring to him as a “short-fingered vulgarian” in the pages of Spy magazine. That was more than a quarter of a century ago. To this day, I receive the occasional envelope from Trump. There is always a photo of him—generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers.

Repeats Repeated Again

Trump, Cruz and Kasich repeated these claims that we have heard before:

  • Trump falsely claimed he is beating Clinton “very, very easily” in a “recent” Fox News poll, when in fact the most recent poll released Feb. 18 showed Clinton ahead, 47-42. He also said he is beating her in “many polls,” as he has done before, citing the USA Today/Suffolk University poll and the Quinnipiac University poll. Trump is ahead 45-43 in the USA Today poll, but that is the only one of the 10 most recent polls that shows Trump beating Clinton — and it is within the margin of error. He is trailing Clinton in the last Quinnipiac poll, 44-43, which is also within the margin of error.
  • Kasich said that in Ohio, “We’re up over 400,000 jobs.” As we wrote when he made a similar claim in both the seventh and ninth GOP debates — as well as the 10th — Ohio has gained 400,700 private-sector jobs under Kasich. But the job growth rate in Ohio was 9.3 percent, lower than the national private-sector growth rate of 11.7 percent.
  • Cruz claimed that the Affordable Care Act was “the biggest job-killer in America.” In the last debate, he said the law had “killed millions of jobs,” as he also said in the seventh debate. But the economy has actually gained millions of jobs since Obama signed the ACA into law, and it has added 2.4 million since January 2015 when the employer mandate went into effect.

— by Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, D’Angelo Gore and Vanessa Schipani


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