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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the 12th GOP Debate

The candidates' factual stumbles touched on ISIS, ethanol, climate change and more.


The four GOP presidential candidates debated in Miami and stretched the facts:

  • Businessman Donald Trump wrongly claimed that the Obama administration isn’t “knocking out the oil” controlled by the Islamic State in Syria, because of climate change concerns. The administration, which stepped up attacks on oil facilities, hasn’t cited climate change. Instead, it has cited concern about long-term economic harm and local environmental damage.
  • Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz disagreed over whether Cruz had waffled on his opposition to ethanol mandates. Trump was wrong, and Cruz was right.
  • Cruz claimed that President Obama sent a bust of Winston Churchill back to the United Kingdom when he took office. The bust had been loaned to President George W. Bush, and a replica is still at the White House.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio dismissed a question about man-made climate change, saying, “The climate has always been changing.” But scientists say there is ample evidence that humans are contributing to climate change. Rubio also falsely claimed that passing policies like the Clean Power Act would have “zero” impact on the environment.
  • Trump incorrectly referred to Common Core as “education through Washington, D.C.” and claimed Common Core has been “taken over by the federal government.” The education standards were developed by the states, and the curriculum will continue to be managed at the state and local level.
  • Trump wrongly said the U.S. gross domestic product was at “zero, essentially.” Real GDP grew at a rate of 2 percent in the third quarter of 2015 and 1 percent in the fourth quarter.
  • Trump, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich repeated several claims we’ve checked before — including Trump’s claim to be self-funding his campaign (he’s taken $7.5 million in donations); Kasich’s boast on job creation (Ohio’s growth trails the national rate); Cruz’s claim about welfare benefits for immigrants in the country illegally (they’re already barred from most government benefits); and more.
  • Trump also said that the 1,237 delegate count needed to secure the party’s nomination was “a very random number.” It’s actually a simple majority of the total available delegates, 2,472.


The debate, hosted by CNN, was held March 10, days before Florida’s primary.

Trump on Oil and Carbon Footprint

Trump falsely claimed that the Obama administration isn’t “knocking out the oil” controlled by the Islamic State in Syria, “because of what it’s going to do to the carbon footprint.”

Administration officials have not cited climate change as a reason for not attacking oil controlled by the Islamic State. Instead, they have expressed concern that air strikes against oil and natural gas facilities will cause long-term economic and local environmental damage that could hurt Syria’s post-war recovery.

Even so, the military stepped up attacks on oil facilities controlled by the Islamic State when it launched “Operation Tidal Wave II” on Oct. 21, 2015.

Trump made his remark when he was asked whether he would send ground troops to fight the terrorist group, which is also known as ISIS.

Trump: We’re not knocking out the oil because they don’t want to create environmental pollution up in the air. I  mean, these are things that nobody even believes. They think we’re kidding. They didn’t want to knock out the oil because of what it’s going to do to the carbon footprint.

Trump has been a vocal proponent of bombing the oil fields, since his campaign began in June. As we wrote in November, the administration initially had been cool to his call to “attack the oil” controlled by ISIS. But it was disclosed in a New York Times story on Nov. 12 — a day before the terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS in Paris — that the U.S. military launched “Operation Tidal Wave II” to increase the intensity of attacks on ISIS-controlled oil.

Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, said at a Nov. 13, 2015, press conference, that the strikes against ISIS-controlled oil infrastructure until mid-October had been largely ineffective because damages were minor and quickly repaired. But that changed with the start of Operation Tidal Wave II, which was designed to inflict damage for one year, not just a few days.

Warren explained the difficulty of inflicting enough damage to cut off ISIS’ oil revenues without causing long-term damage that could hurt a post-war recovery in Syria.

“So we don’t want to completely and utterly destroy these facilities to where they’re irreparable,” Col. Warren said at the Nov. 13 press briefing. “So what we’ve done is we’ve used very precise carving, a very detailed analysis to strike certain parts of these facilities that will cause them to shut down for an extended period of time.”

Warren said the U.S. needs “to be cognizant that there will be a time after the war — the war will end,” and oil revenues will be needed to rebuild the war-torn nation.

A month later, the Defense Department held a background briefing on the strikes against the oil and natural gas infrastructure controlled by ISIS. A senior department official also spoke about the need to deprive ISIS of oil revenue in the short-term without doing long-term damage to the people and nations in that region. The official mentioned the local environment.

“You have to look at what does this do to the population, what does this do from a humanitarian perspective, from an environmental perspective, from a cost of reconstruction — post-conflict reconstruction costs,” the senior official, who was not identified, said at the Dec. 15, 2015, briefing.

So where did Trump get the idea that the administration won’t “knock out the oil because of what it’s going to do to the carbon footprint”? We suspect it is from a widely reported — and since distorted — interview that former CIA Director Michael Morell gave to Charlie Rose on Nov. 24, 2015.

In that interview, Morell said: “There seemed to have been a judgment that, look, we don’t want to destroy these oil tankers because that’s infrastructure that’s going to be necessary to support the people when ISIS isn’t there anymore, and it’s going to create environmental damage.”

Although Morell mentioned the same economic and environmental concerns expressed by Defense Department officials, news accounts focused on the environmental concerns. Typical was this headline in the Hill newspaper: “Ex-CIA chief: Fear for environment stays US hand on ISIS oil wells.” Similarly, the Daily Caller headline read, “Former CIA Deputy Director: Obama Didn’t Attack ISIS Oil Because Of The Environment.”

But Morell wasn’t talking about climate change, and neither were Defense Department officials.

Trump vs. Cruz on Ethanol

Cruz said he bravely opposed ethanol mandates in Iowa where they are popular with corn growers, but Trump accused him of waffling on that issue.

Cruz: When I went to Iowa and campaigned against ethanol mandates, everyone said that was political suicide. You can’t take on ethanol in Iowa. …

Trump: If you look back to Iowa, Ted did change his view and his stance on ethanol quite a bit. He did and — at the end. Not full on, but he did change his view in the hopes of maybe doing well. … It was a front page story all over the place, and he did make a change.

Trump is wrong about this.

During the run-up to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, Cruz publicly defended his long-standing opposition to the federal requirement that increasing amounts of ethanol be blended into gasoline sold at the pump.

In 2013, Cruz was one of 18 cosponsors of a bill to repeal immediately the so-called “renewable fuels standard” — a bill fiercely opposed by corn growers. The following year Cruz sponsored his own broader energy bill, which would phase out the RFS over five years rather than repealing it instantly.

It’s true that at one point along the Iowa campaign trail, Cruz gave an artfully worded response to an ethanol investor, expressing support for the RFS through 2022. That led to some reports that Cruz had changed his position and was now supporting the ethanol mandate, effectively caving in to the corn lobby.

But in fact, Cruz was simply soft-pedaling his call for a phase-out of the mandate, and at least one reporter then corrected himself. Cruz quickly reiterated his opposition to the ethanol mandate in a Jan. 6 op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register, saying, “We should phase out the Renewable Fuel Standard, end all energy subsidies, and ensure a level playing field for everyone.”

To be sure, Cruz dressed up his call for ending the RFS under a headline that said, “I’m fighting for farmers against Washington.” But the position he stated was the same as laid out in his 2014 legislation.

On this one, Trump is wrong, and Cruz is correct.

Cruz on Churchill Bust

Cruz said that one of Obama’s first acts as president was to return a bust of former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Yes, that happened. But the bust had only been loaned to President George W. Bush by former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Cruz: This administration started with President Obama sending back the bust of Winston Churchill to the United Kingdom within the opening weeks.

William Allman, who became the White House curator in 2002 under Bush, told CBS News in January 2010 that the Churchill bust, which had been displayed in the Oval Office throughout Bush’s presidency, “was already scheduled to go back” before Obama became president.

President Obama shows U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron a bust of Winston Churchill in the White House residence in July 2010. Source: White House.

The Churchill bust and other items were removed as part of the redecoration of the Oval Office at the beginning of Obama’s first term. However, a replica of the original Churchill bust designed by Sir Jacob Epstein had been a part of the White House’s art collection since the 1960s, and it remains on display in the White House residence, where the first family lives, according to a 2012 statement from Dan Pfeiffer, a former assistant and senior adviser to Obama.

The British Embassy, which took possession of the bust that had been in the White House on loan, confirmed this in a statement to Mediaite in 2012:

British Embassy statement to Mediaite, July 27, 2012:  The bust of Sir Winston Churchill, by Sir Jacob Epstein, was lent to the George W Bush administration from the UK’s Government Art Collection, for the duration of the Presidency. When that administration came to an end so did the loan; the bust now resides in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington D.C. The White House collection has its own Epstein bust of Churchill, which President Obama showed to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House in March.

Rubio on Climate Change

Rubio misleadingly dismissed a question about man-made climate change, saying, “The climate has always been changing.” But scientists say there is ample evidence that humans are contributing to climate change.

Rubio also falsely claimed that passing policies like the Clean Power Act would have “zero” impact on the environment. While the U.S. cannot solve the problem of climate change alone, scientists say it could slow global warming a bit.

Back in January, Cruz made a statement very similar to Rubio’s first claim, and we wrote about it. Cruz said, “The climate has always changed since the beginning of time.” However, in 2014, the U.S. Global Change Research Program put out its third National Climate Assessment, which concluded that rapid warming is “due primarily to human activities”:

U.S. Global Change Research Program, May 2014: Long-term, independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges, and many other data sources all confirm that our nation [the United States], like the rest of the world, is warming. Precipitation patterns are changing, sea level is rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events are increasing. Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report also found evidence to support human-induced climate change. For example, the U.N. panel writes (see page 2): “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

Rubio also said passing policies like the Clean Power Act would have “zero” impact on the environment “because China is still going to be polluting and India is still going to be polluting at historic levels.” That’s false. The U.S. is the world’s second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and a reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions could slow global warming.

We wrote about this in January 2015 when Rick Santorum, the former Republican presidential candidate, said U.S. policies aimed at reducing GHG emissions “will have zero impact” on climate change.

Santorum and Rubio are correct that the U.S. can’t solve the problem of global warming all by itself. But that doesn’t mean U.S. policies will have “zero” impact on climate change.

In recent years the U.S. has been responsible for about 16 percent of all global emissions. In 2013, the U.S. emitted more than 6.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide and other GHGs.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann told us back in January 2015 that if the U.S. continues to emit GHGs at that level, it alone would cause about half a degree Celsius warming by the end of the century (just under 1 degree Fahrenheit) in addition to the about 1 degree Celsius of warming we have already seen since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

“That is hardly ‘zero impact,’ ” Mann told us.

Rubio also said, “If you took the gift list of all of these groups that are asking us to pass [climate mitigation] laws and did every single one of them, there would be no change in our environment. Sea level would still rise.”

Sea level rise is of particular concern to Florida, a state with more than 1,200 miles of coastline and a maximum elevation of less than 400 feet above sea level.

According to the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council: “Global sea level will continue to rise long after 2100 even if greenhouse gas concentrations are stabilized well before the end of the century.”

Still, this doesn’t mean U.S. climate policies would have “zero” impact on mitigating climate change.

Trump on Common Core

Trump incorrectly referred to Common Core as “education through Washington, D.C.” and also wrongly claimed Common Core has been “taken over by the federal government.”

The Obama administration provided advantages to states that adopted the education standards when competing for Race to the Top grants, and federal money has been used to develop the standardized tests that students will take. But the standards were developed by state governors and education officials and voluntarily adopted by states, and the curriculum is and will continue to be set by state and local school officials.

The Common Core State Standards are a set of standards developed by the states for what children from kindergarten through 12th grade should know in mathematics and English language arts/literacy.

During the debate, Trump was asked about his objections to Common Core.

“Education through Washington, D.C., I don’t want that,” Trump said. “I want local education. I want the parents, and I want all of the teachers, and I want everybody to get together around a school and to make education great.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the debate moderators, noted that “the Common Core standards were developed by the states, states and localities voluntarily adopt them, and they come up with their own curricula to meet those standards.”

“So when you say ‘education by Washington, D.C.,’ what do you mean?” Tapper asked.

“You’re right, Jake,” Trump said. “But it has been taken over by the federal government. It was originally supposed to be that way. And certainly sounds better that way. But it has all been taken over now by the bureaucrats in Washington, and they are not interested in what’s happening in Miami or in Florida, in many cases. Now in some cases they would be. But in many cases they are more interested in their paycheck and the big bureaucracy than they are taking care of the children.”

In fact, the federal government has no role in developing the Common Core standards.

As the Common Core State Standards Initiative explains on its website, on a page called “Myths vs. Facts,” Common Core is and will remain a state-led effort.

Common Core State Standards website: The federal government will not govern the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core was and will remain a state-led effort. The NGA Center and CCSSO are committed to developing a long-term governance structure with leadership from governors, chief state school officers, and other state policymakers to ensure the quality of the Common Core and that teachers and principals have a strong voice in the future of the standards. States and local school districts will drive implementation of the Common Core.

As we noted when two Republican candidates wrongly referred to Common Core as “national curriculum” in early 2015, the standards were developed by high-ranking state officials through the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The federal government was not involved in the development of the standards, and adoption of the standards is voluntary, as explained on the NGA’s Common Core website:

Common Core State Standards website: The Common Core is a state‐led effort that is not part of No Child Left Behind or any other federal initiative. The federal government played no role in the development of the Common Core. State adoption of the standards is in no way mandatory. States began the work to create clear, consistent standards before the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided funding for the Race to the Top grant program. It also began before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act blueprint was released, because this work is being driven by the needs of the states, not the federal government.

The Obama administration does support the standards, and as we said, federal money has been used to develop the standardized tests that students will take. In addition, Race to the Top, a competitive education grant program that was created as part of the economic stimulus in 2009, rewarded states that adopted Common Core or other college and career education standards. As the Washington Post noted, that kind of federal promotion of Common Core “led critics from both ends of the political spectrum to decry the new standards as a federal overreach into local affairs.”

Nonetheless, that is far short of a federal takeover of Common Core, as Trump suggested.

Trump on GDP

Trump falsely claimed that U.S. economic growth was at “zero, essentially.”

Trump: GDP was zero essentially for the last two quarters. If that ever happened in China you would have had a depression like nobody’s ever seen before. They go down to 7 percent, 8 percent, and it’s a — it’s a national tragedy. We’re at zero, we’re not doing anything.

In fact, real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2 percent in the third quarter of last year and an estimated 1 percent in the final quarter, according to the most recent release from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis on Feb. 26.

That could be considered sluggish, to be sure. During the 1980s and 1990s, real GDP averaged annual growth of more than 3 percent per year. But 2 percent and 1 percent are not “zero.”

More of the Same

And the candidates repeated many claims we’ve fact-checked before:

  • Trump repeated his exaggerated boast that he is “self-funding” his campaign: I’m self-funding my campaign. Nobody is going to be taking care of me. I don’t want anybody’s money.” Not quite. In fact, Donald J. Trump for President Inc. — his campaign committee — reports that it had received $7,497,984 in individual contributions through the end of January. That amounts to 29 percent of the committee’s total receipts, which totaled $25,526,319.
    Furthermore, only $250,318 of what Trump has put into his campaign has come in the form of an outright contribution. He has made $17,534,058 in loans to the campaign — loans which could legally be repaid to him at a later date, should Trump decide to accept more in donations.
    This time, Trump did acknowledge that got “small donations” but said “it’s not a large amount.” Whether $7.5 million is “not a large amount” is a matter of opinion. But to be accurate, Trump should say his campaign is “mostly” self-funded — so far.
  • Cruz again suggested that “Iran released our hostages the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office” in 1981 because President Carter was perceived as “weak.” We interviewed several experts on the Iran hostage crisis, and they told us the hostages were released that day as a final insult to Carter, whom the hostage-takers despised. Experts also cited Iran’s need to focus on a war with Iraq, the hostage-takers having achieved their goal of smearing political opponents, fear of having to restart the negotiation process, and being tired of holding the hostages (the crisis lasted 444 days).
  • Trump vastly exaggerated the trade deficit with China for the second time in a week, claiming, “we have a $505 billion trade deficit right now.” As we said after the last debate, the trade deficit with China for 2015 is $366 billion, according to official Census Bureau figures. Trump’s $505 billion figure is close to the $532 billion net trade deficit with all countries in 2015.
  • Cruz also said that after President Obama took office, “he proceeded to go on a worldwide apology tour apologizing for the United States of America,” a claim we first checked in 2012, when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made it. As we said then, we reviewed all of the speeches Romney pointed to in his book “No Apology” to support his claim, and we didn’t find that any of them amounted to an actual apology.
  • Kasich repeated one of his standard talking points, saying that in Ohio “[w]e’re up 400,000 jobs.” As we’ve said several times now, Ohio did gain 400,700 private-sector jobs while Kasich has been governor, but the growth rate of 9.3 percent has lagged behind the national rate of 11.7 percent.
  • Cruz again said that “[w]e’re going to end welfare benefits for anyone who is here illegally,” despite the fact that immigrants who are in the country illegally are already not eligible for most government benefits, including food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
  • Trump again boasted of beating Hillary Clinton in polls, saying, “I beat Hillary, and I will give you the list, I beat Hillary in many of the polls that have been taken.” Clinton leads Trump in five of the six most recent polls listed on Real Clear Politics, and Trump leads by 2 points, within the margin of error, in the sixth poll. In fact, Trump has been ahead in only five out of 49 polls on the hypothetical general election match-up going all the way back to last May.
  • Trump claimed that Cruz “was in favor of amnesty. So there’s no question about that.” We’ve written about a similar claim from Rubio — that Cruz supported the legalization of immigrants who are in the country illegally. Cruz did offer an amendment to a Senate immigration bill that would have stripped the legislation of a path to citizenship but would have made legalization a possibility. But Cruz says that he never actually supported legalization and was instead bluffing to show that the real aim of the bill’s supporters was a path to citizenship.

Not So Random

Trump also said that the 1,237 delegate count needed to secure the party’s nomination was “a very random number.”

Trump: I think whoever gets to the top position as opposed to solving that artificial number that was by somebody, which is a very random number, I think that whoever gets the most delegates should win.

It’s actually a simple majority of the total available delegates, 2,472.

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


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