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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the Eighth Democratic Debate

Clinton and Sanders stretch the facts on immigration, the environment and other issues.


Just three days after their last meeting, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made some missteps in the Miami debate:

  • Former Secretary of State Clinton and Sen. Sanders disagreed over whether Sanders had supported the Minutemen on the southern border. Sanders voted for an amendment in 2006 designed to protect the civilian border patrol group, but he argued that it merely codified existing policy.
  • Clinton made the misleading claim that Sanders “would delay implementing” the Clean Power Plan. In fact, Sanders supports it and has proposed changes that could cause a delay but would broaden the measure.
  • Sanders exaggerated in saying that when Central American children illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014 Clinton said “send them back.” She said she wouldn’t deport children with a claim for asylum or those that would “face some terrible danger” by returning home.
  • Clinton said the Supreme Court “took away a presidency” when it ordered an end to the 2000 Florida recount. But a study commissioned by eight news organizations determined George W. Bush probably still would have won if the court had allowed the limited statewide recount to continue.
  • Clinton said that “everybody” who got bailout funds paid them back. While the government made a net profit overall, some institutions didn’t pay back the funds, and the auto bailout portion was a loss.
  • Sanders repeated the claim that Americans are working “longer hours for lower wages,” which relies on a mixing and matching of two different data sets. And he repeated his exaggerated claim that “almost all new income and wealth [is] going to the top 1 percent.”
  • When asked about her use of a private email account and private server as secretary of state, Clinton repeated the claim that “my predecessors did the same thing.” But only Colin Powell used a private email account, and he didn’t have a private server in his home.


The Democratic presidential candidates met in Miami for the March 9 debate hosted by Univision and the Washington Post, and conducted partially in Spanish.

Dispute Over ‘Minutemen’

Clinton claimed that in 2006, Sanders “stood with the Minutemen vigilantes in their ridiculous, absurd efforts to, quote, ‘hunt down immigrants.’ ” Sanders vehemently objected, saying he did “not support vigilantes” and that Clinton’s accusation was “horrific” and “unfair.”

Sanders accused Clinton of unfairly cherry-picking “pieces” out of larger bills to distort his record. But in this case, Sanders voted in favor of a stand-alone amendment proposed by Minutemen-friendly Republicans. Sanders argued that the legislation merely codified existing policy, but it was opposed by a majority of Democrats.

At issue is Sanders’ vote for a fairly obscure amendment that sought to prohibit the U.S. Border Patrol from tipping off the Mexican government about the whereabouts and enforcement efforts of the civilian border patrol known as the “Minuteman Project.”

Whether that was actually happening is a matter of some debate and speculation, according to BuzzFeed News. Nonetheless, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia was worried enough about it that he offered an amendment to a Department of Homeland Security funding bill that stated “[n]one of the funds made available by this Act may be used to provide a foreign government information relating to the activities of an organized volunteer civilian action group … operating in the State of California, Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona, unless required by international treaty.”

Kingston and other Republicans made clear from the floor of the House that the amendment was designed to protect the activities of the Minutemen.

Kingston, June 6, 2006: Mr. Chairman, what this amendment does is it clarifies Congress’ position on a Border Patrol practice or a practice of the U.S. Government that tips off illegal immigrants as to where citizen patrols may be located. As we know, we had lots of testimony and lots of visits from people along the border, and we have seen lots of cameras and lots of videos about just the total lawlessness of people coming illegally over the border at night.

As a response in that area, a group has sprung up called the Minutemen Project, and the Minutemen Project is definitely not politically correct in Washington, D.C. However, they filled a void which the government was unable to fill. There are over 7,000 volunteers in the Minutemen organization, and I am sure, like any other group of 7,000 people, you could find a bad apple or two. Yet, at the same time overall, their help has been productive and good. …

What my amendment does is simply says that the U.S. Government cannot tip off the Mexican officials as to where these folks are located. Plain and simple, nothing fancy about it. I am sure the Border Patrol will say, oh, no, we are not doing that, and yet one of the Web pages of the Secretary of Mexico had the information very explicit, and we just do not believe that is a good practice. So what we wanted to do is confirm Congress’ position in an amendment.

Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, a Minnesota Democrat and ranking member on the Committee on Homeland Security, said he had no objection to the amendment because that was already federal policy, and therefore the amendment “apparently does nothing.”

Sabo, June 6, 2006: Mr. Chairman, we are told by Customs and Border Patrol that this amendment has no effect on its operation because it only shares information when it is required by international treaty, the same as what this amendment says. So to the best of my knowledge this amendment simply restates what is policy. If people want to put it in the bill, I guess that is okay because it apparently does nothing.

The amendment passed 293-107. It was supported nearly unanimously by Republicans, and while a majority of Democrats opposed it, a sizable number — 76 –went along with it. Sanders, at the time a member of the House but running for the Senate, voted for it. It ultimately was not included in the DHS funding bill passed by the Senate.

“People put forward nuisance amendments all the time,” Michael Briggs, Sanders’ top communications strategist and longtime aide, told BuzzFeed News. “In this case, the Customs and Border Patrol [according to Sabo] said it was a meaningless thing and [Sanders] and Sabo voted for it.”

To recap, here’s what Clinton said during the debate: “And in 2006, when Senator Sanders was running for the Senate from Vermont, he voted in the House with hard-line Republicans for indefinite detention for undocumented immigrants, and then he sided with those Republicans to stand with vigilantes known as Minutemen who were taking up outposts along the border to hunt down immigrants.”

Moments later, Clinton reiterated that Sanders “stood with the Minutemen vigilantes in their ridiculous, absurd efforts to, quote, ‘hunt down immigrants.’ ”

When a debate moderator asked Sanders if he supported the Minutemen, Sanders responded, “Of course not. There was a piece of legislation supported by dozens and dozens of members of the House which codified existing legislation. What the secretary is doing tonight and has done very often is take large pieces of legislation and take pieces out of it. … No, I do not support vigilantes, and that is a horrific statement, an unfair statement to make.”

We’ll let readers decide if Clinton goes too far when she equates Sanders’ support for the amendment with “[standing] with the Minutemen vigilantes in their ridiculous, absurd efforts to … hunt down immigrants.” Certainly some of the amendment’s supporters saw it as at least symbolic support for the Minutemen’s efforts. But Sanders makes a plausible argument that he believed he was voting for a do-nothing amendment that was merely codifying existing policy — indeed that was the view of the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Homeland Security at the time. But as for Sanders’ defense that Clinton was cherry-picking his support for a larger bill, in this case, the Kingston amendment was voted on as a stand-alone amendment.

Clinton on Clean Power Plan

Clinton was misleading when she said Sanders “would delay implementing” the Clean Power Plan. Sanders has proposed changes to the CPP that could cause a delay, but those changes entail adding regulations for methane emissions — a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Clinton was responding to a question regarding difficulty of passing environmental legislation in Congress. Clinton cited executive powers to regulate pollution — singling out the Clean Power Plan, which the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in June 2014 to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Clinton: The clean power plan is something that Sen. Sanders has said he would delay implementing, which makes absolutely no sense. We need to implement all of the president’s executive actions and quickly move to make a bridge from coal to natural gas to clean energy.

But Sanders supports the Clean Power Plan, as the League of Conservation Voters notes in its review of the presidential candidates’ positions on the plan. He voted twice in the same day against Republican efforts to block the EPA from implementing the Clean Power Plan and a separate EPA regulation of new power plants.

So what is Clinton talking about?

In late February, the environmental news website Grist spoke with Sanders’ campaign about specifics on the senator’s plans to curb hydraulic fracturing — fracking — for oil and natural gas. The campaign told Grist that Sanders would “[r]egulate methane, not just carbon, through the Clean Power Plan,” among other policy proposals.

To back up her claim that Sanders “would delay implementing” the Clean Power Plan, Clinton’s campaign referred us to two articles published on Feb. 26, one by The Hill and another by Legal Planet. The authors of both articles voiced criticism of Sanders’ proposed changes to the CPP.

For example, Ann Carlson, the author of the Legal Planet article, says Sanders’ changes “would cause significant delay in [the CPP’s] implementation simply because of the procedural requirements of notice and comment.”

We asked the Sanders campaign for a response to the criticism that his plan could cause a delay in implementing the Clean Power Plan, but we did not get a response. However, we know that Sanders supports the Clean Power Plan and in fact has voted against attempts to block its implementation.

Sanders on Clinton’s Immigration Remarks

Sanders said that when Central American children illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014 Clinton said “send them back.” That’s misleading. Actually, she said she would not deport children who had “a legitimate claim for asylum” and “would face some terrible danger if they return.”

As we have written before, there was a surge in the number of unaccompanied immigrant children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who illegally crossed into the United States in 2014. President Obama sought funding to, among other things, expedite the deportation of the unaccompanied minors. Clinton supported the president’s position, which some within his party criticized.

Sanders: When we talk about immigration, the secretary will remember that one of the great tragedies, human tragedies of recent years is children came from Honduras where there’s probably more violence than almost any place in this country, and they came into this country. And I said welcome those children into this country, Secretary Clinton said send them back. That’s a difference.

We’ve looked at Clinton’s remarks before when the same attack line was used against her by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has since ended his presidential campaign. In a post-debate press release, the Sanders campaign cites remarks Clinton made during a June 17, 2014, town hall event on CNN, specifically when she said “just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.”

But Clinton said more than that at the town hall and in the weeks that followed.

Her full response to the question shows she said some children should be returned to “responsible adults in their families” back home, but not all of them should be deported. She also said that allowing all of the children to stay would “encourage more children to make that dangerous journey” to the U.S.

Clinton addressed the topic more fully five weeks later in interviews with John Harwood of the New York Times and Jorge Ramos of Fusion, a media company that is jointly owned by Univision and Disney/ABC Television. Ramos was one of the moderators of the March 9 debate.

She told Harwood of the Times in a radio interview on July 24, 2014, that there is a difference between migrant children and refugee children, and they are treated differently under the law.

“We have two categories of people that are represented by these poor children that have come across our border. We have migrants, children who are leaving for a variety of reasons — economic, they want to reunite with family members,” she told the Times. “And we have refugees, people who have reason to be threatened, people who have bad probabilities if they return home as to what might happen to them.”

Five days later, Ramos asked her (at 2:09 into the interview): “Who would you deport?” She responded: “Whoever was in the category of where they don’t have a legitimate claim for asylum.” She went on to say, “There may be some kids who definitely would face terrible danger if they return.”

So, there is more to the story than Clinton just saying “send them back.”

Clinton on 2000 Election

Clinton said the Supreme Court “took away a presidency” when it ordered an end to the 2000 Florida recount.

Clinton: [L]et’s remember three words: Bush versus Gore. A court took away a presidency.

We agree that the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore effectively made George W. Bush the winner in the 2000 presidential election, over his Democratic challenger, Vice President Al Gore. It ended the recounts and legal wrangling that had gone on for weeks, awarding Florida’s electoral votes to Bush and thus tipping the balance in the national election in Bush’s favor.

But — as we reported in 2008 — Bush probably still would have won even if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a limited statewide recount to go forward as ordered by Florida’s highest court, according to a massive months-long, $1 million study commissioned by eight news organizations in 2001.

And Bush also probably would have won had the state conducted the limited recount of only four heavily Democratic counties that Gore asked for, the study found.

The study concluded that Gore might have eked out a narrow win (by a margin ranging from 42 to 171 votes out of a total of 6 million cast) had there been a broad recount of all disputed ballots in the state. But Gore never asked for that.

Clinton Overstates Bailout Payback

Clinton said “everybody” who got bailout funds “has paid it back.” Not quite.

Clinton: And by the way, everybody, who, quote, “got money” in the quote, “bailout” that also included money for the auto rescue has paid it back. So, the Treasury was out nothing.

It’s true that the U.S. eventually made an overall profit from the controversial bank rescue package that was enacted in 2008, and was known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP. But it lost money on its bailout of General Motors and Chrysler Corp., and has yet to recover its investments in a number of financial institutions.

According to the U.S. Treasury, as of the end of last year the government had netted a profit of more than $12 billion on the overall program.

But that profit was held down by a $9.3 billion loss on the auto bailout portion of the program.

Furthermore, not all banks paid back the funds they received. As of its most recent monthly report to Congress on the TARP program, the Treasury Department showed that of 707 financial institutions in which TARP invested funds through its Capital Purchase Program, 32 ended in bankruptcy or receivership, and 17 still showed outstanding balances. The largest of those was $125 million still owed by First BanCorp of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

To be sure, anything eventually recovered from those remaining institutions will further increase the overall profit on the TARP program. But it’s just not true that “everybody” has paid back TARP funds, even eight years later.

Repeats, Again

And once again, the candidates repeated claims we’ve fact-checked before:

  • Sanders twice said that Americans are working “longer hours for lower wages,” a claim we wrote about after the Feb. 4 debate. Sanders mixes and matches two sets of data to make that claim, using Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on hourly wages decreasing slightly from 1975 to 2014 (a time period during which the average weekly hours worked went down), and numbers from a Brookings Institution report that found the total hours worked by two-parent families in the middle 10 percent had gone up since 1975 — mainly because more women entered the workforce. Not only do the data sets represent two different groups of people — production and nonsupervisory workers for the BLS data, and two-parent families in the middle 10 percent for Brookings’ study — but the Brookings report found these families’ median wages earned went up since 1975. As we said when we last wrote about this claim, the same mixing and matching of data could be used to wrongly claim that Americans are working fewer hours for higher wages.
  • Responding to a question about her use of a private server and email account as secretary of state, Clinton again claimed that “my predecessors did the same thing.” But only one of Clinton’s predecessors, Colin Powell, used a private email account to conduct official government business, according to a review by the State Department. But unlike Clinton, Powell didn’t use a private email server set up at his home.
  • Sanders also again said that “almost all new income and wealth [is] going to the top 1 percent,” an overstatement that he later in the debate modified to “58 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.” The second time Sanders correctly cited the work of economists Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who wrote in a June 2015 update that 55 percent of real income growth from 1993 to 2014 went to the top 1 percent, and from 2009 to 2014, during the economic recovery, 58 percent of real income growth went to the top 1 percent. Another Saez-Zucman study found that the top 1 percent held 41.8 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2012. That’s not “almost all,” as we wrote in July.

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

Clarification, March 10: We inadvertently left off the first name of Rep. Martin Olav Sabo in our original story.


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