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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton’s Auto Bailout Falsehood

In Detroit, Hillary Clinton wrongly said that “back in the Great Recession … Donald Trump said rescuing the auto industry didn’t really matter very much. He said, and I quote again, ‘Let it go.’ ” Trump supported the auto bailout in 2008. The “let it go” quote is from 2015, and taken out of context.

Clinton previously has highlighted Trump’s 2015 comments, which showed Trump backing away from his previous support of the government’s auto rescue efforts. He said last year that “you could have let it go bankrupt” but that the auto industry “would have ended up ultimately in the same place” whether it had received government assistance or not.

In a Sept. 5 speech in Cleveland, Clinton correctly said Trump had made the “let it go” comment “last year.” As we’ve written, she wrongly implied that same day in Illinois that Trump had said he “didn’t care” about the auto industry or its workers. But Clinton’s latest comment in Detroit moves her talking point from a wrong implication to an outright falsehood.

Here’s Clinton’s comment on Oct. 10 at a rally at Wayne State University in Detroit:

Clinton, Oct. 10: But nobody should be surprised, because back in the Great Recession when millions of jobs across America hung in the balance, Donald Trump said rescuing the auto industry didn’t really matter very much. He said, and I quote again, “Let it go.” Now, I can’t imagine that. I — I supported President Obama’s decision to rescue the auto industry in America.

As a presidential candidate, Trump has been criticized for either flip-flopping on his position or being inconsistent, but “back in the Great Recession,” as Clinton says, at the time the auto bailout was being considered by the federal government, Trump made several comments in support of government intervention.

On Dec. 10, 2008, Trump told CNBC: “It would seem to be that they should Chapter it and the country should put up the financing.”

CNBC reported that Trump said, “You have to save the car industry in this country.”

That day, the House passed a rescue plan to provide $14 billion in government loans to the auto industry, with the contingency that the companies agree to government oversight through a to-be-appointed “car czar.” The following day, the Senate voted down the plan, which had been backed by both then-President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton, then a senator, voted for it.

General Motors and Chrysler were in a particularly shaky financial state in the midst of the 2007-2009 Great Recession. The New York Times reported in December 2008: “G.M., Chrysler and industry experts have said that the two companies would likely not survive until the end of this month without government aid, and the companies had already agreed to carry out sweeping reorganization plans in exchange for the help.”

On Dec. 17, 2008, Trump again voiced support for government help for the automakers, telling Fox Business’ Neil Cavuto: “I think the government should stand behind [the Big Three automakers] 100 percent. You cannot lose the auto companies.”

Cavuto pressed him on whether the auto bailout should happen. Trump said: “There are so many ways that it can be saved. … If they do a Chapter 11 — and over the years, I’ve put companies into a Chapter 11. You negotiate from Chapter 11.”

Here’s that exchange with Cavuto, edited for length:

Cavuto, Dec. 17, 2008: But would you bail them out?

Trump: There are so many ways that it can be saved.

Cavuto: Bankruptcy is an option.

Trump: If they do a Chapter 11 — and over the years, I’ve put companies into a Chapter 11. You negotiate from Chapter 11.

Cavuto: The other guys say they would be different because bankruptcy for them is not an option, that it would be a scarlet letter and a stigma.

Trump: That’s right. They’re saying people won’t buy cars.

Cavuto: Do you buy that?

Trump: Well, I absolutely don’t, because I’d rather buy a car than fly in an airline. When United Airline is bankrupt, when Delta Airlines goes bankrupt, and I’m supposed to be flying, I’d rather have a car than fly on an airline if that’s the case. But they didn’t lose any business.

Now, as long as they know that the company’s going to be around it’s not going to hurt them one bit. In fact, people would like it.

But you have to make a better deal with the unions, despite [United Automobile Workers President Ron] Gettelfinger’s brilliant salesmanship — it’s brilliant — despite that, you have to make a much better deal with the unions. And you have to make a better deal with everybody, I mean, everything. …

Cavuto: Do you think that we can afford to do without one of the Big Three?

Trump: No. I think you should have the Big Three. I think, frankly, they should do dip financing. I think the government should stand behind them 100 percent. You cannot lose the auto companies. They’re great. They make wonderful products. Maybe they’re making too much. Maybe they’re not making too much.

Trump: The government is going to give them 35 billion, give them 50 billion in good financing, get a good, strong czar. I think the idea of a czar is great. I think Jack Welch would be, by the way, a great czar. But you know, these are minor details. But there are…

Cavuto: Not you, though?

Trump: No.

Cavuto: You wouldn’t want to do it?

Trump: No, I don’t want to do it. But — but Jack Welch would be a great czar. He would really be a great czar. We need a tough, smart, very corporate kind of a guy, and man, would he be good. And there’d be others. I could name others also.

Two days later, President Bush announced that he was authorizing the use of government funds to help the auto industry, despite Congress’ inability to pass legislation. GM received $13.4 billion and Chrysler $4 billion that month from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as the Wall Street bailout program.

Under President Obama, GM and Chrysler did declare bankruptcy and restructured with billions more in government loans and backing. The total financing disbursed was nearly $80 billion, with all but $9.3 billion eventually being recovered by the government, according to the Treasury Department.

Trump’s position has varied over the years. In November 2012, Trump criticized Obama in a tweet for being a “terrible negotiator” on the bailout, falsely claiming that Chrysler was going to send all Jeep production to China.

And his “let it go” comment came last year in a press conference in Michigan. Trump was asked whether he would have done what President Obama did in Detroit. Here’s the response (see the 2:54 mark).

Trump, Aug. 11, 2015: There are two ways of looking at it. You could have let it go, and rebuilt itself, through the free enterprise system. You could have let it go bankrupt, frankly, and rebuilt itself, and a lot of people think that’s the way it should have happened. Or you could have done it the way it went. I could have done it either way. Either way would have been acceptable. I think you would have ended up ultimately in the same place.

That comment shows Trump waffling on whether he would have supported the auto bailout or not. But at the time the deal was being debated in Congress, in late 2008, Trump said, “I think the government should stand behind [the Big Three automakers] 100 percent.”

Clinton is wrong to say he didn’t support a government-backed rescue during the Great Recession.