In a two-hour address to the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2, President Donald Trump made questionable and false claims about the fight against ISIS, tariffs and African American income. He also repeated a bevy of claims we’ve debunked before.
- Trump claimed a general, whom he “had to fire,” told him it would take “two years” to retake all of the land once held by the terrorist group ISIS, while generals in Iraq told him it would only take “one week.” But the top U.S. official for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS said shortly before Trump’s Iraq trip that it would take “a period of months.”
- In defending protectionist tariffs, Trump wrongly claimed the U.S. “ended tariffs” in 1913. The average tariff was reduced from 40 percent to 27 percent, and the list of duty-free goods was expanded. But tariffs didn’t end. In fact, they went up in 1922 and 1930 — the latter, the Smoot-Hawley Act, resulted in “disastrous consequences,” as one expert told us.
- The president claimed “African American income has reached an all-time high.” The real median income for black households declined slightly in 2017, according to the most recent data available.
- Trump claimed he told former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, “We’re going to give you a new nickname,” calling Mattis, “Mad Dog,” a nickname the Marine Corps general actually has had since at least 2004.
We focused on new claims by the president in this article, but his speech also contained many claims we’ve written about before, including falsehoods on the trade deficit, legislation concerning veterans, military spending, immigration policy and employment.
ISIS Story Doesn’t Add Up
In his appearance at the annual CPAC event, Trump told a long story about a general whom he “had to fire” telling him it would take two years to retake 100 percent of the territory once held by ISIS. Trump said “then I flew to Iraq” where other generals told him, “we can have it totally finished in one week.” But a few weeks before Trump’s December visit to Iraq, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk said it would take “a period of months” to retake the remaining 1 percent of ISIS-held territory.
Reuters reported on Feb. 28 that the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the United States, had indicated it would announce victory over ISIS in one week. That would make McGurk’s estimate correct.
We asked the White House press office about the president’s comments, but we haven’t received a response. We don’t know what unnamed generals told the president. However, the story as Trump tells it contradicts public statements by McGurk.
Here’s part of the president’s comments on the topic at CPAC:
Trump, March 2: But I was told by a general, who I had to fire — I said, “General, how long before we get 100 percent of the caliphate?” He said, “Sir, two years.” I said, “I can’t take it two years.” And then I flew to Iraq. …
So I have Raisin Caine and three other generals, colonels, sergeants. … And I said to the generals, “Listen, we got to get out. I want to know why is it going to take two years to knock off 2 or 3 or 4 percent, which is what we had left.” “It won’t, sir.” And I said, “Tell me why it won’t.” “It won’t, sir. If we attack them in a different manner, we can do it much faster.” “Okay, General Raisin Caine, how fast can” — “Sir, we can have it totally finished in one week.” I said, “One week? I was told two years.” (Laughter.) One week? “That’s right, sir. We’re only hitting them from a temporary base in Syria. But if you gave us permission, we could hit them from the back, from the side, from all over — from the base that you’re right on, right now, sir. They won’t know what the hell hit them.” …
And I said, “Why didn’t my other generals tell me that? Why didn’t they tell me that?” I said, “Did you tell them that?” “Not our place to say it, sir. They come in from Washington, sir. We have to take orders. You’re the first one to ask us our opinion.” (Applause.) It’s true. It’s true. True. True.
Trump said a general told him it would take “two years” to take “100 percent of the caliphate” and he got a very different story from generals in Iraq. But McGurk had said on Dec. 11 — two weeks before the president’s visit to Iraq — in a State Department briefing, “Ballpark, you’re talking a period of months,” to retake the remaining 1 percent of ISIS territory.
McGurk said that in early 2016 about 50 percent of the territory ISIS had once held had been reclaimed. “So if you look at where we are today, I think it’s quite significant. We really are now down to the last 1 percent of the physical territory,” he said. “The final splotch of red down in what we call the Middle Euphrates Valley, those operations are ongoing, with the Syrian Democratic Forces, supported, of course, by small numbers of coalition forces on the ground.”
He said that while “the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative. … Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.” McGurk said a “stabilization effort in Iraq and Syria” would “really take a period of years.”
CNBC reported that McGurk made similar comments on Dec. 15 in an interview. “We’re on track now over the coming months to defeat what used to be the physical space that ISIS controlled,” CNBC quoted McGurk telling reporter and anchor Hadley Gamble. “That will not be the end of ISIS.”
Four days after that interview, on Dec. 19, Trump announced on Twitter that U.S. troops would be withdrawing from Syria. “We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly,” Trump said of ISIS. A week later, the president and first lady visited the troops in Iraq, arriving on Dec. 26.
As we’ve written before on this issue, military experts cautioned against declaring victory against ISIS even if the physical land has nearly been completely retaken.
As for “General Raisin Caine,” a military affairs reporter for Politico tweeted that Air Force Brig. Gen. J. Daniel Caine, who is the deputy commanding general (forward) for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, has the nickname “Raisin.” Or perhaps it is “Razin,” as Politico later wrote. We asked the Air Force public affairs office if it would confirm that and comment on whether the conversation in Iraq, as Trump tells it, occurred. We haven’t received a response.
One last, related point: Trump claimed in his CPAC speech that he gave Mattis his nickname of “Mad Dog.”
Trump, March 2: Just like I did with Mattis when I said, “We’re going to give you a new nickname, because ‘Chaos’ is not a good nickname.” So we changed his name. Called him “Mad Dog.” But it wasn’t working too well. Mad Dog wasn’t working too well.
Mattis has had the nickname “Mad Dog” longer than Trump has been president. A 2006 story in The Atlantic said “his admiring grunts” used the moniker. The Military Times found the nickname used two years earlier, in a Los Angeles Times story.
Tariffs Didn’t End in 1913
In discussing the trade war with China, the president went on a long, largely accurate riff about the Great Tariff Debate of 1888, when the two major parties disagreed on how to reduce the budget surplus. (Yes, federal surplus.)
At the time, prior to the introduction of the federal income tax, import duties accounted for about half of federal revenues. During the 1888 presidential campaign, there was a partisan disagreement over what to do with the budget surplus. There were two schools of thought: “[T]he Democrats proposed a tariff reduction to reduce customs revenue, the Republicans offered higher tariffs to reduce imports and customs revenue,” Douglas A. Irwin, a Dartmouth economics professor, wrote in a paper that analyzed “the fiscal aspects of the ‘Great Tariff Debate of 1888.’”
Trump, March 2: We didn’t know what to do with all of the money we were making. We were so rich. And McKinley, prior to being president, he was very strong on protecting our assets, protecting our country. And he made statements that, “Others cannot come into our country and steal our wealth and steal our jobs, and build their country and not defend our country. We can’t do that. We can’t ever allow that to happen.” … So the great Tariff Debate of 1888 — and then we had so much money we could do whatever we wanted. We built forces up that were incredible. Then, in 1913, they ended tariffs, okay? They ended tariffs. Somebody got stupid and they ended tariffs.
Republican Benjamin Harrison won the election and signed into law the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which increased tariffs on average to nearly 50 percent, according to the House Office of the Historian. Rep. William McKinley, who would become president in 1897, said high tariffs were needed to protect workers’ wages and U.S. industry.
So, Trump was right about the 1888 tariff debate. But he was wrong when he went on to say, “Then, in 1913, they ended tariffs.”
Trump was referring to the Underwood-Simmons Tariff of 1913, which reduced but did not eliminate tariffs. It was signed into law by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.
“Under the new schedule, the average tariff on dutiable imports would fall from 40 percent to 27 percent, a decline of about one third,” Irwin, the Dartmouth professor, writes in his book “Clashing Over Commerce,” a history of the U.S. trade policy. “The Underwood-Simmons tariff made a substantial across-the-board reduction of about 25 percent in duties on manufactured goods and put a large number of products on the duty-free list, including wool, iron, coal, lumber, meat, dairy products, leather boots and shoes, wood pulp and paper, wheat, and agricultural supplies; the duty on sugar was to be abolished gradually over three years. The share of duty-free imports rose from 54 percent of total imports in 1912 to 69 percent in 1916.”
In an email to us, Irwin said, “It did not ‘end’ tariffs – but it did reduce them, although they went back up in 1922 and again in 1930 – the latter with disastrous consequences (the Smoot Hawley tariff).”
“After World War I, Republicans returned to power and in 1922 passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, which restored high rates and pushed some to record levels,” Spencer Howard writes in a blog for the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum.
The U.S. Senate Historical Office writes that the Smoot-Hawley Act, which was signed into law by Republican President Herbert Hoover, had disastrous consequences for U.S. trade and Hoover.
“As the economists predicted, the high tariff proved to be a disaster,” the U.S. Senate Historical Office writes. “Even before its enactment, U.S. trading partners began retaliating by raising their tariff rates, which froze international trade. The tariff fight solidified Hoover’s ties with Republican regulars, but it shredded his standing among his party’s progressives. Most of the progressive Republican senators who had campaigned for Hoover in 1928 wound up endorsing Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in the next election.”
African American Income
In reeling off some economic statistics, the president claimed that “African American income has reached an all-time high.” It hasn’t — at least not by the traditional measure of real median household income.
In September, the Census Bureau released its income and poverty report for 2017. The median income for black households (Table A-1) was $40,258 in 2017. After adjusting for inflation, that was a decrease of $81 from 2016, which was President Barack Obama’s last year in office. (The median figure represents the midpoint — half of all households earned more, half less.)
The real median income was also higher in 1999 ($41,192), 2000 ($42,348) and 2001 ($40,902). The chart below from the Census Bureau illustrates the trend over time in 2017 dollars.
We asked the White House for information supporting the president’s claim about African American income reaching an all-time high on his watch, but we did not get a response.
As we usually do in fact-checking claims about income, we used the Census Bureau data for all households. Census also provides data by type of household: family households (married couples and households with a parent and at least one child but no spouse) and nonfamily households (female and male). The median income for black family households was $52,384 — an increase of $358 from 2016 and the highest it has been since at least 1980, which is as far back as the Census Bureau provides data for black family households.
We should also note that Census warns about comparing 2017 median household income data to estimates prior to 2013. Starting then, the Census Bureau redesigned its questions, and the annual survey has picked up some sources of income that were previously missed. Jonathan L. Rothbaum, chief of the Income Statistics Branch, wrote that the redesigned questions resulted in higher household income estimates.
The president spoke for a little more than two hours, which was plenty of time for him to repeat false and misleading claims he often makes. We include some here, linking to our previous stories:
- Trump inflated the trade deficit with China — claiming it was “$500 billion a year,” when it’s $335.7 billion for 2017 — and the overall trade deficit — putting it at “$800 billion” when it’s actually $552.3 billion.
- He wrongly claimed that “you couldn’t fire” “sadists” and “sick people” in the Department of Veterans Affairs before he signed into law the bipartisan Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The VA fired more than 2,000 employees each year going back to 2006 for discipline and performance reasons before Trump took office, according to data the agency reported to the Office of Personnel Management. The law Trump signed made it easier for the VA secretary to remove employees.
- And he falsely said that he got VA Choice “approved after 44 years of being unable to get it approved,” when the law — the bipartisan Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act — was signed in 2014 by President Barack Obama, giving veterans facing long wait times an option to get care outside the VA system.
- Trump puffed up his record on military spending, saying, “nobody has ever heard of these numbers before.” He cited a $700 billion budget authority in fiscal year 2018 and $716 billion in fiscal 2019. In nominal dollars — not adjusted for inflation — the budget authority for defense in 2010 and 2011 were each larger than those numbers. That’s according to figures from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
- The president falsely said that under U.S. immigration policy, “We catch them, we realize they’re a criminal, and we have to release them.” Immigration authorities are not obligated to release anyone apprehended while trying to cross the border illegally, and, in fact, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is required to hold certain criminals, such as those convicted of an aggravated felony or multiple criminal convictions. That’s under the Immigration Nationality Act, Section 236 (c).
- He again got the facts wrong on the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, claiming that other countries “send us the people they don’t want” and the program allows murderers to enter the U.S. Individuals apply to this lottery program, which randomly issues up to 50,000 immigrant visas each year to those from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Those selected have to pass a background security vetting process, and there are several grounds for inadmissibility, including criminal activity.
- Trump once again made the hollow boast that “more people are working today in the United States than ever before in the history of our country.” With the population increasing every day, this isn’t the accomplishment Trump makes it out to be. The number of people working has gone up fairly steadily, with exceptions during recessions, ever since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started measuring employment in 1939.