President Donald Trump, in a lengthy interview on Fox News, made several statements that were false, misleading or not supported by the evidence:
- Trump claimed Joe Biden, as vice president, pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who “was after his son,” Hunter Biden. There’s no evidence that Biden was under investigation, although he was a board member for a company whose owner was under investigation.
- Trump said of North Korea: “They haven’t had any tests over the last two years — zero.” It’s true that they haven’t had any nuclear tests or long-range missile tests, but North Korea has tested short-range missiles twice this month.
- The president said he will provide $15 billion in assistance to U.S. farmers hurt by the trade war, because that’s “the most money that China has ever paid” for U.S. agricultural goods. But federal data show that China purchased nearly $27.2 billion in U.S. agricultural goods in 2012.
- Trump boasted that Honda is “coming in [to the U.S.] with $14.5 billion” in investments. A Michigan-based automotive research group says that Honda has announced $1.7 billion in U.S. vehicle manufacturing investments over the last five years.
- The president said he has “tremendous poll numbers now.” Trump’s average approval rating is currently below 43 percent.
Hunter Biden and Ukraine
At one point, Hilton raised Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” asking the president whether former White House aides should be allowed to lobby for foreign companies. The president pivoted to 2020 — implying that a potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, intervened while he was vice president to halt an investigation in Ukraine of his son, Hunter.
Trump twisted the facts when he said that the then-vice president threatened to withhold $2 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Ukraine dropped its investigation into Hunter and fired the prosecutor. There’s no evidence that Hunter was under investigation.
Trump: Biden, he calls them and says, “Don’t you dare prosecute, if you don’t fire this prosecutor” — the prosecutor was after his son. Then he said, “If you fire the prosecutor, you’ll be OK. And if you don’t fire the prosecutor, we’re not giving you $2 billion in loan guarantees,” or whatever he was supposed to give. Can you imagine if I did that?
Let’s review what we know — and don’t know — about the Bidens and Ukraine.
As vice president, Biden went to Ukraine and told the government that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Ukraine failed to address corruption and remove its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. We know this because Biden boasted about it last year during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The former vice president, who is now running for president, said the incident occurred during a visit to Kiev.
Biden, Jan. 23, 2018: I was supposed to announce that there was another billion-dollar loan guarantee. And I had gotten a commitment from [then-Ukraine President Petro] Poroshenko and from [then-Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor. And they didn’t.
So they said they had — they were walking out to a press conference. I said, nah, I’m not going to — or, we’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said, you have no authority. You’re not the president. The president said — I said, call him. I said, I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars. I said, you’re not getting the billion. I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. He got fired.
The U.S. wasn’t the only one critical of Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. A month earlier, the International Monetary Fund threatened to withhold $40 billion unless Ukraine undertook “a substantial new effort” to fight corruption.
At the time, Hunter Biden was a board member for the Burisma Group, one of the biggest private gas companies in Ukraine. He joined the board in May 2014, instantly raising concerns about a potential conflict of interest. An Associated Press article called Biden’s hiring “politically awkward.”
“Hunter Biden’s employment means he will be working as a director and top lawyer for a Ukrainian energy company during the period when his father and others in the Obama administration attempt to influence the policies of Ukraine’s new government, especially on energy issues,” the AP wrote.
However, there is no evidence that Hunter Biden was under investigation or that his father pressured Ukraine on his behalf.
A few days before Fox News aired the Trump interview, Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, gave his own interview to Bloomberg News and said: “Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing.”
Lutsenko told Bloomberg that the prosecutor general’s office in 2014 — before Shokin took office — opened a corruption investigation against Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma, and numerous others. He said the probe’s focus was Serghi Kurchenko, who owned a number of gas companies, and a transaction that occurred in November 2013, months before Biden joined Burisma.
Bloomberg News, May 16: As part of the 5-year-old inquiry, the prosecutor general’s office has been looking at whether Kurchenko’s purchase of an oil storage terminal in southern Ukraine from Zlochevksy in November 2013 helped Kurchenko launder money. Lutsenko said the transaction under scrutiny came months before Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board.
“Biden was definitely not involved,” Lutsenko said. “We do not have any grounds to think that there was any wrongdoing starting from 2014.”
The investigation is still active, he said.
North Korea and Nuclear Tests
The president also spoke about North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. Trump met with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un in June of last year, and the two leaders agreed to “promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
During Kim’s reign, North Korea has conducted numerous nuclear tests and missile launches — including four nuclear weapons tests and three test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
Trump: But, they haven’t had any tests over the last two years — zero. There’s a chart and it shows 24 tests, 22 tests, 18 tests. Then I come, and once I’m there for a little while you know, we went through a pretty rough rhetorical period. Once I’m there for a little while, no tests, no tests, no tests.
It’s true that North Korea has not conducted a nuclear test since Sept. 3, 2017, and it hasn’t launched an ICBM since Nov. 29, 2017. (See details in the Arms Control Association timeline.) But North Korea has conducted short-range missile tests twice this month, and it continues to actively pursue a nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. intelligence community released a threat assessment report in January that said, “We continue to observe activity inconsistent with full denuclearization.”
The report didn’t detail what kind of activity. But a week earlier, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington issued a report that said it found “approximately 20 undeclared missile operating bases,” including one that serves as a missile headquarters.
A month later, three Stanford University researchers issued a report that said North Korea “continued to operate and, in some cases, expand the nuclear weapons complex infrastructure. It continued to operate its nuclear facilities to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium that may allow it to increase the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal from roughly 30 in 2017 to 35-37.”
China and Trade
Another subject that the president addressed was the ongoing trade war with China.
The Trump administration last year imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, and China responded with tariffs on $110 billion of U.S. goods. The trade dispute escalated this month. First, the Trump administration on May 10 raised tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on about $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. China responded three days later when it announced that it would increase tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on roughly $60 billion worth of U.S. goods, beginning June 1.
The dispute has hurt U.S. agricultural exports in particular, and the administration responded by authorizing up to $12 billion in aid to U.S. farmers. Trump said he would increase financial assistance to $15 billion and explained how he arrived at that number.
Trump: I said to Sonny Perdue, Department of Agriculture — secretary of Agriculture – “Sonny, what’s the most money that China has ever paid toward agriculture, toward buying food product?” He said $15 billion a number of years ago. I said “Is that the most?” He said “Yes.” Some people will say close to (inaudible) but $15 billion was about the most. I said “Good. I’m going to take $15 billion out of the $100 billion, and I’m going to give that to our farmers.”
Trump told a similar story in a recent speech to the National Association of Realtors.
Trump, May 17: So I called Sonny Perdue, our great Secretary of Agriculture, and I said, “Sonny…” — (applause) — I said, “Sonny, what’s the biggest amount they’ve ever spent in this country?” He said, “About $15 billion. People could say 18, 19. But basically $15 billion.” And I said, “So let’s take $15 billion, set it aside out of the 100 or 125 billion [in annual tariffs imposed on all imports].”
We asked the White House and the Department of Agriculture about this conversation. Neither responded. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative referred us to the White House.
But this much we know based on available data and emails from two federal agencies: $15 billion isn’t “the biggest amount” that China has spent on U.S. agricultural exports.
In its annual reports on shifts in U.S. merchandise trade, the United States International Trade Commission reported that China purchased $27.2 billion in U.S. agricultural products in 2012 – the most in one year from 2010 to 2017.
The most recent USITC report covers 2013 to 2017, and a commission spokeswoman told us a new report covering 2018 would not be released until November. However, according to the Department of Agriculture, agricultural exports to China fell dramatically to $9.2 billion in 2018. That was “almost all due to retaliatory tariffs” imposed by China, Wallace E. Tyner, who teaches agricultural economics at Purdue University, told us in an email.
We also know that, as of the morning of May 20, the U.S. has paid $8.54 billion to farmers through three aid programs, a USDA spokesperson said.
The Market Facilitation Program — the largest of the three programs — can provide up to $10 billion to producers of corn, cotton, sorghum, soybean, wheat, dairy, hogs, almonds and sweet cherries, according to a December report by the Congressional Research Service on the trade aid programs. The top five commodities that received assistance through the program were soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton and sorghum, the USDA spokesperson told us.
We found that, from 2009 through 2018, the most that China imported of those five commodities in any one year totaled nearly $20 billion, according to Census Bureau export data. That occurred in 2012, when China’s agricultural purchases included nearly $14.9 billion in soybeans, $3.4 billion in raw cotton and $1.3 billion in corn, according to Census data.
As we said, we don’t know what the president meant when he said that $15 billion was “the biggest amount they’ve ever spent in this country.” We will update this item if the White House responds.
Honda and U.S. Investments
In talking about the U.S. economy, Trump boasted about companies coming to the United States — singling out one car company in particular.
Trump: Well, really very simply, we have companies coming in here, as you know, by the dozens and by the hundreds and big ones, car companies, Honda’s coming in with $14.5 billion.
We don’t know how many companies have relocated to the U.S. or have left the U.S. But the president overestimates Honda’s future investment in the U.S.
On its website, Honda said that its total capital investment in the U.S. (not just auto manufacturing) has been $21 billion over the last 60 years, including $5.6 billion in the last five years. We could not find any new automotive investments that would equal $14.5 billion, so we reached out to the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research Group, which tracks new investments in the United States.
Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics, told us that she, too, could not match the $14.5 billion figure cited by Trump, and “we try to keep very close tabs on these things.” She said Honda has announced auto manufacturing investments totaling $1.7 billion over the last five years.
In February, Honda announced that it would close a manufacturing plant in Swindon, England, in 2121, when it stops production of its current Civic model. Honda Chief Executive Officer Takahiro Hachigo told Automotive News that the next generation Civic will be manufactured in North America, but the company has yet to say where the plant or plants will be located.
Update, May 24: “We have not provided any further detail other than we are considering production of Civic for North America in North America,” Honda corporate spokesman Chris Abbruzzese told us in an email. He provided us with a list of $712 million worth of vehicle manufacturing investments that Honda had made in the United States in 2017 and 2018.
“We do not disclose our future investment plans publicly,” Abbruzzese said.
Trump’s Approval Rating
The president also boasted that he has “tremendous poll numbers now.”
It’s subjective, of course, to describe one’s poll numbers as “tremendous.” But Trump’s average job approval rating — based on polling data assembled from dozens of polls by Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight — is currently below 43 percent.
As of May 22, Trump’s average job approval rating on Real Clear Politics was 42.5 percent, and FiveThirtyEight put it at 41.1 percent. By contrast, those who disapproved of Trump’s job performance averaged 53.7 percent, according to Real Clear Politics, and 53.8 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.
As for individual polls taken this month, Trump’s job approval rating reached a peak of 51 percent in the Zogby Poll, which was conducted May 2 to May 9 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent. The low point was a Morning Consult poll, which showed the president at 37 percent. That poll was taken May 17 to 19, and had an error margin of plus or minus 2 percent.
As we often find, the president also repeated some false claims that we have previously debunked:
China Trade Deficit: The president said, “We have a trade deficit with China of $500 billion.” That’s false. As we have written before, the U.S. trade deficit with China in goods and services was a record $378.7 billion in 2018, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (see table 3). The U.S. had a $419.3 billion deficit with China in goods (table 6) and a $40.5 billion surplus in services (table 9).
Tariff Revenue: Trump said that, as a result of tariffs he has placed on Chinese goods, “we are going to be taking in possibly $100 billion, possibly more than that in tariffs. We never took in 10 cents from China.” It’s not true, as we have previously said, that the U.S. has never collected tariffs on Chinese goods. The amount of tariff revenue has increased, but the U.S. did collect billions of dollars each year since at least 2000. For example, the U.S. collected about $13.4 billion in 2016, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission database. As we also wrote, tariffs are taxes paid by U.S. importers in the form of customs duties, not by the Chinese government or its companies.
Liquefied Natural Gas Exporting. The president said, “I was in Louisiana opening up a $10 billion LNG plant that would’ve never been approved under another type of administration, never,” and, “They’ve been trying for years to get it built, but we got approvals very quickly for the big LNG.” That’s false. As we wrote before, the plant in question, Sempra Energy’s Cameron LNG plant, was approved in 2014 by the Obama administration, a fact Sempra Energy confirmed.
Update, Sept. 27: An earlier version of this story said that Biden’s threat to withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine occurred in March 2016. We could not verify the exact date when Biden issued his ultimatum.