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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking July’s Round Two Debate

Several of the factual distortions concerned what the candidates had to say about one another.


Another debate, and another crop of false and misleading claims.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Vice President Joe Biden disagreed on whether his health care plan would “cover everyone.” Biden’s website says it would “insure more than an estimated 97% of Americans.”
  • Biden claimed that Harris’ health care plan would raise “middle-class taxes,” but Harris has said she would exempt households with up to $100,000 in income, with a higher threshold in “high-cost areas.”
  • Several candidates glossed over the fact that a Medicare for All plan would require an increase in federal taxes, but would also eliminate or reduce health care spending by other payers, such as employers and individuals.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said that Biden wrote in a 1981 op-ed “that he believed that women working outside the home would, quote, ‘create the deterioration of [the] family.’” The op-ed never explicitly said that, and Biden was quoted at the time as saying either parent could stay home to raise the couple’s children.
  • Businessman Andrew Yang said “Amazon is closing 30% of America’s stores” — a claim we find has no basis in fact — and that the internet giant “is paying zero taxes,” though the Wall Street Journal concludes Amazon probably paid an 8% rate over the years 2012-2018.
  • Biden said that President Barack Obama “came up with the idea the first time ever, dealing with the Dreamers,” and “put that into law.” Biden was referring to an executive action — not a law, as he said — that temporarily deferred deportation for those brought into the U.S. illegally as children.
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio claimed the city “could not proceed” in taking disciplinary action against a police officer involved in the 2014 death of Eric Garner “because the Justice Department was pursuing their prosecution.” The New York City Police Department said it delayed out of “deference” to the DOJ, not a prohibition.
  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey referred to climate change as “the crisis that is existential,” and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said “the survival of humanity on this planet” depends on the next president. Scientists, however, don’t think climate change will wipe out humans from the Earth.
  • Biden attacked Harris’ past record in California, describing police department abuse that occurred under her watch that led to the release of 1,000 “prisoners.” Biden’s account — which Harris said was “simply not true” —  is broadly accurate, but he got a few important details wrong.
  • Harris talked about women not being “paid equally for equal work,” but then cited figures that were not representative of men and women doing the same work.
  • De Blasio said, “We got rid of stop and frisk.” The controversial police tactic has been largely curtailed in New York City but not completely eliminated. 

CNN hosted the second of two Democratic debates on July 31 in Detroit, with another field of 10 candidates. For our story on the first night, see “FactChecking the Second Democratic Debate.”

Harris-Biden Spar on Health Care

Biden initially said that his health care plan would cover the “vast, vast, vast majority” of Americans, but when pushed by Harris, he later said it would “cover everyone.” His own campaign website says otherwise.

Harris: I’m going to go back to Vice President Biden, because your plan does not cover everyone in America.

By your staff’s and your own definition, 10 million people — as many as 10 million people will not have access to health care. And in 2019 in America, for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone, I think is without excuse. Our plan covers everyone. …

Biden: My plan does — will cover everyone, number one.

Biden’s website does not claim that his health care plan would cover everyone in the U.S.

Biden’s plan calls for, among other things, offering a Medicare-style public health insurance option as a choice and increasing tax credits for individuals purchasing insurance on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges.

His website says his plan to “build on the Affordable Care Act” will “insure more than an estimated 97% of Americans.”

Harris’ campaign told us she gets to Biden leaving “as many as 10 million people” uninsured by calculating 3 percent of the currently estimated U.S. population of 329.3 million, which works out to 9.88 million people. However, that figure includes more than just “Americans,” as Biden’s campaign website said, because not everyone living in the U.S. is a citizen.

It’s worth noting that Biden’s campaign has reportedly said that under his plan, immigrants living in the U.S. illegally would be able to purchase insurance through the ACA exchanges, which is currently not allowed. Those immigrants still wouldn’t be eligible for federal subsidies, his campaign explained.

We asked Biden’s campaign about his debate claim of coverage for everyone, but we did not receive a response.

Harris-Biden on Health Care, Round Two

Biden launched his own health care attack on Harris, saying her plan “will require middle-class taxes to go up, not down.”

Harris has proposed her own version of a Medicare for All plan that features an expanded Medicare system, including private insurers, and phased in over a 10-year period.

But, in a July 29 Medium post, Harris said her plan to pay for her proposal will “exempt households making below $100,000, along with a higher income threshold for middle-class families living in high-cost areas.”

She said she would take that approach because, to pay for his Medicare for All plan, Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed potentially charging a 4 percent income-based premium for families of four making over $29,000. “I believe this hits the middle class too hard,” Harris’ post said.

The Biden campaign did not respond to our request for an explanation of his claim of a middle-class tax hike.

Cost of Medicare for All

In a lengthy back-and-forth about how much a Medicare for All proposal would cost in taxes, the candidates glossed over the fact that such a universal health care plan would raise federal taxes substantially but would decrease or eliminate all other sources of payment for health care. One side in this argument — Bennet and Biden — focused only on the taxes, while the other side — Harris and de Blasio — focused on costs in the current health care system.

Bennet said that “the plan that Senator Warren and Senator Sanders and Senator Harris have proposed” would “massively raise taxes on the middle class to the tune of $30 trillion.” (See our item above on the “middle class” claim.) De Blasio later responded: “Certainly, with all due respect to Senator Bennet, what he’s saying is absolutely inaccurate about taxes. Americans right now are paying so much money for their health care, ask people about the reality of premiums, deductibles, copays, out-of-pocket expenses.”

Bennet countered: “Bernie Sanders … is the guy who says it will cost $32 trillion and that we’re going to have to raise those taxes to pay for it. … Don’t try to distract from the truth.” Biden sided with Bennet, saying: “Thirty trillion dollars has to ultimately be paid. And I don’t know what math you do in New York, I don’t know what math you do in California, but I tell ya, that’s a lot of money, and there will be a deductible. The deductible will be out of your paycheck, because that’s what will be required.”

Earlier, Biden had said: “The plan, no matter how you cut it, costs $3 trillion when it is, in fact, employed, number one,” to which Harris responded, “First of all, the cost of doing nothing is far too expensive. Second, we are now paying $3 trillion a year for health care in America.”

Harris is right about what we spend now. Total national health care expenditures were $3.5 trillion in 2017, according to the National Health Expenditure Accounts.

As we’ve explained before, we don’t know how much Medicare for All — or Harris’ new health care plan, which preserves a role for private insurers — would ultimately cost, since many details are yet to be determined. But two estimates, one by the Urban Institute and another by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said the federal government cost would be $32 trillion or $32.6 trillion over 10 years. The government would have to raise taxes or fees, or cut other spending, to cover the costs. But, as Bennet and Biden leave out, current health care spending by private insurers, employers, individuals and states would shift to the federal government.

Biden and Child Care

Gillibrand asked Biden to explain statements that he made in a 1981 newspaper op-ed about legislation to expand a federal child care tax credit.

“He voted against it, the only vote, but what he wrote in an op-ed was that he believed that women working outside the home would, quote, ‘create the deterioration of family,’” Gillibrand said. “He also said that women who were working outside the home were, quote, ‘avoiding responsibility.’” 

That’s not exactly what Biden wrote.

The op-ed, which her campaign communications director posted on Twitter, was critical of expanding the federal tax credit for those Biden called “upper-income families.”

Biden wrote that it is “legitimate and necessary” for the government to help “single parents on limited incomes to get off of welfare” or “families of modest means to adequately provide the material necessities of child-rearing.” But he called it ridiculous for the government to subsidize child care expenses for an “upper-income family” that wants a second income to buy a swimming pool or a larger home.

He offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have imposed an income cutoff, writing that 6,000 families earning more than $100,000 claimed the tax credit in 1978. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $100,000 would be equivalent to about $400,000 in today’s dollars.)

Gillibrand mentioned none of that, but she instead focused on another argument that Biden made in his op-ed: two-income families are resulting in “the deterioration of family.”

“I think it’s a sad commentary on our society when the Senate of the United States says, as a matter of social policy, that we should make it easier for people who have neither the financial necessity nor personal need to forsake their responsibility to care for their own children,” Biden wrote, calling himself “old-fashioned.”

Gillibrand said that Biden wrote “that he believed that women working outside the home would, quote, ‘create the deterioration of family,’” but the op-ed never explicitly said that women should stay home to care for children. And, in a recent story on Biden’s position on the 1981 legislation, HuffPost said a news story quoted Biden at the time as saying either the man or woman could stay home.

“I do not care whether in a modern marriage you want the man or the woman to take that responsibility. That has to be resolved by each couple individually,” Biden was quoted as saying in the July 29, 1981, edition of the Indianapolis News.

But, as the HuffPost noted, Biden’s position at the time “would have disproportionately affected women” — which led Gillibrand to ask Biden twice if he “no longer believes” that women should stay at home and not work.

“I never believed it,” Biden said.

Yang Wrong About Amazon

Businessman Andrew Yang went way beyond the facts when he said, “Amazon is closing 30 percent of America’s stores and malls and paying zero in taxes while doing it.” (He was arguing for higher taxes on corporations to finance his plan to give $1,000 per month to every American.)

We find no support for the claim that 30% of U.S. stores are closing, much less that Amazon.com Inc. is the sole cause.  Furthermore, the online giant has paid federal income taxes over the years. The Wall Street Journal has estimated that Amazon paid 8% of its income in taxes for the years 2012 through 2018 — which the Journal noted was “low, but not zero or negative.”

Store closures — When we asked Yang’s campaign for evidence to support his claim, his staff cited a 2017 Business Insider report estimating that 30% of retail malls (not stores) were being pushed “to the brink of death” by a wave of store closures announced by JCPenney, Macy’s, Sears, American Apparel, The Limited and Abercrombie & Fitch. Yang’s staff also pointed to a 2016 CNBC interview with retail analyst Jan Kniffen, who predicted that about one-third of retail malls (not stores) were “not long for this world.”

But neither article said Amazon was the sole cause. Kniffen laid the blame on too many stores. “On an apples-to-apples basis, we have twice as much per-capita retail space as any other place in the world,” Kniffen said. In the video interview, Kniffen cited Amazon as a contributing factor. The Business Insider report didn’t mention Amazon at all. It cited “declining customer traffic, falling occupancy rates, and low sales productivity” in “lower quality malls.” 

We also note that Yang spoke of “stores and malls” and not just “malls.” Malls and stores are two different things, and the number of stores may be going up.

The National Retail Federation reports that “54 percent of surveyed retailers plan to open new stores in 2019, and 36 percent of those surveyed will have a higher store count than in 2018.” One example of a flourishing brick-and-mortar store chain is retailer Dollar General — which says it puts its stores in “convenient neighborhood locations,” as opposed to malls. Since 2007, Dollar General has nearly doubled the number of its stores, from 8,194 to 15,597 as of May 3 this year.

So we find the claim that 30 percent of “stores” are closing is without factual support.

Taxes — It was widely reported that in 2018 Amazon paid $0 in federal income taxes — and actually got a $129 million rebate — mainly as a result of the 2017 corporate tax cut signed by President Trump. But the Wall Street Journal later reported it is not actually certain that Amazon paid zero tax in 2018 (tax returns are private under federal law). And based on Amazon’s financial disclosures to investors, the Journal said: “From 2012 through 2018, Amazon reported $25.4 billion in pretax U.S. income and current federal tax provisions totaling $1.9 billion. That is an 8% tax rate—low, but not zero or negative.”

Obama and Dreamers

At one point in the debate, de Blasio pressed Biden to explain his position on “all those deportations” that occurred during the Obama administration.

“You were vice president of the United States. I didn’t hear whether you tried to stop them or not, using your power, your influence in the White House,” de Blasio said. “Do you think it was a good idea, or you think it was something that needed to be stopped?”

Biden responded by praising Obama’s record on immigration, but the former vice president went too far.

Biden: The president came along, and he’s the guy that came up with the idea, first time ever, dealing with the Dreamers. He put that in the law. He had talked about a comprehensive plan which he put on the – laid before the Congress, saying that we should find a pathway to citizenship for people. He said we should up the number of people that we’re able to bring in to this country.

As president, Obama did support a comprehensive immigration plan, but he wasn’t successful in getting it into law. As a result, Obama resorted to using his executive powers to temporarily defer deportation for so-called Dreamers.

The executive action, which Obama announced on June 15, 2012, allowed young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to apply for work permits without fear of deportation for two years, subject to renewal, if they meet certain eligibility requirements. The policy — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — applies to those who are 30 or younger and who came to the U.S. before the age of 16.

But Obama did not “put that in the law,” as Biden said.

The Biden campaign told us that the policy has the force of law. But, because it is not a law, another president can rescind it. That is exactly what Trump has done — resulting in a state of limbo for many young people still living in the U.S. without legal status.

In a fact sheet on the history of the DREAM Act, the American Immigration Council recounts how Trump has attempted to rescind the policy but has been partially blocked by the courts. Currently, the program is not accepting new applicants, but those in the program or those who have been in the program in the past can apply for renewal of the DACA protections on a two-year basis, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

A law would have provided the so-called Dreamers with permanent legal status. But such legislation has failed to garner enough Republican support — even though the first Senate bill was introduced in 2001 by a Republican, then-Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. 

“The first version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced in 2001. As a result, young undocumented immigrants have since been called Dreamers,” the American Immigration Council fact sheet says. “Over the last 18 years, at least ten versions of the Dream Act have been introduced in Congress. While the various versions of the Dream Act have contained some key differences, they all would have provided a pathway to legal status for undocumented youth who came to this country as children.”

NYC Action in Garner Case

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio falsely claimed that a federal investigation barred the city from taking action against the police officer involved in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, a black man killed while being arrested for illegally selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island.

The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York announced on July 16 that there would be no federal civil rights charges in the case. The high-profile case became a focus during the debate, as protesters interrupted candidates with calls for the firing for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who placed Garner in a chokehold.

At one point, moderator Jake Tapper asked de Blasio: “Why is that police officer still on the force, the one who killed Eric Garner? Please respond.”

De Blasio replied: “Well, let me tell you. I know the Garner family. They’ve gone through extraordinary pain. They are waiting for justice and they are going to get justice. There’s finally going to be justice. I have confidence in that — in the next 30 days — in New York. You know why? Because for the first time, we are not waiting on the federal Justice Department, which told the city of New York that we could not proceed because the Justice Department was pursuing their prosecution. And years went by, and a lot of pain accrued.”

But de Blasio’s own previous statements affirm that the city deferred to the Justice Department — not that the city was technically prevented from taking disciplinary action.

“Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act. We won’t make that mistake again,” de Blasio said in a July 16 statement. “New York City is not the same city it was five years ago. We are a different city, and we must act like a different city. Moving forward, we will not wait for the federal government to commence our own disciplinary proceedings.”

Likewise, a New York City Police Department deputy commissioner said in a 2018 letter to the Justice Department that the force had delayed disciplinary proceedings out of “deference to ongoing requests from the U.S. Department of Justice … so as not to have an adverse impact on any ongoing federal criminal civil rights investigation or possible federal criminal prosecution.”

A Justice Department media statement responding to that letter said the DOJ had “informed” the deputy commissioner “this spring” that “the New York Police Department may move forward with their disciplinary proceedings as they deem appropriate.”

The police department’s disciplinary trial for Pantaleo concluded in June. A decision is still forthcoming.

Climate Change

Two candidates, Booker and Inslee, used language of survival and existence to describe the threat of climate change, which could be misleading.

Booker said during the climate section of the debate, “Everything must be sublimated, to the challenge and the crisis that is existential, which is dealing with the climate threat.”

Inslee, in his closing remarks, echoed that sentiment.

Inslee: For decades, we have kicked the can down the road on climate change. And now under Donald Trump, we face a looming catastrophe. But it is not too late. We have one last chance. And when you have one chance in life, you take it. Think about this: Literally the survival of humanity on this planet and civilization as we know it is in the hands of the next president. 

Many other candidates have also used the word “existential” in the past to describe the threat of climate change, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren in last night’s debate

The language is vague, so it’s hard to tell exactly what is meant in each case, but it’s worth noting that climate scientists do not expect climate change to eliminate the human race from the planet.

“There is too much over-heated rhetoric these days arguing that all life, including human beings, will go extinct,” said Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann about climate change in an email. “That simply cannot be defended scientifically.”

Nevertheless, he said it was valid to argue that if the world fails to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it could lead to levels of warming and other climate effects — including sea level rise and extreme weather events — that represent threats to civilization.

“A ‘Mad Max’-like future, while not constituting extinction per se,” he said, “is not a future any of us would want to live in.”

Sonali McDermid, a climate scientist at New York University, agreed. “While I don’t think [climate change] will annihilate our species, I think it will make this planet a much more difficult place to live, negatively impact a lot of people who had very little to do with causing the problem, and generally compromise our well-being,” she said.

Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at NASA, also concurred with that assessment. 

“Do I think climate change is going to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth?” he asked. “No.”

But the effects could be serious, he said, and are likely to depend on where one lives. “It could be existential in a given locality if the impacts are so severe that the current way of life is no longer tenable,” he said.

Inslee’s comments also imply that the next four or so years represent a “last chance” to take action on climate change. That’s unlikely to be true. 

As we’ve explained before, scientists don’t view climate change as having a hard cutoff. Being aggressive on emissions now will certainly reduce negative consequences and make it easier in the long run to address the challenge, but that does not mean efforts at a later date would have no impact.

Biden on Harris’ 1,000 ‘Prisoners’

Biden related a story from Harris’ past that charged her with failing to prevent abuse in the criminal justice system.

Biden: Secondly, she also was in a situation where she had a police department when she was there that in fact was abusing people’s rights. And the fact was that she in fact was told by her own people that her own staff that she should do something about and disclose to defense attorneys like me that you in fact have been — the police officer did something that did not give you information [that would exculpate] your — your client. She didn’t do that. She never did it. And so what happened.

Along came a federal judge and said enough, enough. And he freed 1,000 of these people. If you doubt me, Google 1,000 prisoners freed, Kamala Harris.

When allowed to respond, Harris said, “That is — is simply not true.”

Biden is likely referring to events when Harris was district attorney of San Francisco. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2005, against the advice of her staff, Harris did not institute a so-called “Brady policy” that would have required prosecutors to inform defendants of any past misconduct by law enforcement. 

In 2010, a crime lab tech was found to be stealing drug evidence from the lab, which led to a scandal in which 1,000 drug cases were dismissed.

A Superior Court judge, Anne-Christine Massullo, reprimanded Harris, saying in a court order that the “District Attorney failed to disclose information that clearly should have been disclosed.”

After the scandal, Harris did institute a Brady policy.

Based on the reporting, Biden’s version of events mostly hews to what happened. But he erred in saying Harris never implemented a Brady policy and when referencing 1,000 “prisoners” being freed, when that was the number of cases that were dropped. He also misidentified the judge by gender and court level.

Harris on Gender Pay Gap

Harris suggested that figures representing the pay gap between men and women who work full-time, year round, were for men and women doing “equal work.”

Harris: Since 1963, when we passed the Equal Pay Act, we have been talking about the fact women are not paid equally for equal work. Fast forward to the year of our lord 2019, and women are paid 80 cents on the dollar, black women 61 cents, Native American woman 58 cents, Latinas 53 cents.

Harris appears to be citing figures the National Partnership for Women & Families published in May. But the statistics are not representative of men and women doing the same work.

“Nationally, the median annual pay for a woman who holds a full-time, year-round job is $41,977 while the median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $52,146,” the NPWF fact sheet says. “This means that, overall, women in the United States are paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to an annual gender wage gap of $10,169.”

And for women of color, the comparison wasn’t to all men, but to non-Hispanic white males working full-time, year-round.

“Among women who hold full-time, year-round jobs in the United States, Black women are typically paid 61 cents, Native American women 58 cents and Latinas just 53 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men,” the fact sheet explains.

Now, as we’ve written before, an April 2019 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research analyzed the gap in median weekly earnings for male and female full-time workers doing the same job. It did conclude that “[w]omen’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations,” but the gaps varied widely depending on the occupation.

The group’s report on 2018 earnings says that the female-to-male earnings ratio for all full–time weekly workers was 81.1 percent, and women’s percentage of their male counterparts’ median weekly earnings was higher than that in 14 of the top 20 most common occupations for women.

Those who made nearly as much as their male counterparts included cashiers and customer service representatives (almost 99 percent); bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks (95 percent); social workers (nearly 94 percent); and registered nurses (91 percent). And in two cases, female workers earned more than their male counterparts: receptionists and information clerks (102 percent) and general office clerks (nearly 105 percent).

On the other hand, the analysis shows that women do not earn more than men in any of the top 20 male-dominated occupations.

The study didn’t find enough data for female workers to make a valid comparison in five of those fields, but in the other 15 professions for which comparable data are available, women earned more than 81.1 percent of their male counterparts’ earnings in just six professions, including software developers (nearly 87 percent) and laborers and freight, stock and material movers (87.3 percent).

De Blasio on ‘Stop and Frisk’

De Blasio used his opening remarks to tout his mayoral record, including on crime. “We got rid of stop and frisk and we lowered crime,” he said.

De Blasio’s claim would benefit from additional context. The controversial policy of stopping people for suspicious activity — Stop, Question and Frisk — has been largely curtailed under de Blasio, but the most recent data available show such stops are not gone altogether.

As we’ve explained before, such stops were already on the decline when de Blasio took office in early 2014, but they have been greatly reduced under his administration. The number of such stops was at nearly 700,000 in 2011, according to New York City Police Department data. That was reduced to about 192,000 in 2013 — the year before de Blasio took office — and then to nearly 46,000 in 2014. Since then, the number of stops has dropped to about 11,000 in 2018.

The de Blasio campaign could not provide data for 2019. “We ended the era of mass stop & frisk — which was really at its peak in 2011,” a de Blasio spokeswoman told us.

As for de Blasio’s claim about lowered crime in the city, many crimes in New York have indeed declined under his administration. The total number of major felony offenses, for example, has dropped every year under de Blasio, NYPD data show. For more on that, see The Trumps vs. de Blasio on NYC Crime.”


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People of the State of California v. Bilbao. Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Franscisco. 17 May 2010.

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Joe Biden wrote in a 1981 op-ed “that he believed that women working outside the home would, quote, ‘create the deterioration of [the] family.’”
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Sen. Kamala Harris' health care plan “will require middle-class taxes to go up, not down.”
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