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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Error-filled Cabinet Meeting

For more than an hour, President Donald Trump presided over a cabinet meeting, reeling off numerous false or misleading claims:

  • Trump claimed, without evidence, that President Barack Obama tried to call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “11 times” but that “the man on the other side … did not take his call” due to a “lack of respect.” Obama’s national security adviser and deputy national security adviser both called Trump’s claim false.
  • Trump took credit for making a “deal” between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds that he said “people have been trying to make” for years. One expert called this claim “nonsense.” The deal is only a five-day pause in the conflict that arose when Trump pulled U.S. troops from the Syria-Turkey border.
  • The president boasted that “nobody has ever done” a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day until he took office. In fact, it started in 2010.
  • He wrongly claimed that “many” of the “ambassadors” House Democrats are interviewing in the impeachment inquiry were “put there” by past administrations. Seven of the nine officials who have testified behind closed doors so far were appointed to their most recent positions under Trump’s administration.
  • Trump made the illogical and unsubstantiated claim that there was no informant who provided information to the whistleblower, whose complaint triggered an impeachment inquiry. And even more absurdly, Trump suggested the informant was Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee.
  • Trump was wrong in saying “no other president” has donated his salary. John F. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover also did so, according to news reports and Hoover’s library.
  • In defending the quashed plans to hold the next G-7 at his own resort, Trump suggested that Obama getting a book deal was like “running a business” while Obama was in office. The deal came after Obama left office.
  • Trump said, “China is doing very poorly — worst year they’ve had in 57 years.” China announced its economy grew by 6% in the third quarter of 2019, when compared with the same period the previous year. That was “the weakest pace in at least 27-1/2 years,” according to a Reuter’s analysis of quarterly data.

Trump made his remarks during an Oct. 21 cabinet meeting, which started — after a prayer from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson — with the president talking about the U.S. economy, which he described as doing “fantastically well.” (See “Trump’s Numbers October 2019 Update” for a statistical measure of how things have changed since Trump took office.)

Calling Kim Jong Un

Trump claimed, without evidence, that President Barack Obama tried to call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “11 times,” but Kim “did not take his call.”

Trump, Oct. 21: I like Kim; he likes me. We get along. I respect him; he respects me. You could end up in a war. President Obama told me that. He said, “The biggest problem — I don’t know how to solve it.” He told me doesn’t know how to solve it. I said, “Did you ever call him?” “No.” Actually, he tried 11 times. But the man on the other side — the gentleman on the side did not take his call. Okay? Lack of respect. But he takes my call.

Obama’s national security adviser and deputy national security adviser both called Trump’s claim false.

Susan Rice, who served under Obama as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 and as Obama’s national security adviser from 2013 to 2017, tweeted that Trump’s claim is “a total fabrication.” She added, “Trump is completely delusional, and it’s scary.”

Likewise, Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, tweeted, “Obama never called Kim Jong Un. Obama never tried to meet Kim Jong Un. Trump is a serial liar and not well.”

Trump’s claim is similar to one we fact-checked back in July. Then, Trump said Obama was “constantly … begging for meetings” but that Kim Jong Un refused. As we wrote then, Obama administration officials and experts on U.S.-North Korea relations said that’s not true.

“At the risk of stating the obvious, this is horse-sh*t,” Rice tweeted then. “Yes. It’s horseshit,” added Gen. Michael Hayden, via TwitterHayden served as director of the CIA from 2006 to Feb. 12, 2009, shortly after Obama took office.

A Deal Between Turkey and Syrian Kurds

Trump praised his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, saying the subsequent fighting that resulted between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds sparked a “deal” that he claimed “people have been trying to make” for years.

Trump, Oct. 21: If shooting didn’t start for a couple of days, I don’t think the Kurds would have moved. I don’t think, frankly, you would’ve been able to make a very easy deal with Turkey. … If they didn’t go through two and a half days of hell, I don’t think they would’ve done it. I think you couldn’t have made a deal. And people have been trying to make this deal for years. But we’re close to making it. We’ll see what happens.

Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, called Trump’s claim of failed past attempts to broker such a deal “complete nonsense.”

“There is no effort of any sorts in the past between Turkey and Syrian Kurds,” Barkey told us in an email. “He is making things up.”

On Oct. 6, the White House announced it would withdraw U.S. special forces in northern Syria and that Turkey would soon move “forward with its long-planned [military] operation” against the Syrian Kurds, who had been U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Three days later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started “Operation Peace Spring,” resulting in dozens of deaths of civilians and Kurdish fighters.

After bipartisan criticism, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to meet with Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, where on Oct. 17 they announced a five-day pause in the Turkish military operation to “allow for the withdrawal of YPG” from “the nearly 20-mile-wide safe zone area, south of the Turkish border in Syria.” The People’s Protection Units, or the YPG, is the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

Turkey does have a long history of conflict with the Kurds, but direct Turkish involvement in northern Syria dates only to 2016. In August 2016, Turkey began Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria to clear the area of Islamic State terrorists and “prevent the YPG from establishing an autonomous area along the northern Syrian border with Turkey,” as explained in a January Congressional Research Service report.

Turkey felt threatened by the Syrian Kurds on its border. The Kurds were hoping for support from their allies in Washington, D.C. “Syrian Kurds wanted political recognition from DC,” and “down the road support for their autonomous state” in northern Syria, Barkey said.

National Prescription Take Back Day

Trump falsely said that “nobody has ever done” a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, an event in which Americans can safely dispose of unused prescription drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration began holding such national events in 2010.

Trump’s claim followed a briefing from White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on an upcoming take-back day on Oct. 26. After thanking Conway, he said, “Take Back Day is a big deal. And they’ve been talking about it for a long time. Nobody has ever done it. But it is big.”

The scheduled take back day, however, will not be the first, nor was the first national take back under Trump’s watch.

The initiative launched under Obama in 2010, with the primary aim of reducing misuse of old prescription drugs. The DEA has since organized two events each year — one in the spring and one in the fall — to encourage people to get rid of drugs lingering in their medicine cabinets. The most recent one was in April; Saturday’s take back will be the 18th event.

At the April 2016 event, the DEA collected a then-record 893,498 pounds of unwanted medicines. A new record was set two years later with 949,046 pounds. So far, across all 17 completed events, the DEA has collected nearly 12 million pounds of drugs.

During a take back, people can drop off their expired, unused or unwanted medications anonymously and for free — no questions asked — at a variety of locations across the country. This year, for the first time, the DEA will accept vaping devices and cartridges, in light of the recent spate of deaths and lung injuries linked to those products.

This isn’t the first time that Trump has falsely taken credit for launching a new program. 

Last October, he took credit for the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek health care outside of the VA if there are long wait times or travel burdens, and falsely added that it had taken “44 years” to pass the legislation. In fact, the program was created in 2014 under Obama. And in July 2018, Trump inaccurately said that prior to a law he signed in 2017, there was “nothing you could do” to get rid of VA employees who mistreat military veterans. On average, around 2,300 VA workers were fired each fiscal year before Trump’s legislation going back to 2005.

Trump Appointees

In remarks about the ongoing House impeachment inquiry, Trump wrongly claimed that “many” of the “ambassadors” Democratic-controlled House committees are interviewing were “put there during Obama, during Clinton, during the Never Trump or Bush era.”

Actually, among the nine government officials who have testified in closed sessions so far, just two were appointed to their current or recently resigned positions under the Obama administration. The other seven were appointed by Trump or Trump appointees, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Trump, Oct. 21: They’re interviewing — they’re interviewing ambassadors who I’d never heard of. I don’t know who these people are. I never heard of them. … Don’t forget, many of these people were put there during Obama, during Clinton, during the Never Trump or Bush era.

Let’s go through the list:

  • Steve A. Linick, the State Department inspector general, met with impeachment investigators on Oct. 2 and provided documents pertaining to Ukraine. Linick was appointed to the IG job by then-President Obama in 2013, and had served in the Justice Department under then-President George W. Bush and Obama from 2006 to 2010.
  • Kurt Volker was appointed special representative for Ukraine negotiations on July 7, 2017, by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a Trump appointee. Volker resigned from that job on Sept. 27 and testified before the House committees on Oct. 3.
  • Michael K. Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, was nominated to the post by Trump in November 2017 and sworn in on May 17, 2018. Atkinson, who worked in the Justice Department for more than 15 years under both Republican and Democratic administrations, testified on Oct. 4.
  • George P. Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the European and Eurasian bureau, assumed that job on Sept. 4, 2018, under Secretary of State Pompeo, a Trump appointee. He joined the foreign service in 1992; he testified Oct. 15.
  • Gordon Sondland, a Trump nominee, was confirmed as ambassador to the European Union on June 29, 2018. Sondland, the founder and CEO of Provenance Hotels, donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee through four companies registered to him, according to The Intercept. He testified on Oct. 17.
  • Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch was nominated to be ambassador to Ukraine by Obama on May 18, 2016, and confirmed by the Senate two months later. Yovanovitch, who joined the foreign service in 1986, was removed from her post by the Trump administration in May. She testified on Oct. 11.
  • Michael McKinley, another career diplomat, who joined the foreign service in 1982, was appointed senior adviser to Pompeo in May 2018. He testified on Oct. 16, days after resigning.
  • William B. Taylor served under the Bush and Obama administrations and was appointed chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine in June after Yovanovitch was removed as ambassador. Taylor had been ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. He testified on Oct. 22.
  • Fiona Hill became deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs under the National Security Council in 2017. Hill resigned this summer and testified on Oct. 14.

That list doesn’t include Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, a Trump appointee, who publicly testified before the House intelligence committee on Sept. 26.

Trump’s Strange Whistleblower Theory

Trump also made the illogical claim that there was no informant who provided information to the whistleblower. And even more absurdly, Trump suggested the informant was Rep. Adam Schiff.

Trump said the whistleblower relied on “second- and thirdhand information” and Trump questioned the very existence of an informant who told the whistleblower about the content of Trump’s July phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Trump, Oct. 21: Now, I happen to think there probably wasn’t an informant. You know, the informant went to the whistleblower, the whistleblower had second- and thirdhand information. You remember that. It was a big problem. But the information was wrong. So was there actually an informant? Maybe the informant was Schiff. It could be Shifty Schiff. In my opinion, it’s possibly Schiff.

Later, in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Trump reiterated his groundless theory.

Trump, Oct. 21: And where is the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because is that person a spy? Or does that person even exist? I have a feeling that person doesn’t exist. I think Schiff might’ve made it up.

Let’s quickly deconstruct why Trump’s theory makes no sense.

Despite Trump repeatedly claiming that the whistleblower “gave a totally false account of my conversation” with the Ukrainian president, as we have written, the whistleblower’s account of the phone call matches up with the White House-released memo. (Though the president takes issue with the whistleblower’s allegation that he “pressured” Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.)

Specifically, the whistleblower made these three claims that were corroborated by the memo: Trump asked Zelensky to “initiate or continue an investigation” into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden; assist the U.S. in investigating allegations that “Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine”; and “meet or speak” about these matters with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.

The whistleblower, described by the New York Times as a CIA officer who was detailed to the National Security Council, wrote in his complaint that while he did not participate in Trump’s phone call with the Ukraine president, “in the course of official interagency business” he was informed about details of the phone call by “multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call.”

The intelligence community’s inspector general conducted a preliminary review of the whistleblower’s complaint and determined there were “reasonable grounds to believe that the complaint relating to the urgent concern ‘appears credible.'” Fox News reported that during the closed-door testimony of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson to House lawmakers, it was revealed that the preliminary investigation included interviews with a handful of witnesses, including two of the whistleblower’s supervisors.

Since then, the New York Times reported that a second whistleblower, one with firsthand knowledge of the phone call, has stepped forward and was interviewed by Atkinson’s office.

Given that the original whistleblower did not participate directly in the Ukraine phone call, and yet got key details about it correct, it stands to reason he was provided that information by an informant.

As for Trump’s theory that the informant might be Schiff, that makes no sense. As we wrote, Schiff, chair of the House intelligence committee, wrongly implied that his committee had no contact with the whistleblower before receiving the complaint, when the whistleblower had in fact reached out to a committee aide before filing a complaint. Trump has speculated that Schiff “probably helped write” the complaint, but there’s no evidence of that, and a spokesman for Schiff and the House intelligence committee said in a statement, “At no point did the Committee review or receive the complaint in advance.”

But Schiff did not participate in the phone call, and therefore could not have provided details to the whistleblower about it, at least not unless Schiff was debriefed on the call by — an informant.

Trump Isn’t Only President to Donate Salary

Trump does indeed donate his salary, which we’ve written about before, but he was wrong when he said “no other president has done it.”

Trump, Oct. 21: I give away my salary. It’s, I guess, close to $450,000. I give it away. Nobody ever said he gives away his salary.  … They say that no other president has done it. … They think George Washington did, but they say no other.

Trump’s annual salary is $400,000, and the press has covered the quarterly announcements on which government programs would be receiving Trump’s donated salary.

But John F. Kennedy also donated his salary in 1961, according to a Nov. 14, 1962, news article that attributed that information to the Minneapolis Tribune and Des Moines Register. The article said Kennedy was following the practice of Herbert Hoover, who “banked his presidential salary and gave it entirely to charity,” according to the Hoover presidential library.

Snopes.com wrote about this issue before Trump took office, noting that in Washington’s case, according to one book, he did refuse the salary at first but then accepted it at Congress’ urging.

In his book, “George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour,” Warren L. Bingham wrote: “At first, Washington refused the salary, but Congress insisted on the principle, on which Washington also agreed, that the presidency should not be reserved for only those wealthy enough to work for free.”

Obama’s Book Deal

In defending his decision to host the 2020 G-7 at his Doral golf resort in Miami — and his subsequent reversal in the face of criticism — Trump claimed that other presidents “ran their business” while in office, citing Obama’s book and Netflix deals. But the book, reportedly a memoir on his presidency, and Netflix collaboration were announced after Obama left office.

Trump, Oct. 21: Hey, Obama made a deal for a book. Is that running a business? I’m sure he didn’t even discuss it while he was President. Oh, yeah. He has a deal with Netflix. When did they start talking about that? That’s only, you know, a couple of examples.

Penguin Random House announced on Feb. 28, 2017, a month after Obama left office, that it would publish books both by the former president and former First Lady Michelle Obama. The deal is reportedly worth about $65 million. Netflix announced a production deal with the Obamas in May 2018.

Trump also overlooks the fact that hosting the G-7 at Doral was akin to awarding a government contract to himself and accepting payments from foreign governments.

China’s Economy

Trump made several claims about China’s economy, and some of them were inaccurate.

First, Trump said, “China is doing very poorly — worst year they’ve had in 57 years.” Later, he claimed, “they announced that they have the worst numbers they’ve had in 20 years.” He was closer to being accurate the second time.

“They announced six,” Trump said, referring to China’s growth in its real gross domestic product.

Most recently, China announced its economy grew by 6% in the third quarter of 2019, when compared with the same period the previous year. That was “the weakest pace in at least 27-1/2 years,” according to a Reuters’ analysis of quarterly data.

On an annual basis, China is currently projected to have real GDP growth of 6.1% for all of 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund. But that would be the lowest annual growth in 29 years — since China’s GDP grew by 3.9% in 1990, according to World Bank data going back to 1961.

Trump went on to say: “So, if I weren’t elected, by right now, China would be the largest economy in the world. It was expected. It was said by many people that China would, right now — they were expecting around the second year of this term.”

We don’t know where Trump saw that China was projected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2018. As of 2016, China’s GDP in nominal dollars was $11.2 trillion, which was still about 40 percent less than the U.S. GDP of $18.7 trillion.

Plus, by one measure — purchasing power parity, which accounts for differences in prices across countries — China had already become the leading economy in 2014, according to a Congressional Research Service report updated in June. Citing figures from the IMF and World Economic Forum, the CRS report said, based on PPP, China ($25.27 trillion) was still ahead of the U.S. ($20.49 trillion) in 2018, while the U.S. ($20.49 trillion) still outranked China ($13.40 trillion) in nominal dollars.

Trump also was wrong when he said, “And we’re getting bigger, and they’re not.” China’s economic growth has slowed in recent years, but it is still increasing at a faster rate than real U.S. GDP, which grew by 2.9% in 2018 and at an annual rate of 2% in the second quarter of 2019. 

And as the IMF noted in July 2018, “[e]ven with a gradual slowdown in growth, China,” in nominal figures, “could become the world’s largest economy by 2030.”