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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the November Democratic Debate

Several candidates twisted the facts on health care, student loan debt, President Trump and more.


We spotted several false claims and factual flubs:

  • South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg falsely claimed that President Donald Trump “had to confess in writing, in court, to illegally diverting charitable contributions that were supposed to go to veterans.” Trump’s 2016 campaign unlawfully ran a veterans fundraiser for his namesake foundation, but the money raised was in fact donated to veterans groups.
  • A poll released earlier in the day contradicted former Vice President Joe Biden’s claim that “the vast majority of Democrats do not support Medicare for All.” The survey showed 77% of Democrats favored the single-payer health care plan.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that under her wealth tax proposal Americans worth more than $50 million would have to “pitch in 2 cents” and those worth over $1 billion “have to pitch in a few pennies more.” Those extra “pennies” would mean an annual 6% wealth tax on billionaires that would raise an estimated $1 trillion over 10 years.
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard claimed that Buttigieg said that he “would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels.” Actually, Buttigieg talked about further building a “security cooperation” with Mexico’s support, and placed specific conditions on ever sending U.S. troops to combat Mexican drug cartels.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris accused Trump of “shutting down the [military] operations with South Korea for the last year and a half.” In fact, those operations were scaled back significantly, but not eliminated.
  • Warren wrongly said a new study found 94% of white students “have paid off their student loan debt,” while only “5% of African Americans have paid it off.” Actually, the study says 49% of white student-loan holders and 26% of black student borrowers were debt-free after 20 years.
  • Biden falsely said that PolitiFact called his 1987 climate change legislation “a game changer.” The fact-checking site did not use that phrase to describe the bill, and instead highlighted its limitations.
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar went too far when she claimed “90% of the people support funding for Planned Parenthood.” One survey found support at 69%.
  • Harris wrongly suggested that figures representing the pay gap between full-time, year-round male and female workers were for men and women doing “equal work.”
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed 87 million Americans “have no health insurance or are underinsured,” a statement he has made in two past debates. The figure includes 19.3 million who were insured at the time of the survey but had a gap in coverage in the previous year.

And Biden corrected himself before we could fact-check him after he said he had the support of “the only African American woman that had ever been elected to the United States Senate.” Harris, standing mere feet from Biden on the stage, interjected, “The other one is here.” Biden corrected himself, “I said the first African American woman — the first.”

The first was Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who has endorsed Biden in the campaign.

The debate was held Nov. 20 in Atlanta, hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post, and included 10 candidates.

Buttigieg Wrong on Trump Veteran Donations

Buttigieg wrongly claimed that Trump admitted “in writing, in court, to illegally diverting charitable contributions that were supposed to go to veterans.” That’s not what happened.

Trump was recently ordered to pay $2 million to several charities to settle a lawsuit over the dealings of his now-defunct charitable organization.

The ruling was part of a settlement to a June 2018 case filed by the office of the New York state attorney general that alleged the Trump Foundation had long “operated in persistent violation of state and federal law governing New York State charities” by, among other things, allowing Trump’s 2016 campaign committee to direct and coordinate the foundation’s televised fundraiser for veterans in Des Moines, Iowa, in January 2016.

According to the final settlement, Trump agreed that his campaign “planned, organized, and paid for the Iowa Fundraiser, with administrative assistance from the Foundation; and the Campaign directed the timing, amounts and recipients of the Foundation’s grants to charitable organizations supporting military veterans.” He did not admit to “illegally diverting charitable contributions” intended for veterans.

The fundraiser raised about $5.6 million — “of which $2.823 million was contributed to the Foundation; the balance was contributed by donors directly to various veterans’ groups,” according to the settlement documents.

The $2.823 million ultimately was distributed to veterans groups. In a Nov. 7 court order, New York state Supreme Court Justice Saliann Scarpulla wrote that the $2.8 million donated to the Trump Foundation “was used for Mr. Trump’s political campaign and disbursed by Mr. Trump’s campaign staff, rather than by the Foundation,” in violation of state law. The grants to veterans groups were announced at Trump campaign events, for example.

Scarpulla concluded that a “review of the record, including the factual admissions in the Final Stipulation, establishes that Mr. Trump breached his fiduciary duty to the Foundation.” However, she also acknowledged that “the Funds did ultimately reach their intended destinations, i.e., charitable organizations supporting veterans.”

Records obtained by the state show donations totaling $2.825 million were given to 34 veterans organizations between January 2016 and June 2016.

The state argued that the judge should order Trump to pay $2.823 million in damages based on the fundraiser matter, but Scarpulla set the amount at $2 million, she said, because veterans organizations did get the money raised for them.

Biden on Medicare for All

Biden made a dubious claim when he said, “The fact is that right now the vast majority of Democrats do not support Medicare for All.”

But the opposite is true, according to a poll published earlier that same day by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

The KFF poll of 1,205 adults was conducted Nov. 7-12 and found that 77% of Democrats (and 53% of all adult Americans regardless of party) said they favored “Medicare-for-all.” 

That’s what they said when asked, “Do you favor or oppose having a national health plan, sometimes called ‘Medicare-for-all,’ in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan?”

Biden would be correct to say that support is soft, and might change. An earlier KFF poll, published in January, found that overall support for the idea plunged by 23 points when voters (regardless of party) were told it would require most Americans to pay more in taxes, and by 21 points when told it would eliminate private health insurance companies.

And CNN reported in July that its own poll showed that among potential Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, only 31% supported Medicare for All when given the alternative of a “public option,” favored by 48%. That’s a government-run insurance plan that would compete with, but not replace, private insurance. CNN said 12% didn’t want a national health care plan at all.

Warren’s ‘2 Cents’

Warren continued to bill her wealth tax as a plan that would require the wealthiest top one-tenth of 1% of Americans to “pitch in 2 cents.” It’s true that under her plan those worth between $50 million and $1 billion would pay an annual 2% wealth tax. But the rate on assets over $1 billion would be triple that.

Warren: You know, I have proposed a 2 cent wealth tax. That is a tax for everybody who has more than 50 billion dollars in assets. Your first $50 billion is free and clear. But your 50 billionth and first dollar, you’ve got to pitch in 2 cents. And when you hit a billion dollars, you’ve got to pitch in a few pennies more. Here’s the thing, doing a wealth tax is not about punishing anyone. It’s about saying you built something great in this country, good for you. But you did it using workers all of us helped pay to educate. You did it getting your goods on roads and bridges all of us helped pay for. You did it protected by police and firefighters all of us helped pay the salaries for. So when you make it big, when you make it really big, when you make it top one-tenth of 1% big, pitch in 2 cents so everybody gets a chance to make it.

Under Warren’s original wealth tax plan, households would pay an annual 2% tax on all assets — net worth — above $50 million (not $50 billion, as she mistakenly said in the debate), and a 3% tax on every dollar of net worth above $1 billion.

As we wrote in our story “Facts on Warren’s Wealth Tax Plan,” University of California, Berkeley economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez estimated Warren’s tax would fall on about 75,000 U.S. households (less than 0.1%) and would raise around $2.75 trillion over 10 years. As she has in past debates, Warren rattled off a list of education priorities, such as universal pre-K and free public college tuition, that the tax could pay for. (As we have written, it is a matter of debate among economists and tax experts as to whether her plan would raise as much revenue as she expects.)

But since then, Warren unveiled her plan to pay for Medicare for All, which included upping the wealth tax on assets over $1 billion to 6%. While Forbes estimates there are less than 1,000 billionaires in the U.S., Warren estimated the additional 3% annual wealth tax — which she dismissed as “a few pennies more” — would raise an additional $1 trillion over 10 years.

Warren said on Nov. 1 that even with the annual tax, the net worth of the super-wealthy would continue to grow, because they “will still likely pay less than what they would earn just from putting their assets into an index fund and doing nothing.” But some tax experts we spoke to doubt that’s true.

Kyle Pomerleau, formerly chief economist at the Tax Foundation and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told us it was unrealistic to assume billionaires could put all their wealth into an index fund. “Housing, for example, is a source of wealth [that] isn’t simply going to be liquidated and put into the market as a means to ‘outperform’ the wealth tax,” Pomerleau said.

An analysis by Zucman and Saez found that if an annual 3% tax on wealth over $1 billion had been enacted in 1982, the wealth of some of the richest Americans would be dramatically reduced. (See Table 4 for a breakdown of the projected effects on some of the wealthiest Americans.)

Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, noted that Warren is taxing both wealth and the investment returns to that wealth, and by his calculation, “Someone like Bill Gates would be paying wealth and capital gains taxes equal to a marginal effective income tax rate of more than 100 percent.”

Whatever one may think about that, Warren’s “2 cents” talking point — which she even used in a recent ad featuring several billionaires — is only true for those with a net worth between $50 million and $1 billion; for those with a net worth over $1 billion, it’s triple that.

Gabbard, Buttigieg Spar Over Troops-to-Mexico

Gabbard asked fact-checkers to check her claim that Buttigieg recently said that he “would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels.” Buttigieg called Gabbard’s claim “outlandish.”

We reviewed the Buttigieg remarks in question, and found that Gabbard did leave out part of what he said at a Nov. 17 forum in Los Angeles.

At the forum featuring five Democratic presidential candidates, a reporter brought up the nine Americans killed this month in northern Mexico and asked Buttigieg if he would ever consider sending U.S. troops to Mexico to help deal with the cartels, as President Trump has suggested.

Buttigieg said “there is a scenario where we could have security cooperation” with Mexico if it is “welcomed by our partners south of the border.” But, he said, he would only send U.S. troops into conflict “if there were no other choice, if American lives were on the line, and if this was necessary in order for us to uphold our treaty obligations.”

Here’s the Gabbard and Buttigieg exchange from the debate.

Gabbard: I think the most recent example of your inexperience in national security and foreign policy came from your recent careless statement about how you as president would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels. …

Buttigieg: I know that it’s par for the course in Washington to take remarks out of context, but that is outlandish even by the standards of today’s politics.

Gabbard: Are you saying you that didn’t say that?

Buttigieg: I was talking about U.S.-Mexico cooperation. We’ve been doing security cooperation with Mexico for years, with law enforcement cooperation and a military relationship that could continue to be developed with training relationships, for example. Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?

Gabbard: That’s not what I said. …

Buttigieg: I’m talking about building up alliances. …

Gabbard: You were asked directly whether you would send our troops to Mexico to fight cartels and your answer was “yes.” The fact-checkers can check this out.

And here are the relevant questions and answers from Buttigieg’s portion of the forum:

ABC7 reporter Adrienne Alpert, Nov. 17: After a number of Americans were murdered in northern Mexico, President Trump suggested sending U.S. troops to help Mexico deal with the cartels. With your military experience, is there a way to deal with the cartels that doesn’t violate Mexico’s sovereignty?

Buttigieg: Well, one of the biggest things I learned during my time deployed abroad is the importance of our alliances our friendships, and this president — needless to say — has destroyed just about every relationship he can find. That makes America less safe, whether it is turning our back on Kurdish allies who put their lives on the line to help us fight ISIS, or right here in our own hemisphere alienating those very countries that we need to have a better partnership with. Remember, it is in the interest of both the United States and Mexico for Mexico to prosper with greater economic success and security than they have right now. So, if it is in the context of a security partnership, then I would welcome ways to make sure that America is doing what we can to insure that our neighbor to the south is secure. But doing it in a way that calls into question Mexican sovereignty completely misses how we got here. By the way, a lot of this is a question of the demand side on the United States. Part of what we can do is make drug trafficking less profitable by walking away from the failed war on drugs here in the United States. That is a policy that we know through experience hasn’t worked. We’ve got to do our part here at home and partner with other countries abroad.

Reporter: But mayor, specifically, do you see a time where troops could go into Mexico if Mexico welcomed it, for instance?

Buttigieg: There is a scenario where we could have security cooperation as we do with countries around the world. Now, I would only order American troops into conflict if there were no other choice, if American lives were on the line, and if this was necessary in order for us to uphold our treaty obligations. But we could absolutely be in some kind of partnership role if, and only if, it is welcomed by our partners south of the border.

Buttigieg’s campaign later added that he would only consider sending troops to Mexico as a “last resort.”

U.S.-South Korea Military Drills

Harris went too far when she accused Trump of “shutting down the [military] operations with South Korea for the last year and a half.” In fact, those operations were scaled back significantly, but not eliminated.

It’s true that on June 12, 2018, Trump said he would stop “provocative” military exercises with South Korea. But only five months later, in November 2018, about 500 U.S. and South Korean Marines took part in a joint drill. And this July the two countries said regular springtime drills would continue under the name “Dong Maeng” (meaning “alliance”).

The new drills are reported to be mainly “computer simulated” training — a far cry from earlier “Foal Eagle” exercises that had recently involved some 11,500 American troops and 290,000 South Korean troops. But Harris was wrong to say that operations had shut down entirely.

Racial Inequality and Student Loans

In making a point about economic injustice, Warren mixed up some figures on the student loan disparity between black and white students.

Warren: Right now in America, African Americans are more likely to borrow money to go to college, borrow more money while they’re in college, and have a harder time paying that debt off after they get out. Today in America, a new study came out, 20 years out, whites who borrowed money, 94 percent of them have paid off their student loan debt, 5 percent of African Americans have paid it off.

The campaign referred us to a study released in September by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, which looked at student debt for a cohort of undergraduates who started college in 1995-1996. As Warren said, that study shows that African American students were “more likely than their White peers to take on student debt, to take larger amounts of loans, and to have debt” after 20 years.

But Warren was wrong when she said 94% of white students “have paid off their student loan debt,” while only “5% of African Americans have paid it off.” Actually, the study says 49% of white student-loan holders and 26% of black student borrowers were debt-free after 20 years.

Instead, Warren seemed to be referring to this part of the study: “Twenty years after starting college, the median debt of White borrowing students has been reduced by 94 percent — with almost half holding no student debt — whereas Black borrowers at the median still owe 95 percent of their cumulative borrowing total.”

The study goes on to say, “Two decades after beginning their degrees, the median Black student borrower has $18,500 in loans remaining, while the median White borrower holds just $1,000 in loans.”

The median figure represents the midpoint, meaning half of white student borrowers owed more than $1,000 and half owned less than $1,000.

That is still a significant disparity, but it’s not what Warren said.

Not a ‘Game Changer’

In defending his record on climate change, Biden referenced his legislative efforts more than three decades ago, saying he passed “the first climate change bill” and that PolitiFact said it “was a game changer.”

In May, our fact-checking colleagues over at PolitiFact wrote about the former vice president’s claim of being “one of the first” people to introduce a climate change bill, which the website rated as true. But while the article called Biden a “climate change pioneer,” it did not say his bill was a “game changer.”

During the debate, PolitiFact Managing Editor Katie Sanders corrected Biden on Twitter. “We didn’t call it a game changer,” she wrote. “We quoted experts with tempered takes like this,” and provided a screenshot of the section of the article that featured a quotation from Reed College history and environmental studies Professor Josh Howe.

“It’s significant insofar as Biden has been more or less on top of the issue since the mid ’80s,” Howe said, referring to the legislation. “But let’s not stretch the intent of the bill and suggest that this was a comprehensive plan for reducing emissions or adapting to the consequences of climatic change.” He added, “It was a plan to make a plan. Which, of course, neither Reagan nor Bush ultimately did.”

Biden’s bill, which instituted a presidential task force to create a national strategy to address global warming, was introduced in 1986. A version was enacted into law in 1987. As PolitiFact noted, the task force wasn’t established until the Clinton administration.

Support for Planned Parenthood

Most Americans support Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion, and government funding for Planned Parenthood, as Klobuchar said in the debate.

“Over 70% of the people support Roe v. Wade,” Klobuchar said. “Over 90% of the people support funding for Planned Parenthood and making sure that women can get the health care they need.”

Klobuchar was largely right about support for Roe v. Wade, but she inflated the support for government funding of Planned Parenthood.

A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in May found that 69% of adults supported continued state funding for Planned Parenthood, and a Rasmussen Reports poll from July found that 50% of likely voters were opposed to a plan that would cut federal funding to the organization.

When we asked about her numbers, Klobuchar’s campaign cited a 2017 survey that found 96% of voters thought women should have access to birth control. But the survey didn’t ask specifically about support for Planned Parenthood.

Polls back up her statement about support for Roe v. Wade, though.

According to a study released by the Pew Research Center in August, exactly 70% of people surveyed said they didn’t want Roe v. Wade to be overturned in its entirety. And the Kaiser Family Foundation study from May found that 65% of the public doesn’t want Roe v. Wade to be overturned.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted earlier this year asked more granular questions about respondents’ thoughts on Roe v. Wade and found that, overall, 77% of Americans wanted to keep it in some form.

That’s the poll Klobuchar’s campaign cited when we asked about her numbers.

Harris on Gender Pay Gap

During the July debate, 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.” She did it again in this debate.

Harris: The reality also is that women are not paid equal for equal work in America. We passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 but fast forward to the year of our Lord 2019 and women are paid 80 cents on the dollar, black women 61 cents, Native American women 58 cents, Latinas 53 cents.

As we’ve written before, 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 $45,097 while the median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $55,291,” the NPWF fact sheet says. “This means that, overall, women in the United States are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to an annual gender wage gap of $10,194.”

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 62 cents, Native American women 58 cents and Latinas just 54 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men,” the fact sheet explains.

Again, 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.

Sanders Health Care Repeat

Sanders repeated a claim he has made in two previous debates, saying, “Right now, you’ve got 87 million people who have no health insurance or are underinsured.” The figure comes from a Commonwealth Fund study and includes 19.3 million who were insured when they were surveyed but had a gap in coverage in the previous year.

“Of the 194 million U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 in 2018, an estimated 87 million, or 45 percent, were inadequately insured,” the study said. It broke down the “inadequately insured” into three different categories: 24 million uninsured, 43.8 million who were “underinsured” and 19.3 million who were insured but had been uninsured at some point in the prior year.


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