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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the December Democratic Debate

It was a less-crowded stage for a still-crowded field.


We found several misleading and exaggerated claims in the last debate of 2019:

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for holding a glitzy “closed-door” fundraiser at a California wine cave. A pool reporter was permitted to cover Buttigieg’s remarks at the event, so the event wasn’t entirely off-limits to the media.
  • Warren also boasted about not doing private fundraisers: “I do not sell access to my time.” That may be the case now, but she transferred $10 million from her Senate campaign to her presidential race.
  • Buttigieg said he won with 80% in “Mike Pence’s Indiana,” but Sen. Amy Klobuchar was correct when she said he lost by 20 points (actually almost 25) in his only statewide bid for Hoosier office.
  • Warren again undersold the impact of her “Ultra Millionaire Tax” plan, saying, “I have a two-cent wealth tax proposed for millionaires and billionaires,” when her plan calls for triple that rate, a 6% annual tax, on all wealth over $1 billion.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden was right when he said international public opinion polls rate President Donald Trump below China’s leader, Xi Jinping. But most foreigners still want the U.S. to be the world’s leading power.
  • Buttigieg claimed Trump has not made “a peep” in support of “folks out there standing up for democracy” in Hong Kong, but Trump last month signed two bills in support of Hong Kong protesters, over the objections of the Chinese government.
  • Klobuchar said on trade: “95% of our customers are outside of our borders.” Americans make up only about 5% of the world’s population. But the rest of the world are potential customers, since many are relatively poor and unable to buy a lot of American goods.
  • Biden said “most Americans, if they received a bill for $400 or more they’d have to sell something or borrow the money.” But “most” actually said they’d cover the expense with cash or credit.

Seven Democratic candidates debated on Dec. 19: Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders and businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. The debate was hosted by “PBS Newshour” and Politico and held in Los Angeles.

Buttigieg-Warren Fundraising Dispute

Warren and Buttigieg got into a heated back-and-forth over how they raise money for their presidential campaigns — a dispute that started when she criticized Buttigieg for a glitzy fundraiser he held on Dec. 15 at Hall Wines in Napa Valley in California.

“The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900 a bottle wine. … He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open door, but this one was closed door,” Warren said.

Buttigieg did hold the fundraiser in wine caves that “boast a chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals, an onyx banquet table to reflect its luminescence and bottles of cabernet sauvignon that sell for as much as $900,” as reported by the Associated Press on Dec. 13, a few days before the event.

The mayor also said on Dec. 9 that he would allow the press to cover private fundraisers. And a pool reporter was permitted to cover Buttigieg’s remarks at the event, as evidenced by the pool report, posted on Twitter by a CNN video producer.

But Warren’s campaign pointed us to a Huff Post report that noted “most” of the event “was closed off” to the press. “Though reporters covering Buttigieg’s campaign could view his prepared remarks and a Q&A session, the rest of the event was closed off to everyone but the invited donors,” the report said.

So the event was partly open door and partly closed. Another member of the press — a writer for Vox’s Recode — found photos of the dinner in the wine cave on Instagram and tweeted them.

In criticizing Buttigieg, the Massachusetts senator boasted that in her presidential campaign, “I do not sell access to my time.” Buttigieg shot back, “As of when, senator?”

It was in February that Warren sent an email to supporters that said she would not hold private fundraisers or one-on-one meetings with big donors. “That means no fancy receptions or big money fund-raisers only with people who can write the big checks,” she wrote.

But, as Buttigieg pointed out, Warren’s presidential campaign has benefited from money that she raised at fundraisers she held as a Senate candidate.

Warren has raised $60 million for her presidential campaign so far, according to her campaign reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. But that includes $10.4 million she transferred from her Senate campaign, Elizabeth for MA, to her presidential campaign in three large donations from January to March of this year.

Prior to that, her Senate campaign received nearly $4 million from the Elizabeth Warren Action Fund, a joint fundraising committee that can raise larger amounts than a candidate committee. That money flowed from March 2017 to December 2018, according to FEC records.

So, despite swearing off big checks now, Warren’s presidential campaign did benefit from her pre-pledge fundraising. “The open secret of Ms. Warren’s campaign is that her big-money fund-raising through 2018 helped lay the foundation for her anti-big-money run for the presidency,” the New York Times wrote in September.

Klobuchar vs. Buttigieg

Klobuchar got the better of Buttigieg on his claim that he is electable in Republican-leaning Indiana. 

Buttigieg: If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80% of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.

Klobuchar: If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing. You tried and you lost by 20 points.

Klobuchar is right.

It’s true that Buttigieg won reelection as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in 2015 by a vote of 8,515 to 2,074 against his Republican opponent, Kelly S. Jones, getting 80.4% of the vote.

But South Bend is just one city, not the whole state. Klobuchar alluded to the thumping Buttigieg received in his earlier statewide bid for office in 2010, when he ran at age 28 to be Indiana’s state treasurer. Buttigieg received 633,243 votes, while his Republican opponent, Richard E. Mourdock, won with well over 1 million. In percentage terms, Buttigieg lost by 24.9 percentage points, so Klobuchar was actually being charitable when she put the margin at 20 points.

Warren’s Wealth Tax

As she has on the campaign trail and in the November debate, Warren said she has a “two-cent wealth tax proposed for millionaires and billionaires,” but she neglected to mention that the annual tax rate on wealth over $1 billion would be triple that.

“Let’s start with a wealth tax, the idea of a two-cent tax on the great fortunes in this country — $50 million and above,” Warren said.

Later in the debate, she said, “I have a two-cent wealth tax proposed for millionaires and billionaires, and that gives us enough money to invest in all our babies aged 0 to 5, to put in a historic $800 billion investment in public schools K through 12, and that will permit us to offer technical school, two-year college, four-year college for every single person who wants an education, cancel student loan debt for 50 — put a $50 billion investment in our historically black colleges and universities and cancel student loan debt for 43 million Americans.”

Under Warren’s original wealth tax plan, households would pay an annual 2% tax on all assets — net worth — above $50 million 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.

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%. In other words, though Warren talks about a 2% wealth tax for “millionaires and billionaires,” the rate would actually be 6% on wealth over $1 billion, every year.

While Forbes estimates there are less than 1,000 billionaires in the U.S., Warren estimated the additional 3% annual wealth tax would raise an additional $1 trillion over 10 years.

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. Indeed, the Penn Wharton Budget Model (PWBM) last week released a detailed analysis of Warren’s proposed wealth tax and projected that, if implemented in 2021, it would raise between $2.3 trillion and $2.7 trillion over 10 years – roughly $1 trillion to $1.4 trillion less than the Warren campaign’s estimate. PWBM also estimated that the wealth tax would reduce gross domestic product in 2050 by about 1-2%, depending on how the money is spent.

International Polls on Trump

Biden was right when he said China’s leader is rated above Trump in international opinion polls.

Biden: Is it any wonder that if you look at the international polling that’s been done, that the Chinese leader is rated above American — American president?

Polling conducted for the Pew Research Center in 2018 asked people in 25 different countries if they had confidence in Trump and four other world leaders “to do the right thing regarding world affairs.” The median response: Only 27% had confidence in Trump, who came in at the bottom, while 34% had confidence in Xi Jinping.

As for the other leaders, 52% had confidence in Germany’s Angela Merkel, and 46% had confidence in France’s Emmanuel Macron. Even Russia’s Vladimir Putin edged out Trump, with a 30% confidence rating.

But it’s worth noting that despite the international public’s low opinion of Trump, most would still prefer the United States to lead the world. Pew asked whether people preferred a future in which “the U.S. is the world’s leading power or China is the world’s leading power.” The median response: 63% preferred the U.S., while only 19% said China.

Buttigieg: Not a ‘Peep’ from Trump on Hong Kong

Buttigieg claimed Trump has not made “a peep” in support of “folks out there standing up for democracy” in Hong Kong. But while some have been critical of the president for not being outspoken enough in support of Hong Kong protesters, Trump last month signed two bills in support of them, and over the objections of the Chinese government.

Buttigieg: But when folks out there standing up for democracy hear not a peep from the president of the United States, what message is that sending to the Chinese Communist Party? The message I will send is that if they perpetrate a repeat of anything like Tiananmen Square, when it comes to Hong Kong, they will be isolated from the free world, and we will lead that isolation diplomatically and economically.

On Oct. 4, CNN reported that during a private phone call in June, Trump “promised Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US would remain quiet on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while trade talks continued.”

Transcripts of the phone call have not been made public, so we can’t verify what Trump may have promised. But Buttigieg goes too far with his claim that Trump hasn’t made a “peep.”

During an interview with “Fox & Friends” on Nov. 22, Trump said the protesters would have been “obliterated” by Chinese forces if he hadn’t asked Xi to not send them in.

Later, Trump was asked if he would veto two bills from the Senate that support the Hong Kong students.

“Look, we have to stand with Hong Kong,” Trump said. “But I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy. We have to stand. But I’d like to see them work it out. Okay. We have to see and work it out. But I stand with Hong Kong. I stand with freedom.”

Indeed, Trump signed the two bills on Nov. 27. The first was S. 1838, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which requires the U.S. to every year “assess whether political developments in Hong Kong justify changing Hong Kong’s unique treatment under U.S. law,” including not being subject to tariffs levied upon China. It also includes several human rights provisions. The second bill, S. 2710, prohibits the sale of “specified munitions” including tear gas, rubber bullets and handcuffs to the Hong Kong Police Force.

Although China strenuously objected to the bills, Trump tried to walk a diplomatic line and appease both sides, saying, “I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong. They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.”

According to CNBC, the Hong Kong government “expressed strong opposition” to the bills and called them “an obvious intervention of Hong Kong’s internal affairs, they are unnecessary and without grounds, they will also harm the relationship and interests between Hong Kong and the U.S.”

95% of Customers

In explaining why she supports a reworked version of Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada, Klobuchar stated that “95% of our customers are outside of our borders.” The statistic accurately reflects basic demography, but it could be misleading about the full potential of international trade. 

As PolitiFact explained when Biden made a similar claim back in July 2016, 95% of the world’s customers are indeed outside of the United States because Americans account for a bit less than 5% of the global population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population is 330 million, or about 4.3% of the 7.6 billion total.

But vast swaths of the global population are in poverty and unlikely to be big buyers of American products. In fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says on its website that nearly half of all American exports are sold to 20 countries that make up around 6% of the world’s population outside the U.S. So, while the statistic is used, and even referenced elsewhere by the Chamber of Commerce, it’s not necessarily reflective of the actual percentage of people outside the U.S. who buy American products.

Financial Hardship Exaggeration

Biden slightly inflated a statistic related to financial hardship.

“You have most Americans, if they received a bill for $400 or more they’d have to sell something or borrow the money,” Biden said.

While it’s true that many Americans report being in that situation, the term “most” isn’t accurate.

The statistic comes from an annual Federal Reserve study on the economic well-being of U.S. households. The Fed’s May 2019 report found that “[i]f faced with an unexpected expense of $400 … 27 percent [of adults] would borrow or sell something to pay for the expense, and 12 percent would not be able to cover the expense at all.”

That’s nearly 40% of Americans — but not “most.” The report instead found that 61% of adults said “they would cover it with cash, savings, or a credit card paid off at the next statement” — up from 48% in the first survey, released in 2014.


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Judd, DJ (@DJJudd). “Warren just hit Pete Buttigieg on his Napa fundraiser in a wine cave, saying, ‘He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open door, but this one was closed door.’ The mayor’s remarks were open to pool, which KSRO’s @mike_dewald filed on behalf of the pool.” Twitter. 19 Dec 2019.

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