As he has done since entering the political scene in 2015, Donald Trump dominates our list of whoppers of the year.
We identified a top 10 of falsehoods and factual distortions from the president, beginning with several impeachment-related topics — a conspiracy theory on the Democratic National Committee server, a bogus narrative on Joe Biden and a laundry list of claims about the whistleblower report.
Several other Trump deceptions — and falsehoods we identified from Democratic presidential candidates — offer a preview of issues that are likely to take center stage as the 2020 election cycle heats up: immigration, gun control, trade, taxes, climate change and manufacturing jobs.
Read on for descriptions of the worst falsehoods of 2019, and for more information, see links to our full stories on the spin at the end.
Trump’s Top Whoppers
DNC Server Delusion. Refusing to give up on the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 elections and hacked the Democratic National Committee, Trump repeated the baseless assertion that Ukraine, or a “Ukrainian company,” has a DNC server.
“A lot of it had to do they say with Ukraine. …They have the server, right? From the DNC, Democratic National Committee,” Trump said in a phone interview with the hosts of “Fox & Friends” in November. And he told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call: “The server, they say Ukraine has it.” But there’s absolutely no evidence of that.
Tom Bossert, a former homeland security adviser for the administration, said he explained to the president that these theories had been “completely debunked.”
The DNC hired CrowdStrike, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm, to investigate Russia’s hacking of its computer network in 2016, and CrowdStrike said it has “never taken physical possession of any” of the 140 servers the DNC said had to be decommissioned during the process. The company did its analysis by making an exact copy of everything on the DNC’s hard drives through a process called “imaging.” “The images, not the computer’s hardware, provide the evidence,” CrowdStrike has said.
A Bogus Biden-Ukraine Narrative. Trump’s impeachment woes were triggered when he asked Ukrainian President Zelensky in the July 25 phone call to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. But before that, Trump said this in a Fox News interview that aired on May 19: “[Joe] Biden, he calls them and says, ‘Don’t you dare prosecute, if you don’t fire this prosecutor’ — the prosecutor was after his son. Then he said, ‘If you fire the prosecutor, you’ll be OK. And if you don’t fire the prosecutor, we’re not giving you $2 billion in loan guarantees,’ or whatever he was supposed to give.”
That’s a gross distortion of the facts.
Biden, as vice president, did tell Ukrainian leaders that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees until Ukraine fired its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. But Biden did not go rogue. As we wrote, Biden was carrying out the Obama administration’s policy, which had the support of the international community and anti-corruption advocates in Ukraine who viewed Shokin as inept and sought his ouster. Also, there’s no evidence that “the prosecutor was after his son,” Hunter, who was a board member of a Ukraine gas company when his father was vice president.
Wrong on the Whistleblower. Trump repeatedly made a string of false claims about the whistleblower report that accused him of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
He claimed the whistleblower report was “something totally different from what I said” on the July 25 phone call with Zelensky. But a White House memo on that call, which Trump released, corroborates the whistleblower’s three main points about the call. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified that the whistleblower’s complaint “is in alignment with” the White House memo.
Trump wrongly described that memo as “transcribed word-for-word.” It specifically says it “is not a verbatim transcript.”
The whistleblower didn’t “disappear” after the release of the memo, as Trump claims. The whistleblower filed an anonymous complaint, as allowed under the law, and the whistleblower’s lawyers have said their client wants to remain anonymous.
Trump also tweeted a bogus theory that the whistleblower rules were “changed” right before the complaint was submitted to allow filings based only on secondhand information. The independent Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community said there had been no such change in law or policy.
Child Separation Spin. Trump falsely blamed his predecessor for family separations at the border that were caused by the Trump administration. “President Obama separated the children. … I’m the one that stopped it,” Trump told White House reporters in April.
Trump actually “stopped” his own “zero-tolerance” immigration policy amid an intense public backlash.
Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration had required the Department of Homeland Security to refer all adults caught illegally entering the U.S. for criminal prosecution. As a result, thousands of children were separated from their parents, who entered the federal court system and were placed in detention centers for adults only.
Two months after the policy was announced in April 2018, Trump was pressured into signing an executive order that directed the DHS secretary to keep such families in custody together during legal proceedings for as long as the law and finances would allow.
Sharpiegate. The president made the inaccurate claim in a Sept. 1 tweet that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian — a statement that was fact-checked in real time by the National Weather Service.
“Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama,” the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted 20 minutes after the president. That should have been the end of it, but Trump refused to simply admit his mistake and so-called “Sharpiegate” dragged on for several days.
As we wrote, Trump repeatedly defended his faulty forecast. He even displayed an altered forecast map in the Oval Office on Sept. 4 to erroneously make it appear that Alabama was in the path of the storm when he posted his inaccurate tweet. Two days later, NOAA — under pressure from the White House — admonished the Birmingham office for its tweet.
More than a week after Trump’s inaccurate forecast, Louis Uccellini, the director of the National Weather Service, defended the Birmingham office, saying it didn’t know that the president was the source of the “rumors” about Alabama. “[T]hey were correct in clarifying that the threat was very low,” Uccellini said.
False El Paso Border Claim. The president seized on a false talking point to bolster his case for construction of more border wall, claiming that El Paso, Texas, went from “one of the most dangerous cities in the country to one of the safest cities in the country overnight” after “a wall was put up” along the Mexico border. That’s wrong.
El Paso has long been a relatively safe city, and violent crime actually increased a bit in the years after a fence was erected. Despite fact-checkers and other media pointing out the error, Trump used the falsehood in his State of the Union Address. Even after the Republican El Paso mayor publicly corrected the president, Trump again repeated the claim during a rally in El Paso, dismissing data that showed otherwise as “fake news.”
Doubly Wrong on ISIS. Trump can legitimately say that the last of the Islamic State-controlled land in Syria and Iraq was retaken by coalition forces during his presidency (it happened in March). But instead, he repeatedly and falsely claimed that “virtually 100%” of the caliphate’s land was regained under him, or that when he “took office, we had almost nothing.” About half of the territory had been regained under his predecessor, Barack Obama — according to Trump’s own administration.
In a briefing on Dec. 21, 2017, Brett McGurk, then-special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, said that about 98 percent of the caliphate land had been regained and “50 percent” of those losses for ISIS happened in 2017.
Trump also falsely said that captured Islamic State fighters being held in Syria are “mostly from Europe,” a claim French President Emmanuel Macron fact-checked in real time when the two leaders appeared together at the annual NATO summit in December.
According to a report from U.S. inspectors general, “about 800” of about 10,000 ISIS fighters in detention centers across northeastern Syria were from Europe, while about 8,000 of them were nationals of Iraq and Syria.
No Evidence for Kim Jong Un Claims. The White House has provided no evidence for Trump’s claims that Obama had tried to call or meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but was rebuffed.
Before his historic meeting with Kim, Trump claimed the Obama administration was “begging for meetings constantly. And Chairman Kim would not meet with him.” Several Obama administration officials and experts on U.S.-North Korean relations said that was false, using words such as “pure fantasy,” “no basis,” “a lie” and “horse-sh*t.”
A few months later, Trump put a new spin on his claim, saying Obama tried to call Kim “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 again called Trump’s claim false.
It’s worth noting that last year Trump made a very different claim that “somebody” in the Obama administration told him “we haven’t thought about” meeting with North Korea.
Smearing Ilhan Omar. Throughout the year, Trump stoked an ongoing war of words with four progressive Democrats, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, controversially telling them via Twitter to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested [countries] from which they came.” The president focused the bulk of his vitriol on Omar, a Somali American who became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress last year.
Trump’s attacks often went too far, such as when he accused Omar of professing a “love” for al Qaeda and talking about “how great” and “how wonderful” al Qaeda is. There’s no evidence Omar has said any of those things.
During Trump’s extended criticism of Omar at a rally in North Carolina in July, audience members began chanting, “Send her back.” The next day, Trump claimed that he tried to quell the chants by “speaking very quickly.” But the video shows he did not. In September, Trump retweeted a post that purported to show Omar “celebrating” on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But the video was actually from a Congressional Black Caucus event on Sept. 13.
Trade War Falsehoods. Trump’s trade war with China resulted in numerous falsehoods, some of which were summed up in this one statement by the president on May 3: “We’re charging China tariffs. We’ve never taken in 10 cents from China, and now we’re taking in billions and billions of dollars.”
As we have written, the tariffs are taxes paid by U.S. importers in the form of customs duties, and to some extent by U.S. consumers in the form of higher prices. “The continued stability of import prices for goods from China means U.S. firms and consumers have to pay the tariff,” a Federal Reserve Bank of New York study confirmed last month.
Also, the U.S. has collected billions in customs duties on Chinese imports for years, so Trump’s claim about “never taken in 10 cents” doesn’t add up.
Trump also has repeatedly taken credit for reducing trade deficits, even though the opposite is true. He has claimed that trade deficits “went down,” describing the U.S. trade balance as “changing rapidly” with Japan and “fairly rapidly” in the case of the European Union. The most recent government figures show that the total U.S. trade deficit in goods and services during the most recent 12 months on record (ending in October) was $635 billion — an increase of $132 billion, or 26.2%, compared with 2016. That includes higher trade deficits with Japan and the EU (see table 3).
Biden Rewrites History on Iraq War. During the second Democratic debate, former Vice President Joe Biden engaged in revisionist history on one of the defining issues of his career. Biden claimed that despite voting to authorize military force against Iraq in 2002 — a vote he calls a mistake — he opposed the Iraq War from “the moment” it began. That’s not accurate.
Biden consistently criticized the way the Bush administration handled the war, including its efforts at finding diplomatic solutions, enlisting allies and planning for reconstruction of Iraq. Some of his comments proved prescient, including his warnings about the likely cost and length of the war. But Biden never outright opposed military action in Iraq in the immediate days after the start of the invasion. For example, the day the war commenced, Biden told CNN: “There’s a lot of us who voted for giving the president the authority to take down Saddam Hussein if he didn’t disarm. And there are those who believe, at the end of the day, even though it wasn’t handled all that well, we still have to take him down.”
Biden this year acknowledged that he “misspoke” about “how quickly I said I was immediately against the war.”
No “Middle-Class Tax Hike.” Sen. Kamala Harris, when she was still a presidential candidate, cited preliminary IRS tax refund data for 2018 to criticize the Republican tax law — a popular target of Democrats — as “a middle-class tax hike.”
The California senator tweeted about the Republican tax law a day after the Washington Post reported that the average tax refund check was down $170, or 8%, this year compared with last year, based on preliminary IRS data. “Let’s call the President’s tax cut what it is: a middle-class tax hike to line the pockets of already wealthy corporations and the 1%,” she tweeted.
But, as Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, told us: “Refunds are not the same as taxes that you owe. Refunds tell you nothing about whether a person’s tax liability has changed.” In fact, the vast majority of “middle-class” taxpayers were expected to get a tax cut in 2018 under the new law, which took effect last year, he said.
And Top 1% Pays Higher Tax Rate. Biden gave voters a false impression about taxes in claiming, “We’re in a situation where you have the top 1%, in fact, making — paying a lower tax rate than you do, because it’s mostly capital gains. … [M]ore than a teacher, a firefighter, a cop.” But the top 1% of taxpayers, on average, pay a higher effective tax rate than middle-income people.
According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, the top 1% — those making over $783,300 — will pay an average federal tax rate of about 30.2% in 2019, a higher rate than any other income category. The middle 20% of earners will pay an average 12.4% federal tax rate.
It’s true that the top personal tax rate on capital gains (up to 23.8%) is lower than the top tax rate on ordinary income (37%). “Do some individuals [at the top] pay less? Sure,” Gleckman, at the TPC, told us. “But in general, the federal tax system is very progressive. The more you make, the more you pay.”
Climate Change Confusion. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate, wrongly said that “we could lose half the world’s oxygen because of what’s going on in the oceans.” Approximately half of the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean, but that doesn’t mean half of the world’s oxygen is at risk.
Climate change is expected to reduce the amount of oxygen the ocean produces by about 5% by 2100 — and it will not change oxygen levels in the air by any noticeable degree. “Under no circumstances will half the world’s breathable oxygen be gone by 2100 or even by 21,000!” Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, told us.
Climate change does reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, which in some places could be cut in half by 2100. But globally, oceans are projected to lose only 1%-7% of their oxygen.
Trump Did Ban Bump Stocks. Three months after the Trump administration’s ban on bump stocks went into effect, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand gave a town hall audience the false impression that he reneged on his promise to ban the devices that can make semiautomatic rifles fire more rapidly.
“Remember after the shooting in Las Vegas, he [Trump] said, yeah, yeah we’re gonna ban the bump stocks,” Gillibrand, then a Democratic presidential candidate, said at a Fox News event in June. “Did he ban the bump stocks? No, because the NRA came crashing down and said, ‘Don’t you dare do any restrictions on our guns around this country.’”
The National Rifle Association’s opposition ultimately didn’t stop Trump. After the deadly mass shooting at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas in October 2017, and another months later at a Florida high school in February 2018, Trump spoke consistently about banning bump stocks. And his administration went through the necessary bureaucratic process in order to issue a new federal regulation that did.
It took more than a year — apparently longer than Gillibrand wanted — but the Trump administration’s bump stocks ban went into effect in March.
Inflated Gun Control Stat. After a mass shooting at a Colorado school in May, then Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke pushed a popular Democratic position — universal background checks for gun purchases — but incorrectly claimed that state laws mandating universal checks “have been shown to reduce gun violence by 50%.” That turned out to be a wildly inflated estimate.
O’Rourke’s camp said the statistic came from Everytown for Gun Safety, but the gun-control group told us it had updated its website in light of “rigorous” new research that has “improved our understanding of this.” A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in March found that universal background checks are associated with about a 15 percent reduction in firearm homicide. But the study stopped short of concluding that the decline was caused by those laws.
Trump Foundation Settlement. Buttigieg falsely claimed that Trump had recently confessed “in writing, in court, to illegally diverting charitable contributions that were supposed to go to veterans.” Trump made no such admission, and the money he helped raise went to veterans.
Instead, Trump settled a lawsuit first filed in 2018 by New York’s attorney general alleging the now-defunct Trump Foundation violated state and federal laws, including by illegally coordinating with Trump’s campaign on a national fundraiser for veterans in 2016.
The settlement noted that the “Iowa Fundraiser” for veterans raised approximately $5.6 million, of which $2.823 million was contributed to the Trump Foundation; the rest was directly donated to veterans groups. The settlement acknowledged, though, that the campaign — not the foundation — “planned, organized, and paid for the Iowa Fundraiser,” as well as “directed the timing, amounts and recipients of the Foundation’s grants to charitable organizations supporting military veterans.”
A state judge ordered Trump to pay $2 million to several charities as damages. The judge ruled Trump “breached his fiduciary duty” to his foundation in order to help his campaign, but also acknowledged that all the money donated to the Trump Foundation at the fundraiser did go to veterans charities.
Wrong on Manufacturing Jobs. A TV ad from Gillibrand’s campaign claimed, “Trump promised manufacturing jobs would stay but they’re not.” Gillibrand told CNN around the same time that Trump promised to “bring back manufacturing jobs, and failed.” But there had been a net increase of nearly 500,000 manufacturing jobs under Trump’s presidency.
Gillibrand’s ad referenced the closing of a GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio. But the ad leaves the false impression that manufacturing jobs overall have declined.
The Gillibrand campaign pointed to the fact that some areas in the Midwest had lost manufacturing jobs. But data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that Rust Belt states, while experiencing slower job growth than the national average, had seen a net increase in manufacturing jobs under Trump.
Please see our stories on these claims for more information:
Gore, D’Angelo, et. al. “Trump Repeats False Ukraine Claims.” FactCheck.org. 22 Nov 2019.
Kiely, Eugene and Farley, Robert. “Fact: Trump TV Ad Misleads on Biden and Ukraine.” FactCheck.org. 9 Oct 2019.
Kiely, Eugene. “FactChecking Trump’s Fox News Interview.” FactCheck.org. 22 May 2019.
Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “Trump Misleads Rallygoers on IG Report, Impeachment.” FactCheck.org. 11 Dec 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Trump Muddies Impeachment Timeline.” FactCheck.org. 11 Nov 2019.
Gore, D’Angelo. “More Family Separation Spin.” FactCheck.org. 10 Apr 2019.
Kiely, Eugene and Robertson, Lori. “Trump Doubles Down on Inaccurate Hurricane Forecast.” FactCheck.org. 5 Sep 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Trump Wrong About Wall Effect in El Paso.” FactCheck.org. 18 Jan 2019.
Robertson, Lori, et. al. “FactChecking Trump’s El Paso Rally.” FactCheck.org. 14 Feb 2019.
Robertson, Lori. “Trump’s ISIS Claim Goes to the Dogs.” FactCheck.org. 26 Nov 2019.
Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “FactChecking Trump’s NATO Remarks.” FactCheck.org. 3 Dec 2019.
Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “Trump’s Error-filled Cabinet Meeting.” FactCheck.org. 22 Oct 2019.
Farley, Robert. “No Evidence Kim Jong Un Rebuffed Obama’s ‘Begging.’” FactCheck.org. 2 Jul 2019.
Farley, Robert and Robertson, Lori. “Trump’s False Claims About Rep. Ilhan Omar.” FactCheck.org. 16 Jul 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Trump Retweets False Attack on Rep. Omar.” FactCheck.org. 18 Sep 2019.
Jackson, Brooks. “Does China Pay Tariffs?” FactCheck.org. 28 Feb 2019.
Kiely, Eugene. “Trump Wrong on China Trade, Again.” FactCheck.org. 7 May 2019.
Kiely, Eugene. “U.S.-Japan Trade Deficit Not ‘Changing Rapidly.’” FactCheck.org. 16 Aug 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Biden’s Record on Iraq War.” FactCheck.org. 10 Sep 2019.
Kiely, Eugene. “Kamala Harris Mistweet on ‘Tax Hike.’” FactCheck.org. 13 Feb 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Gillibrand Misleads on Trump’s Bump Stock Ban.” FactCheck.org. 5 Jun 2019.
Kiely, Eugene et. al. “FactChecking the November Democratic Debate.” FactCheck.org. 21 Nov 2019.
Farley, Robert. “O’Rourke Wrong on Gun Control Stat.” FactCheck.org. 10 May 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Gillibrand Attacks Trump on Manufacturing Jobs.” FactCheck.org. 12 Jul 2019.
McDonald, Jessica. “Buttigieg Wrong About Climate Change’s Effect on Oceans.” FactCheck.org. 9 Sep 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Biden Misleads on Top 1% Tax Rate.” FactCheck.org. 14 Aug 2019.