Social media posts make a broad and misleading claim that “Democrats stood with” the leaders of Venezuela, China and Iran rather than supporting oppressed people in those countries. The facts don’t support that generalization.
Dubious viral posts on Facebook accuse Democrats of supporting repressive regimes around the world and argue that President Donald Trump, on the other hand, has “stood with” the people of those countries.
The claim, first spread by a pro-Trump Twitter user, feeds into and expands upon the erroneous narrative spread in recent weeks that Democrats have “mourned” the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike on Jan. 2.
“Trump stood with the people of Venezuela. Democrats stood with Maduro. Trump stood with the protesters in Hong Kong. Democrats stood with Communist China. Trump stands with the people of Iran. Democrats stand with Soleimani and the Ayatollahs,” the posts read. “Notice the pattern yet?”
But that broad assertion doesn’t hold up after a review of public statements and legislative actions by Democrats on the national stage. We’ll go through each component of the claim here.
Venezuela and Maduro
Early last year, Trump said the U.S. would officially recognize Venezuela’s National Assembly president, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s interim president — rather than Venezuela’s president since 2013, Nicolás Maduro, whose 2018 re-election was widely considered illegitimate by other countries, including the U.S. Venezuela has endured a collapsing economy and human rights groups have said medicine and food shortages constitute a “humanitarian emergency.”
But it’s baseless to say that “Democrats” — which implies most, if not all — “stood with Maduro.”
Democratic leaders in Congress — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — issued statements supporting the recognition of Guaidó as interim president and rebuking Maduro.
“The United States must respect legitimate democratic processes, and support the right of the people of Venezuela to protest and defend their human rights,” Pelosi said. “Nicolas Maduro’s regime of repression and impoverishment for his personal enrichment continues to gravely violate human rights, and must be condemned swiftly by the full international community.”
A handful of Democrats in Congress did express opposition to a U.S.-forced regime change in Venezuela, and instead endorsed peace negotiations facilitated by other countries and the Vatican. But even one of those lawmakers, Rep. Ilhan Omar, wrote that “No one is defending Maduro.” She later said, “Opposition to intervention ≠ support for a country’s leader.”
In February, Democrats in Florida criticized presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders for not explicitly calling Maduro a dictator and recognizing Guaidó. But when the Council on Foreign Relations surveyed 18 Democrats running for president last year on the issue of Venezuela, including Sanders, none offered statements of support for Maduro.
Instead, almost all explicitly condemned Maduro, supported Guaidó, or did both.
Former Vice President Joe Biden called Maduro “a tyrant, who has stolen elections, abused his authority, allowed his cronies to enrich themselves, and denied the delivery of food and medicine to the people he claims to lead.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Maduro is “a dictator and a crook who has wrecked his country’s economy, dismantled its democratic institutions, and profited while his people suffer.”
Many of the candidates called for the U.S. to assist Venezuelans, who were fleeing the country by the millions. And some of the candidates expressed reluctance for the U.S. to become entangled in regime change.
The few who were less explicit in their criticism of Maduro largely cautioned the U.S. to not become involved militarily, or engage in tactics that could potentially be harmful to Venezuelans.
Sanders, for example, said his “administration would support the negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition, and work with other countries in our region, and the international community, to support the Venezuelan people’s right to build their own future.” He said he “would condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and the suppression of dissent” and “listen to the voices of Venezuelan activists themselves who warn against broad sanctions, such as the Trump administration’s oil sanctions, that mainly punish the people, not the government.”
Sanders has more recently referred to Maduro as a “vicious tyrant.”
Hong Kong Protests
Demonstrators have taken to the streets in Hong Kong since the of summer 2019 to protest against a (now-scrapped) proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions from Hong Kong to China. Pro-democracy protesters also demanded changes to Hong Kong’s election process, including the direct election of the city’s chief executive, who is selected by a 1,200-member committee.
During the December Democratic presidential debate, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has repeatedly expressed support for the protests, accused Trump of not making “a peep” in support of “folks out there standing up for democracy” in Hong Kong.
However, those two bills got to the president’s desk with the help of most congressional Democrats.
The first bill — S. 1838, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 — requires the U.S. to annually “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 features some human rights provisions.
That bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and passed by unanimous consent in the Republican-controlled Senate. It was then approved by the Democrat-controlled House. While a few representatives from both parties did not vote, the only member of the House who voted against it was Rep. Thomas Massie — a Republican.
The second bill, S. 2710, was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and prohibits the sale of “specified munitions,” including tear gas, rubber bullets and handcuffs, to the Hong Kong Police Force. The bill was approved in both chambers and there were no votes against it.
Pelosi and a bipartisan group of lawmakers also hosted pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong at the U.S. Capitol in September.
Iran and Soleimani
After the Jan. 2 killing of Soleimani, many leading Democrats criticized or questioned Trump’s decision to order the airstrike on the Iranian military leader. Pelosi referred to the move as “provocative and disproportionate.”
Instead, many have acknowledged his acts of terror — the Pentagon has attributed the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members to Soleimani, and said he was planning future attacks — even when criticizing or questioning Trump’s decision to have him killed.
For example, while Schumer said the Trump administration’s “lack of advance of consultation and transparency with Congress can lead to hasty and ill-considered decisions,” he also said Soleimani was a “notorious terrorist” and that “no one should shed a tear over his death.”
Days after Soleimani was killed, Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger airplane, killing 176 people. After Iran initially denied responsibility, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani then blamed human error and said the plane was accidentally shot down — a revelation that prompted Iranians to take to the streets to protest the Iranian government.
Trump publicly supported those protesters, warning Iran in a tweet that “the World is watching.”
While some prominent Democrats — including 2020 candidates Biden, Warren and Klobuchar — posted messages supporting the protesters, some journalists and conservative media personalities highlighted an apparent reluctance by Democrats to be as vocally supportive of the Iranian protesters as Trump. A Washington Post columnist, urging Democrats to be more supportive even if criticizing Trump’s policies, opined that their hesitancy stemmed from distrust of Trump and the possibility that “his confrontational policies” that “could drag us into another Middle Eastern conflict.”
Pelosi, for her part, was asked if she supported the protesters on ABC News on Jan. 12. She first acknowledged that previous protests have occurred — both against the regime and against the U.S. — and said that the Iranian government should be “held accountable” for allowing commercial flights to take place at that time.
Pelosi then added: “Of course we would love to see the aspirations of the people of Iran realized with a better situation there,” before warning against the U.S. “escalating the situation — unless we’ve exhausted every other remedy.”
Her response was hardly a defense of Soleimani or Iran’s leaders.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has criticized House Democrats for not allowing a vote on a resolution he sponsored that condemned Iran and supported protesters. But that was a procedural vote — not one on the substance of the resolution — after Republicans had attempted to amend an unrelated bill to require immediate consideration of McCarthy’s resolution. (Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier countered that the maneuver was one to “hand over control of the House floor to the minority.” He said “Congress supports” the people of Iran “who have stood up to their government demanding transparency and fighting for their rights.”)
Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, also told FactCheck.org in an email that Pelosi supports a resolution introduced in December by Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch that expresses support for protesters in Iran and condemns the country for “a long history of violent repression of dissent,” noting arrests and murders of protesters.
“Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, firmly supports the Iranian people in their struggle to have their freedoms and human rights respected by the Iranian regime and condemns Tehran’s unprecedented, outrageous use of lethal force against the protestors,” Hammill said. “The Speaker is proud to support H. Res 752, Chairman Ted Deutch’s bipartisan resolution supporting the Iranian people’s legitimate protests against the oppressive Iranian government. Congress wants to see the aspirations of the people of Iran realized, and will continue to urge the Administration to use diplomacy and America’s economic might — not senseless military escalation — to bring accountability, freedom and peace to Iran. The violence must end now.”
We couldn’t find instances of Democrats making statements “stand[ing] with Soleimani and the Ayatollahs,” as the social media posts argue. While cautioning against a war with Iran, Pelosi said during a press briefing on Jan. 9 that “we have no illusions about Iran, no illusions about Soleimani, who was a terrible person.”
Biden, Joe (@JoeBiden). “The brave protestors in Hong Kong are demanding the rights and freedoms promised to them. The U.S. should be leading the free world to rally support behind them and, with one voice, defend our shared democratic ideals and the desire for liberty that beats in every heart.” Twitter. 13 Aug 2019.
Biden, Joe (@JoeBiden). “Trump’s reckless policies have needlessly endangered our interests in the Middle East. But none of us should be under any illusions about the Iranian regime, and the Iranian people — like all people everywhere — have the right to peaceful protest. The world should support them.” Twitter. 12 Jan 2020.
“Buttigieg on Soleimani strike: We need answers.” CNN. YouTube. 5 Jan 2020.
Buttigieg, Pete (@PeteButtigieg). “China is oppressing millions of Muslim Uighurs and eroding freedoms in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, this White House is reportedly willing to stay silent and withhold sanctions in exchange for trade concessions. America’s commitment to dignity and religious freedom must not be for sale.” Twitter. 12 Jul 2019.
Buttigieg, Pete (@PeteButtigieg). “Protesters in Hong Kong are risking their lives to defend democracy and demand freedom. Meanwhile, here at home, this president’s party is destroying the democratic norms that made America a beacon of freedom for the world.” Twitter. 1 Oct 2019.
Buttigieg, Pete (@PeteButtigieg). “The people of Hong Kong deserve our support. At times like this it’s important for America to be a voice for peace, for human rights, for freedom, and for stability, and as president I’ll ensure that we stand up for these values.” Twitter. 14 Aug 2019.
Farley, Robert. “Pelosi Did Not ‘Defend’ Soleimani.” FactCheck.org. 10 Jan 2020.
Hammill, Drew. Spokesman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Email to FactCheck.org. 17 Jan 2020.
Lawler, Dave. “Venezuela’s Maduro survives 2019.” Axios. 19 Dec 2019.
Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “FactChecking the December Democratic Debate.” FactCheck.org. 20 Dec 2019.
Klobuchar, Amy (@amyklobuchar). “We must stand in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong peacefully protesting to defend their freedom and democracy. It’s time for American leadership that stands up for our values.” Twitter. 13 Aug 2019.
Klobuchar, Amy (@amyklobuchar). “People should have the right to peacefully protest in any country, including Iran.” Twitter. 13 Aug 2019.
“Pelosi Statement on the Situation in Venezuela.” Press release, Office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 8 Feb 2019.
“The Presidential Candidates on Venezuela.” Council on Foreign Relations. 30 Jul 2019.
“Remarks by President Trump on the Killing of Qasem Soleimani.” White House. 3 Jan 2020.
“Sen. Chuck Schumer on Soleimani.” C-SPAN. YouTube. 3 Jan 2020.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “To the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!” Twitter. 12 Jan 2020.
U.S. Senate. “S. 1838, Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.” (as signed into law 27 Nov 2019)
U.S. Senate. “S. 2710, A bill to prohibit the commercial export of covered munitions items to the Hong Kong Police Force.” (as signed into law 27 Nov 2019)
Warren, Elizabeth (@ewarren). “My heart is with the people of Hong Kong as they fight for their freedoms and the rule of law, even in the face of violence from their own government. The United States will always stand with those who stand up for democracy and human rights around the world.” Twitter. 12 Jun 2019.
Warren, Elizabeth (@ewarren). “Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans. But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war.” Twitter. 2 Jan 2020.