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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Whoppers of 2020


Summary

For the sixth year in a row President Donald Trump has proved he is in a class of his own when it comes to political mendacity. His claims again make up the majority of our top 10 list of the most egregious falsehoods.

And in 2020, two of Trump’s whoppers may well be the most outrageous and damaging of his political career: his false attacks on the integrity of the election and his downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic.

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden also earned spots in our lineup for false claims about Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and for wrongly, and repeatedly, saying he was “arrested” while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Bogus information on COVID-19 dominated the viral misinformation landscape for much of the year. Among the worst of the worst: the “Plandemic” video, which gathered many such falsehoods into a grand conspiracy theory.

Read on for the full whoppers rundown, and for more information on the claims, see links to our prior stories on these falsehoods at the end.

Analysis


False Claims of a “Rigged” Election.
For months this year, Trump primed his supporters to believe false and baseless claims about voter fraud, repeating falsehoods about mail-in ballots and declaring shortly before the election, “the only way we can lose, in my opinion, is massive fraud.”

In a Dec. 1 interview, Attorney General William Barr said: “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election.”

Trump did lose — in an election federal, state and local officials overseeing the nation’s voting system called “the most secure in American history.” Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, who will leave his post before Christmas, stated that U.S. attorneys and the FBI “have not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election.”

But Trump’s unrelenting barrage of falsehoods continued. He pushed the bogus conspiracy theory that Dominion Voting Systems switched “thousands of votes” from him to Biden and falsely claimed “the votes in Dominion, they say, are counted in foreign countries.” They’re not.

He claimed he “won” on election night, before millions of votes had been counted, and in a Nov. 4 early morning speech from the White House called for “all voting to stop.” Trump falsely said Republican poll observers weren’t allowed to watch ballot counting in some states. (One of his lawyers admitted to a Pennsylvania judge, “There’s a nonzero number of people in the room.”) He wrongly claimed it was “statistically impossible” that he lost the presidential race even as Republicans had success in congressional races. And he further pushed suspicions by drawing false comparisons between Biden’s performance in swing states and that of the last two Democratic presidential nominees.

He and his campaign promoted a false claim that surveillance camera footage in Georgia captured election workers adding illegal ballots from suspicious “suitcases.” Those were standard containers used to secure valid ballots, state officials said. 

Trump also lost many legal challenges, with strong criticism from judges. In Pennsylvania, Appeals Court Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee, wrote that “calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”

Downplaying the Coronavirus. Trump made unfounded and false claims in downplaying and dismissing the coronavirus pandemic, which has now caused more than 300,000 deaths and more than 17 million cases in the United States.

Trump, at a Feb. 10 rally in New Hampshire, said: “It looks like by April, you know in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away — I hope that’s true. … But I think it’s going to work out good. We only have 11 cases, and they’re all getting better.”

In February, Trump suggested the coronavirus would “go away” in April, as temperatures warmed. By May, when that didn’t happen, he baselessly said the virus “is going to go away without a vaccine.” Experts said that was unlikely. When Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned of a difficult winter ahead, Trump said “corona could be just some little flare-ups that we’ll take care of.  We’re going to knock it out.” Daily cases and deaths have surged in December, hitting new highs.

We learned in September that Trump had told journalist Bob Woodward on March 19 that he was understating the threat on purpose. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said, adding, “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

One way Trump downplayed it was in comparing COVID-19 to the flu, despite telling Woodward in February that this virus was “more deadly” than “even your strenuous flus.”

Even after contracting COVID-19 in October, Trump wrongly said that “sometimes over 100,000” people die from flu each year. The highest estimated death toll from flu in the past decade was 61,000 deaths in 2017-2018; the yearly average has been fewer than 40,000 lives. 

Trump also amplified false and baseless claims about the number of deaths due to the virus. In an October campaign rally, he questioned the reported numbers by making the unfounded claim of an “incentive” causing an increase in cases and deaths, because “doctors get more money and hospitals get more money.” He pushed the false claim that the CDC had drastically reduced the number of deaths attributable to COVID-19. He continually equivocated on the wisdom of public mask-wearing, and continued to hold crowded campaign rallies where few wore masks.

Wrong on Ventilators and the Stockpile. Trump repeatedly made the false claim that he inherited a Strategic National Stockpile with “empty” or “bare” cupboards and that “we weren’t left ventilators by a previous administration.” In fact, we learned in June from the Department of Health and Human Services that the federal government had more ventilators in stock, left from previous administrations, than it had distributed during the pandemic.

The Strategic National Stockpile had 16,660 ventilators, none bought by the Trump administration, when it began distributing the machines in March. On June 17, an HHS spokesperson said the government had distributed 10,640 ventilators up to that point during the coronavirus outbreak.

As for other medical supplies in the stockpile, the government doesn’t publicly report on the contents, but the repository, before Trump took office, reportedly contained vast amounts of materials, including vaccines against bioterrorism agents like smallpox, antivirals in case of a deadly flu pandemic, and protective gear for doctors and nurses.

Wrong on Hydroxychloroquine. In March, Trump began pushing hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, saying he had “seen things that are impressive,” even as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned that a large clinical trial was needed to prove the drug’s effectiveness.

Hydroxychloroquine and a similar drug, chloroquine, can be used to treat malaria, as well as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. The president went on to falsely claim “people with lupus” who take hydroxychloroquine “aren’t catching this horrible virus.” People with lupus had contracted COVID-19. He cited nonexistent “studies,” suggesting there were few COVID-19 cases in “malaria countries” because of the use of hydroxychloroquine. The drugs aren’t widely used for malaria in much of the world. 

After a large, randomized controlled trial failed to find any benefit for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, the Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in June. The agency concluded the drugs are “unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19 for the authorized uses in the EUA,” and that the “known and potential benefits” of the drugs “no longer outweigh” the risks. Other trials also did not find a benefit. 

Despite that, the president continued to support hydroxychloroquine, claiming in an August tweet that “[m]any doctors and studies disagree” with the FDA’s EUA revocation and sharing a viral video of a group of physicians falsely claiming that hydroxychloroquine is a “cure” for COVID-19.

False Criticism of Trump’s COVID-19 Response. In a CNN town hall, Biden made the absurd claim that if Trump “had done his job from the beginning — all the people would still be alive,” adding, “just look at the data.” No research or data supports such a claim. At the time, there had been more than 197,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States.

At a CNN town hall in September, Biden claimed, “And if president had done his job — had done his job from the beginning — all the people would still be alive.”

Biden didn’t elaborate on what actions he believed could have stopped all deaths. Even if the U.S. had implemented incredibly strict travel limitations very early on, the body of research shows that could have delayed the spread of the virus but not contained it.

In another town hall, Biden falsely said the Trump administration made “no effort” to get U.S. medical experts into China “early on in this crisis.” He made a similar claim in the first presidential debate. The CDC did try to get experts into China one week after the country reported the outbreak to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, 2019, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said he made the offer again in January himself and through the WHO. In mid-February, a WHO team, with two U.S. members, was allowed by Chinese authorities to visit Wuhan, where the outbreak began. 

Biden also falsely said in March, at a time when testing availability was limited in the United States, that the WHO offered the U.S. diagnostic testing kits but “we refused them.” The U.S. never refused a WHO test kit, which is intended for lower-income nations. It’s standard for countries with the scientific know-how to create their own tests.

Biden’s False Claim on Mandela. In February, Biden claimed at least three times that when he was in Congress, he was “arrested” in South Africa while trying to see Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, where the future leader of the country had been imprisoned from 1964 to 1982. Biden later admitted he was actually “stopped” and briefly “detained” at the airport.

On CNN on Feb. 28, after the New York Times had written about Biden’s claim, he walked it back. Biden said upon landing in South Africa he refused to take the whites-only entrance, because he would have been separated from African American members of the congressional delegation. “When I said arrested, I meant I was not able to — I was not able to move. Cops, Afrikaners, would not let me go with them. Made me stay where I was. I guess I wasn’t arrested, I was stopped,” he said.

Not the “Greatest Economy.” Trump and other administration and campaign officials repeated the false talking point that he made the U.S. economy the “strongest” and “greatest” in world history (before the coronavirus pandemic). As we wrote during the Republican National Convention — when speakers made versions of this claim every night — that’s nonsense. The U.S. economy has been better under other presidents, both in terms of jobs and economic growth. 

Trump’s best year in real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product growth was a 3% increase in 2018. GDP growth has been higher 17 times over the last 39 years, including most recently under then-President Barack Obama in 2015. And job growth during Trump’s first three years — before the coronavirus outbreak — was slower than the three years before he took office. 

“Plandemic” Misinformation. A 26-minute viral video, filled with false and misleading claims about the coronavirus, attracted hundreds of thousands of views on multiple platforms in May. It was largely an interview with a controversial former chronic fatigue researcher who has spoken at events aimed at discrediting vaccines. Titled “Plandemic,” the video spun together various bogus bits to push a grand conspiracy about the coronavirus pandemic. 

Several of the video’s falsehoods had circulated in other social media messages this year. “Plandemic” claimed, contrary to scientific research on the coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, that the virus “was manipulated” in a laboratory and is not “naturally occurring.” It falsely said flu vaccines contain coronaviruses (they don’t), and made the perplexing assertion that using face masks could lead to people infecting themselves with their own breath. 

It made the unsubstantiated, and later disproven claim, that hydroxychloroquine is “the most effective medication to treat” COVID-19, and it pushed the idea that “flu vaccines increase the odds by 36% of getting COVID-19,” citing a study that didn’t involve SARS-CoV-2.

A second installment, released in August, spewed more falsehoods, suggesting without proof that the coronavirus was man-made and intentionally released. 

Trump’s Conspiracy Theories. As he has done for years, the president pushed and amplified wild conspiracy theories, mostly through Twitter.

At an NBC News town hall, Trump defended his retweet of a baseless conspiracy theory, saying “people can decide for themselves.”

A few weeks before the election, Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory baselessly suggesting that Biden had members of SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up a purportedly failed assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. When asked about his retweet by NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie, Trump claimed this was someone’s “opinion,” adding: “I’ll put it out there, and people can decide for themselves.”

We found no corroboration supporting the theory’s outrageous claims.

In the same televised town hall with Guthrie, Trump declined to disavow QAnon, the widespread conspiracy theory movement that baselessly suggests Trump is dismantling an elite child sex trafficking ring involving high-profile Democrats. “I know nothing about QAnon,” Trump claimed. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia.”

In May, Trump, once again, endorsed a debunked theory linking MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to the death of one of his staffers in 2001, when he was a Republican congressman. The medical examiner determined the death was an accidental fall caused by a heart problem. But Trump asked for a reopening of the case, saying, “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.”

Trump also vaguely claimed in an interview that Biden was controlled by “people that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.” And in promoting hydroxychloroquine, the president retweeted a post that said the drug “is being suppressed to keep deaths high so the economy can be shut down ahead of the election.” There’s no evidence for that; as we said, the evidence shows the drug isn’t effective for treating COVID-19.

Campaign Distortions. Trump and Biden distorted each other’s positions on some issues beyond recognition.

Biden falsely claimed Trump’s “plan” would “bankrupt” Social Security by 2023. A campaign TV ad claimed these “planned cuts” would cause “benefits” to end by then.

But Trump never proposed cutting benefits.

Biden was pointing to an analysis by the Social Security Administration’s chief actuary of “hypothetical legislation” that would eliminate the payroll tax that funds Social Security “with no alternative source of revenue.” Biden and others had taken advantage of confusing statements Trump made about “terminating the payroll tax.” But White House and Trump campaign officials said the president meant that he wanted to forgive a four-month payroll tax holiday he had authorized via executive action. Trump himself has said: “[W]hen I win the election, I’m going to completely and totally forgive all deferred payroll taxes without in any way, shape or form hurting Social Security. That money is going to come from the general fund.”

If Congress agrees to that forgiveness, the money to make up for lost tax revenue could either come from Social Security’s trust funds or from general revenues.

As for Trump, he falsely claimed Biden’s tax plan would result in “doubling and tripling your taxes” and that Biden wants to raise taxes on “everybody” including “middle income” people.

Biden proposes increasing taxes on very high-income earners and corporations; the plan wouldn’t double or triple people’s taxes at any income level on average, according to several independent analyses. Experts told us there conceivably could be rare cases in which a taxpayer inheriting capital assets could see federal taxes double or triple, but on average even the top 1% of earners would see an increase of about 40%, according to the Tax Policy Center. That’s less than half a doubling for the highest-earning 1%.

Biden has vowed he won’t raise federal income taxes on anyone making under $400,000 a year, and independent tax analyses conclude that the net result of all Biden’s tax proposals would be, on average, an increase in after-tax income (in effect, a tax cut) for the bottom 80% of households.

Trump also distorted a task force document released by allies of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders to make several false claims about Biden’s positions on immigration.

The task force document called for closing for-profit detention centers, but Trump wrongly said it recommended “no more detention” for immigrants who enter the country illegally. It recommended expanding the asylum system, but Trump falsely said it would give asylum to “all new illegal aliens.” The report called for a focus on prosecuting “human traffickers, smugglers” and other serious criminals, but Trump falsely said it would end prosecutions of illegal border-crossers.

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Sources

Please see our stories on these claims for more information:

Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “The President’s Trumped-Up Claims of Voter Fraud.” FactCheck.org. 30 Jul 2020.

Robertson, Lori. “More False Mail-In Ballot Claims from Trump.” FactCheck.org. 27 May 2020.

Farley, Robert. “Trump’s Absentee vs. Mail-In Ballot Spin.” FactCheck.org. 19 Jun 2020.

Robertson, Lori, et. al. “In Pennsylvania Rallies, Trump Distorts Voting Issues.” FactCheck.org. 27 Oct 2020.

Robertson, Lori, et. al. “Trump Repeats Baseless, False Claims About the Election.” FactCheck.org. 30 Nov 2020.

Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “Trump’s ‘Most Important’ Speech Was Mostly False.” FactCheck.org. 3 Dec 2020.

Kiely, Eugene. “Trump’s Bogus Swing State Claim.” FactCheck.org. 9 Dec 2020.

Fichera, Angelo. “Video Doesn’t Show ‘Suitcases’ of Illegal Ballots in Georgia.” FactCheck.org. 4 Dec 2020.

Kiely, Eugene et. al. “The Facts on Trump’s Post-Election Legal Challenges.” FactCheck.org. 20 Nov 2020.

Kiely, Eugene et. al. “Trump’s Falsehood-Filled Speech on the Election.” FactCheck.org. 4 Nov 2020.

McDonald, Jessica. “Will the New Coronavirus ‘Go Away’ in April?” FactCheck.org. 13 Feb 2020.

McDonald, Jessica. “Trump Baselessly Claims Coronavirus Will ‘Go Away’ Without Vaccine.” FactCheck.org. 19 May 2020.

Rieder, Rem. “Trump’s Deceptive Comparison of the Coronavirus to the Flu.” FactCheck.org. 9 Sep 2020.

Fichera, Angelo. “Trump Baselessly Suggests COVID-19 Deaths Inflated for Profit.” FactCheck.org. 29 Oct 2020.

Hale Spencer, Saranac. “CDC Did Not ‘Admit Only 6%’ of Recorded Deaths from COVID-19.” FactCheck.org. 1 Sep 2020.

Gore, D’Angelo. “Trump Inherited More Ventilators Than Have Been Distributed.” FactCheck.org. 22 Jun 2020.

Gore, D’Angelo. “Trump Falsely Claims He Inherited ‘Empty’ Stockpile.” FactCheck.org. 3 Apr 2020.

McDonald, Jessica. “Trump Hypes Potential COVID-19 Drugs, But Evidence So Far Is Slim.” FactCheck.org. 25 Mar 2020.

Kiely, Eugene. “Trump’s False Coronavirus Claim About Lupus Patients.” FactCheck.org. 6 Apr 2020.

McDonald, Jessica. “Trump’s Faulty Malaria-Coronavirus Connection.” FactCheck.org. 9 Apr 2020.

Hale Spencer, Saranac and Fichera, Angelo. “In Viral Video, Doctor Falsely Touts Hydroxychloroquine as COVID-19 ‘Cure.'” FactCheck.org. 28 Jul 2020.

McDonald, Jessica. “Biden, Trump Wrong About WHO Coronavirus Tests.” FactCheck.org. 20 Mar 2020.

Rieder, Rem. “Biden’s False Claim on Trump’s Response to Coronavirus.” FactCheck.org. 1 Apr 2020.

Robertson, Lori et. al. “FactChecking Biden’s Town Hall.” FactCheck.org. 18 Sep 2020.

Kiely, Eugene. “Biden Admits He Was ‘Stopped,’ Not ‘Arrested,’ in South Africa.” FactCheck.org. 2 Mar 2020.

Kiely, Eugene et. al. “Trump’s Talking Points.” FactCheck.org. 24 Aug 2020.

Jackson, Brooks et. al. “Final Night of the Republican Convention.” FactCheck.org. 28 Aug 2020.

Fichera, Angelo et. al. “The Falsehoods of the ‘Plandemic’ Video.” FactCheck.org. 8 May 2020.

Hale Spencer, Saranac et. al. “New ‘Plandemic’ Video Peddles Misinformation, Conspiracies.” FactCheck.org. 21 Aug 2020.

Fichera, Angelo and Hale Spencer, Saranac. “Trump’s Long History With Conspiracy Theories.” FactCheck.org. 20 Oct 2020.

Gore, D’Angelo. “Biden’s False Attacks on Trump’s Social Security ‘Plan.’” FactCheck.org. 11 Sep 2020.

Kiely, Eugene et. al. “FactChecking the Final 2020 Presidential Debate.” FactCheck.org. 23 Oct 2020.

Farley, Robert. “Trump Distorts Biden’s Tax Plan.” FactCheck.org. 13 May 2020.

Rieder, Rem et. al. “Trump Distorts Biden’s Immigration Plans.” FactCheck.org. 16 Jul 2020.

Jackson, Brooks et. al. “FactChecking Trump’s Town Hall.” FactCheck.org. 16 Oct 2020.