In his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco, Texas, and in a recent interview, former President Donald Trump repeated many claims we’ve fact-checked before — but he also made new false and unsupported statements:
- In talking about the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump may have left the false impression that an $18 million settlement in a case involving former President Richard Nixon was relevant to his situation.
- Trump claimed that South American countries are emptying their prisons and “mental institutions” and sending those people to the U.S., but immigration experts tell us there is no evidence of that happening.
- The former president called the official count of drug overdose deaths a “lie” and claimed without evidence that the figure is “probably” five times higher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us that “any undercount” in overall drug overdose deaths “should be relatively small.”
Nixon Settlement Not Relevant to Trump
In talking about the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago for classified documents Trump took when he left the White House, the former president may have left the false impression that his situation was comparable to former President Richard Nixon.
Trump mentioned an $18 million settlement in a case about Nixon’s presidential materials, including the infamous Watergate tapes. But that case has nothing to do with the Presidential Records Act, which established that all presidential records, starting with those of President Ronald Reagan, are the property of the United States. When a president leaves office, the archivist of the U.S. takes custody of those records.
In a Fox News interview that aired March 27, Trump told host Sean Hannity: “This is the Presidential Records Act. I have the right to take stuff. Do you know that they ended up paying Richard Nixon, I think, $18 million for what he had? They did the Presidential Records Act. I have the right to take stuff. I have the right to look at stuff. But they have the right to talk, and we have the right to talk. This would have all been worked out. All of a sudden, they raided Mar-a-Lago, viciously raided Mar-a-Lago.”
We’ll explain what happened with that $18 million settlement — an amount that did not actually go to Nixon or his heirs.
But first, Trump doesn’t “have the right to take stuff,” unless that “stuff” is purely personal, not presidential. The Presidential Records Act says: “Upon the conclusion of a President’s term of office … the Archivist of the United States shall assume responsibility for the custody, control, and preservation of, and access to, the Presidential records of that President.” The archivist then “shall have an affirmative duty to make such records available to the public as rapidly and completely as possible.”
Furthermore, Trump’s claim that the dispute over presidential materials he took “would have all been worked out” through talking, without the need for an FBI search, ignores that Trump took eight months to comply with National Archives and Records Administration’s requests for boxes of presidential documents he had stored at his Mar-a-Lago home. Once the National Archives discovered classified documents among those records and referred the matter to the Department of Justice, Trump’s lawyers, in responding to a subpoena, handed over a single envelope with 38 classified documents, attested that a “diligent search” hadn’t turned up any more, and prohibited the DOJ from inspecting boxes of materials still housed at Mar-a-Lago.
A few more months after that, the FBI obtained a court-approved search warrant and retrieved 13 boxes that “contained documents with classification markings, and in all, over one hundred unique documents with classification markings,” according to a DOJ court filing. We’ve explained all of that before.
Now, back to the Nixon case.
Before the Presidential Records Act — which was signed into law in 1978 and applied to White House materials beginning in 1981 — records that a president created were considered to be the president’s private property. They could keep, destroy or donate the documents to the United States, as several presidents did, to be housed in presidential libraries. But once Nixon, after resigning in 1974, wanted to destroy tape recordings that documented White House activities regarding the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act. That law said that the National Archives would have “complete possession and control” of White House recordings from Nixon’s presidency and all other historical documents.
The law only applied to Nixon, as the National Archives explains.
Nixon sued. The former president’s case challenging the law went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 1977, finding that the act was constitutional. Nixon then sued for compensation from the federal government under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment. That clause says that the government shall not take “private property … for public use, without just compensation.”
In 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Nixon was entitled to compensation. The court said that because there had been “a tradition of presidential ownership of White House papers,” Nixon had a “property interest” in his papers and materials — which amounted to more than 40 million items. Under the Constitution, the court said, “just compensation” was required because the government took that property.
The appeals court sent the case back to the District Court to decide what that compensation should be.
The federal government thought it should be zero dollars, while the Nixon team wanted more than $200 million — a sum that factored in 25 years of interest.
“I thought we had a decent case,” Neil H. Koslowe, the lead counsel for the U.S. on this case and now a partner at Potomac Law Group, told us of the federal government’s argument during a monthslong trial. But before the judge made a decision, the Nixon team proposed a settlement. “My superiors at the Department of Justice decided to accept it.”
The protracted legal battle final ended in the $18 million settlement in 2000.
Nixon had died in 1994, and his heirs actually got very little of that $18 million. When the settlement was announced, news organizations reported that Nixon’s representatives said the lawyers would get $7.4 million and the Nixon Foundation would get $6 million for a presidential library. After millions in taxes were paid, Nixon’s two daughters were left with about $90,000.
Trump’s mention of the case might leave the false impression that he, or other presidents, could be entitled to compensation as well. They’re not. No president since Reagan could even attempt to make the legal arguments Nixon did because of the Presidential Records Act, which made presidential records public, not personal, property.
“It’s no longer possible … for any president to assert ownership,” Koslowe told us. That’s gone. … That’s the whole point of the Presidential Records Act.”
Jason R. Baron, professor of the practice at the University of Maryland and former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration, echoed that comment.
Under the PRA, Baron told us in an email, “presidential records are owned by the American people, not the president himself. The records of every president from Ronald Reagan to President Biden are covered under the PRA. When President Trump’s term in office ended on January 20, 2021, all of his presidential records were required to be transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration. President Trump has no right to be compensated for the lawful return of documents into government custody that he does not and has never owned.”
The Nixon case is an interesting piece of history, but it has no parallels to Trump’s situation.
Trump claimed in his March 25 Waco rally and the Fox News interview that countries in South America are emptying their prisons and institutions for people with mental illness and sending those people to the U.S., but we could find no evidence of that.
Speaking about illegal immigration at the Waco rally, Trump said, “Other countries are emptying out their prisons, insane asylums and mental institutions and sending their most heinous criminals to the United States. And who can blame them? Who can blame them? Right? These are very smart people, the presidents and the heads of these countries, presidents, prime ministers, and dictators, I know them all. But they’re very smart, very streetwise, and they’re sending their criminals to live in the United States.”
“I read a story recently, where a doctor in a mental institution, in a certain country in South America is saying, ‘My whole life, I’ve been so busy taking care of people, but now, I have no people to take care of, because they’re all being sent into the United States,'” Trump added. “And I said, ‘How stupid are we?'”
Trump made a similar claim during his interview on Fox News.
“You know, the prisons are being emptied out all over South America and they’re being dropped — the people are being dropped into our country,” Trump said. “The mental institutions are being emptied out all over South America, but much more than that, all over the world. And they are traveling in through our southern border.”
There is actually historical precedent for such a thing.
In 1980, Cuban leader Fidel Castro allowed the mass migration of some 125,000 Cubans to the U.S. in what was known as the Mariel boatlift.
“Most were true refugees, many had families here, and the great majority has settled into American communities without mishap,” the Washington Post wrote in 1983. “But the Cuban dictator played a cruel joke. He opened his jails and mental hospitals and put their inmates on the boats too.”
According to the Post, about 22,000 of the new arrivals “freely admitted that they were convicts.” Some were political prisoners, but others were convicts who had committed serious felonies, including violent crimes.
But there is no evidence of such a thing happening now.
There has been a spike in immigrants from South America in recent years due to political instability and economic free fall, Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute, told us in a phone interview.
More than 7 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, she said. The vast majority relocated to other countries within the region. Colombia alone, she said, has taken in about 2 million of them.
“This region of the world has experienced the greatest economic devastation as a result of the pandemic,” she said. “Everyone in the region is hurting significantly.”
Some of those who fled their home country in South America and southern Central America continued on to the U.S. In fiscal year 2022, the number of immigrants coming from Venezuela encountered at the southern border surged to more than 187,000. Another nearly 125,000 people came from Colombia, nearly 51,000 from Brazil and nearly 24,000 from Ecuador.
In fiscal year 2022, immigrants from countries outside of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the typical main feeders of immigration into the U.S. — made up about 42% of unauthorized encounters at the border. Five years ago, Mittelstadt said, it was just 4%.
The question, then, is not whether the U.S. has seen a surge in immigrants from South America and southern Central America. It has. The question is whether, as Trump claims, governments in some South American countries are emptying their prisons and institutions for people with mental illness and shipping those people to the U.S. border.
The experts we spoke to said the claim lacks evidence, and is otherwise dubious.
“I cannot prove this is false, but I follow migration in Latin America and the Caribbean quite closely and have never ever heard anything like this related to current migration from the region,” Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, told us via email. “I have never heard any credible claims that any country has been emptying its prisons or mental hospitals so that those released can migrate to the United States.”
Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, said he’s similarly stumped.
“It’s hard to prove a negative — nobody’s writing a report saying ‘Ecuador is not opening its mental institutions’ — but what I can say is that I work full-time on migration, am on many coalition mailing lists, correspond constantly with partners in the region, and scan 300+ RSS feeds and Twitter lists of press outlets and activists region wide, and I have not seen a single report indicating that this is happening,” Isacson told us via email.
“As far as I can tell, it’s a total fabrication,” Isacson added.
That’s not to say some criminals aren’t attempting to migrate to the U.S.
According to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, officers encountered nearly 17,000 criminal noncitizens at ports of entry in FY 2022, and another nearly 8,000 in FY 2023 so far. They are “inadmissible, absent extenuating circumstances,” CBP explains in a footnote.
In between points of entry, Border Patrol officers encountered another nearly 13,000 noncitizens who had criminal convictions or were wanted by law enforcement in FY 2022, and more than 4,000 more so far in FY 2023. Those figures represent convictions for crimes either in the U.S. or abroad, “so long as the conviction is for conduct which is deemed criminal by the United States,” according to CBP. In FY 2022, that included 1,142 people with convictions for assault, 62 for homicide or manslaughter, and 365 for sexual offenses. The data do not identify the country from which these criminals were attempting to emigrate.
“The U.S. Border Patrol conducts vetting on every individual encountered illegally entering the United States,” a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection told us via email. “That vetting includes the collection of biographical and biometric information that is run through all available databases to check for criminal history and any other potentially derogatory information.”
CBP did not detail, however, how it checks criminal records of people coming from a country such as Venezuela, which has not had diplomatic relations with the United States since 2019.
Although a press contact for Trump did not respond to our inquiry seeking backup for the former president’s claims, back in September, Trump made a similar claim about a South American country, Venezuela, that has its roots in a Sept. 18 story by the conservative news outlet Breitbart.
“This week it was reported that Border Patrol agents have received an intelligence bulletin stating that Venezuelan dictator Maduro is opening up all of his prisons and sending vicious convicts — and these are tough ones charged with murder, rape and other heinous crimes — straight across the border and into our wide open USA,” Trump said at a political rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Sept. 23. Trump added that in addition to Venezuela, “countries all over the world are doing it.”
In that instance, Trump was citing a Breitbart story written by Randy Clark, a former employee of the U.S. Border Patrol, who claimed, “A recent Department of Homeland Security intelligence report received by the Border Patrol instructs agents to look for Venezuelan inmates released from entering the U.S., according to a source within CBP. The report, reviewed by Breitbart Texas, indicates the Venezuelan government, under the leadership of Nicolás Maduro Moros, is purposely freeing inmates — including some convicted of murder, rape, and extortion.
“The intelligence report warns agents the freed prisoners have been seen within migrant caravans traveling from Tapachula, Mexico toward the U.S.-Mexico border as recently as July,” Clark wrote.
That story prompted a letter from 14 members of Congress to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas demanding information on reports that Venezuela “is deliberately releasing violent prisoners early,” and “pushing them to join caravans heading to the United States.”
The Breitbart story was based on an unnamed “source within CBP” and on an alleged Homeland Security intelligence report to CBP. But we were unable to surface that report.
Although the story describes the prison release as “deliberate,” it also states: “The report does not specify that the release of the convicts — understanding they would head to the United States — could be a purposeful geopolitical move specifically intended to impact U.S. national security.”
A spokesman for CBP told us, “It is the policy of CBP to neither confirm nor speak to potentially improperly disclosed internal documents marked as law enforcement sensitive or for official use only.”
If there were concerns about freed prisoners embedded in caravans, Isacson told us, “no ‘caravan’ has successfully reached the US border since late 2018. There’ve been some protests to press Mexico for travel visas or faster asylum decisions, but I know of only one caravan that made it as far as Mexico City, and that was just a few stragglers after more than a month.”
Responding to Trump’s comments in September, elDetector, a fact-checking operation at Univision, in October quoted Carolina Girón, general coordinator of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, as saying, “Venezuelan prisons have not been emptied. The population of inmates in prisons is close to 32,000 people, when there is an installed capacity of only 21,000. We have 170% overcrowding.”
As for the allegation about South American countries sending people with mental illness to the U.S., we couldn’t find any substantiation for that either.
“There is no evidence that I have been able to find that demonstrates an increase of immigrants with severe mental illness coming into the country or coming into facilities,” Pierluigi Mancini, an expert on immigrant behavioral health, told us.
Mancini, who recently led an effort to train clinicians in Latin America dealing with the millions of displaced Venezuelans, said, “I have done work in several countries in Latin America, and I have not found any evidence that people with mental illness who are in prison in South America are being released and shipped to the United States.”
Drug Overdose Deaths
There were 106,699 deaths from drug overdoses in 2021, up more than 16% from 2020, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But in his Waco remarks, Trump called those numbers a “lie” and claimed — without evidence — that the total of annual deaths is “probably” about five times as high.
“People talk about the people that are pouring in, but the drugs that are pouring into our country, killing everybody, killing so many people, that’s another lie, Dan, because they keep talking about a hundred thousand people, 75,000 people,” Trump said, talking to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was in attendance. “I’ve been hearing that number for 15 years. It’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, probably a half a million people, and nobody wants to say it.”
While the official count of annual overdose deaths has increased almost every year since at least 1999, the totals did not top 70,000 until 2017, during Trump’s administration, and they did not exceed 100,000 until 2021. So Trump has not been hearing those figures from the government for over a decade.
Furthermore, Trump’s campaign did not provide any documentation to back up his assertion that the actual number of yearly drug overdose deaths is closer to 500,000.
Christopher Ruhm, a University of Virginia professor of public policy and economics, told us that was a reason to be skeptical of Trump’s figure.
“Without supporting evidence or a detailed methodology, I would be very dubious of that claim,” he said in a phone interview.
Ruhm and other researchers have written papers concluding that overdose deaths due to certain drugs, particularly opioids, were underreported for years – primarily because many death certificates did not specify the drug or drugs that caused the overdose. He said that “undercount has fallen over time,” as reporting on death records has improved.
“I have not yet seen convincing evidence that the number of overall drug deaths is drastically underreported or even necessarily underreported at all,” he said.
In a statement to FactCheck.org, Merianne Spencer, a CDC researcher, said that “any undercount” in total drug overdose deaths due to pending death investigations would likely be minimal.
“There is no evidence to suggest that ‘hundreds and hundreds of thousands’ of drug overdose deaths are not being reported,” Spencer said.
She explained that the NCHS publishes its figures based on certified death records, which are filled out by state and local medical examiners, and then submitted to the NCHS by state and local vital records offices.
“It is reasonable to note that the cause-of-death certifier’s determination relies on their expertise; they make their determinations based on what information and evidence is available to them,” she said. “While we believe that there could be an undercount due to some overdose deaths still pending investigation at the close of the mortality files at the end of each year, any undercount should be relatively small.”
The former president also repeated several false and misleading claims in his interview and at his rally, including these:
- In Waco, Trump said the FBI “shouldn’t have raided” Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8, because during an earlier visit government agents could have reviewed and taken classified documents. That’s false. On June 3, government officials toured a Mar-a-Lago storage room, which the Department of Justice has said contained about 50 to 55 boxes. But Trump’s lawyer “explicitly prohibited government personnel from opening or looking inside any of the boxes that remained in the storage room,” a DOJ court filing said.
- In his interview with Hannity, Trump said, “Look, here’s a letter from Stormy Daniels saying we never had an affair.” As we wrote, Daniels has said she signed the letter in 2018 under pressure. “[T]hey made it sound like I had no choice,” she said in a March 2018 “60 Minutes” interview.
- Trump downplayed his mishandling of classified documents, telling Hannity: “Joe Biden has got 1,850 boxes … in Delaware. Think of that, 1,850 boxes.” That’s misleading. As we’ve written, Biden in 2012 donated more than 1,850 boxes of records from his years in the U.S. Senate to the University of Delaware. The Justice Department, with Biden’s consent, reviewed the documents and did not find any with classified markings, although some were taken for further review, CBS News has reported.
- In Waco, Trump repeated the false claim that he “ended Nord Stream 2,” referring to a Russian pipeline that would have doubled the export of Russian natural gas to Germany. As we’ve written, Trump signed a bill in 2019 that included sanctions against companies building the pipeline. Construction was suspended, but resumed a year later, while Trump was in office. The pipeline has never gone into service, because German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stopped the certification process last year.
- In Waco, Trump once again falsely asserted that his administration was the first to put tariffs on Chinese goods. “No other president took anything out of China,” he said. “Not 25 cents.” That’s patently false. We’ve written on multiple occasions that the U.S. has collected billions in tariffs on Chinese imports long before Trump took office.
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