First 2020 presidential debate: Fact-checking Biden and Trump

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden traded rhetorical blows across the debate stage in Cleveland during the first presidential debate of the 2020 election. As they attempted to make their points heard on everything from the next Supreme Court nominee to Hunter Biden’s business dealings, some of what they said stretched the bounds of the truth. A few claims were outright whoppers.

NBC News fact-checked their statements in real time. Please check back regularly for the latest updates. For full coverage, visit the debate live blog.

Did Trump call veterans ‘losers’?

Biden made this claim Tuesday evening, and it accurately reflects media reports citing multiple sources.

“And speaking of my son, the way you talk about the military, the way you talk about them being losers and just being suckers. My son was in Iraq. He spent a year there. He got the Bronze Star. He got a service medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot, and the people left behind there were heroes,” Biden said, speaking of his son Beau Biden.

Biden appears to be referring to a recent report in The Atlantic, which zeroed in on Trump’s rhetoric about service members. Citing four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions, the magazine reported that Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain. The Atlantic then was first to report that in a conversation with senior staff members, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”

Trump also reportedly called the more than 1,800 fallen Marines “suckers” for getting killed during the World War I battle. The Atlantic’s report was confirmed by the Associated Press, while the Washington Post reported similar rhetoric about fallen service members. The president denied The Atlantic report as “fake.”

Did violent crime fall under Obama, rise under Trump, as Biden claimed?

On Tuesday night, Biden says, “Violent crime went down 17 percent, 15 percent in our administration. It’s gone up on his watch.”

Biden’s attack is half-true. Asked about this claim, the Biden campaign pointed to a review of FBI violent crime data during the Obama administration that found that the violent crime rate fell nearly 16 percent when adjusted for population. While that number appears to check out, his attack on Trump is unfounded: While homicide has been on the rise, violent crime has remained largely flat under the Trump administration.

Did Biden call Black Americans ‘super predators’?

“Look at the crime bill, 1994, where you called them ‘super predators,’ African-Americans are ‘super-predators,'” Trump said. “And they’ve never forgotten that.”

This is mostly false. It was Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, who used the term “super predator” to advocate for the 1994 crime bill that Biden co-authored more than thirty years ago. Biden did warn of “predators” in a floor speech in support of his bill, however.

Did Trump pay ‘a total of $750 in taxes,’ as Biden claimed?

Biden, during a prolonged exchange over the amount of federal taxes Trump has paid, said, “this guy paid a total of $750 in taxes.”

Trump retorted by saying, “I’ve paid millions of dollars in taxes, millions of dollars of income tax.”

Biden’s claim accurately reflects new reporting by The New York Times for the years 2016 and 2017.

Trump’s federal income tax bill was just $750 dollars the year he won the presidency, The New York Times reported after obtaining and reviewing more than two decades of the president’s tax information. During his first year in office, his bill remained $750. The information does not include his returns from 2018 and 2019.

According to The Times, Trump had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years prior to 2016, because he reported losing much more money than he made during that time. NBC News has not seen or verified any of the documents reported by The Times.

Does Trump support cutting police funding?

“His budget calls for a $400 million cut in local law enforcement assistance,” Biden said Tuesday night, reiterating his own opposition to defunding the police.

This is mostly true, though Biden actually undercounts the proposed cuts. While Trump has opposed calls from some Democrats to reduce police funding in response to the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans over the summer, the Trump administration’s budget proposal does indeed call for big cuts for several police programs. In the Justice Department’s budget plan for fiscal year 2021, the Trump administration requested $1.51 billion for over 50 programs funding state and local law enforcement. That number cuts about $515 million from previous fiscal years, in part by slashing budgets for a number of Obama-era programs, including initiatives that provided body cameras for police officers.

Could Biden have fixed the tax code in a way to prevent Trump from taking advantage of it?

During an acrimonious exchange, the president defended himself for his reportedly low tax bill by suggesting that if Biden wanted Trump to have not taken advantage of the tax code, then he should have taken action to fix it during his tenure in the U.S. Senate.

“The tax code that put him in a position that he pays less tax than a school teacher is because of — he says he’s smart because he can take advantage of the tax code. And he does take advantage of the tax code,” Biden said.

Trump replied, “But why didn’t you do it over the last 25 years? Why didn’t you do it over the last 25 years?”

In reality, despite being in Senate for 36 years, Biden was never technically in a position to re-write the federal tax code.

While in the Senate from 1973 to 2009, Biden was chair of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees and had no direct hand in writing tax laws. That’s the job of the Senate Finance Committee.

Trump, on the other hand, takes advantage of several loopholes to avoid paying taxes, including some for which he personally lobbied.

Among them is a law passed in 1986 to limit investors not actively involved in a business from taking deductions and attributing losses against their income. An “at-risk” rule was also added to prevent a taxpayer from deducting losses greater than their investment. But Congress largely exempted real estate developers, like Trump.

At the same time his Atlantic City investments were suffering, Trump appeared before Congress in 1991 to advocate for “tax shelters” that would “incentivize” “investment in real estate” to help boost the economy during the recession.

Were Trump’s claims about Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings true?

Trump and his allies have attacked the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, for his foreign business dealings.

On Tuesday, Trump echoed one of the biggest claims from the recent Senate GOP Homeland Security Committee’s “conflicts of interest investigation” into Hunter Biden — Trump claimed on the debate stage that “the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son $3.5 million. What did he do to deserve it?”

The report, authored by Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, claimed that Elena Baturina, the former wife of the late former mayor of Moscow, wired $3.5 million to a firm associated with Hunter Biden.

Hunter Biden’s legal team told NBC News that Biden had “no interest” in that firm that received the money, so “the claim he was paid $3.5 million was false.”

And on the debate stage, the former vice president said the claim had been “totally discredited.”

The Senate GOP-led “conflicts of interest” report largely resurfaced outstanding allegations, specifically as to Hunter Biden’s role on the board of a Ukrainian energy company as well as what the committee called “questionable financial transactions between Hunter Biden and his associates and foreign individuals.”

Largely focusing on those optics, the report doesn’t say that Hunter Biden’s work changed U.S. policy. Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates slammed the report as an “attack founded on a long-disproven hardcore right-wing conspiracy theory” that Johnson “has now explicitly stated he is attempting to exploit to bail out Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.”

Read the GOP’s summary of the report here and the Biden campaign’s criticism of the probe here.

Did Trump lower drug prices?

“I’m cutting drug prices. I’m going with favored nations which no president has the courage to do because you’re going against big pharma. Drug prices will be coming down 80 or 90 percent,” Trump said on Tuesday night.

“He has no plan for health care,” Biden argued. “He hasn’t lowered drug costs for anybody.”

Numerous fact checks found that there’s no evidence that Trump’s policies have meaningfully slashed drug prices, as he’s repeatedly claimed, let alone “80 to 90 percent.”

Brand name drug prices are on the rise, too.

Were there really ‘no negative effects’ from Trump’s rallies, as he claimed?

Trump just said that “we’ve had no negative effect” from coronavirus at his rallies, a claim that ignores the spate of COVID-19 cases that have been linked to those campaign events.

A handful of Trump’s own campaign staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the days surrounding his late-June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including members of the Secret Service. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain tested positive days after the rally and ultimately died due to complications from the virus. While Cain attended the rally and was photographed without a mask on, it’s unclear where he contracted the virus.

Tulsa’s top health official said that the rally “likely contributed” to a surge in cases after the rally.

Did Trump accurately characterize the Obama administration’s response to swine flu?

“Well you didn’t do that well on swine flu, H1N1, you were a disaster. Your own chief of staff said you were a disaster,” Trump said to Biden Tuesday night.

Trump’s exaggerating here. Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, has criticized the Obama administration’s swine flu response, not Biden specifically.

“We did every possible thing wrong — 60 million Americans got H1N1,” he said at a biosecurity summit in May 2019. “It is purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history. It had nothing to do with us doing anything right. It just had to do with luck.”

Klain later told Politico his comments referred to the administration’s difficulties producing enough of the vaccine they developed, and argued the Obama team quickly adapted to the pandemic — quickly responding and distributing supplies from the federal stockpile, for example — and made very different choices than the Trump administration.

It’s also worth noting that the swine flu is estimated to have killed 12,000 in the U.S., far smaller than the more than 200,000 who have died of COVID-19 to date. The Obama administration also received generally high marks for its response to the swine flu. While government reports after the fact identified room for growth they also highlighted successes, like rapid research and development of a vaccine that arrived in less than six months. There’s little contemporaneous reporting on the Obama administration response that portrays the kind of unmitigated disaster Trump is suggesting occurred.

How many people are there in the U.S. with pre-existing conditions?

Trump and Biden came out of the gate with conflicting statements over how many people in the U.S. have pre-existing conditions. Biden said there are 100 million such people — and that they would lose their health care coverage should the Affordable Care Act be eliminated. Trump insisted Biden’s number was wrong.

“There’s 100 million people who have pre-existing conditions and they’ll be taken away as well,” Biden said. Trump shot back, “There aren’t 100 million people with pre-existing conditions.”

Studies on the topic show a range that would technically make both men correct.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in 2018 that at least 53.8 million adults under had a pre-existing condition that would make them unable to buy insurance.

Another study, conducted by Avalere, a health care consulting firm, estimated that 102 million Americans had a pre-existing condition that would make them unable to buy insurance.

A 2017 study from the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that about 133 million people had a pre-existing condition that would make them unable to buy insurance.

Do GOP health plans protect people with pre-existing conditions, as Trump claimed?

Trump said Tuesday, “Obamacare is no good. We made it better. And I had a choice to make very early on. We took away the individual mandate. We guarantee pre-existing conditions.”

It’s true that Republicans eliminated Obamacare’s individual mandate — a provision designed to force people to purchase healthcare coverage or pay a fine through their taxes — as part of its 2017 tax bill. But Trump is wrong on the point of pre-existing conditions. We’ve fact checked this at length before, and it’s still false.

Trump has long insisted that he and the GOP will protect people with pre-existing conditions from losing their health insurance — but he has pursued legislation, litigation and executive actions to dismantle those protections under the Affordable Care Act.

A Republican bill backed by Trump included ACA state waivers that would allow insurers to charge higher prices to people with pre-existing conditions, potentially pricing them out of the market. It passed the House and died in the Senate in 2017. Trump has also used executive actions to expand the use of short-term insurance plans that aren’t required to cover pre-existing conditions.

Trump recently signed a symbolic executive order affirming the protections Obamacare created, but his administration is backing a Republican-led lawsuit claiming the actual protections in the law should be struck down. Republicans have yet to offer a plan that would restore pre-existing conditions protections.

Did Trump correctly characterize Biden’s health care plan?

Trump, during a testy exchange about health care, said of Biden’s health care plan, “the bigger problem that you have is you’re going to extinguish 180 million people with their private health care that they’re very happy with.”

This claim is false. It conflates Biden’s plan with that of other Democrats pushing “Medicare for All.”

While there are varying estimates about how many Americans have private insurance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that about 180 million people have private insurance.

Biden’s plan doesn’t end private insurance, like some of Biden’s other Democratic presidential primary opponents proposed. Instead, Biden’s health care plan creates a public option for those who want to get government health insurance while allowing those with private insurance to stay on their plan.

Many Republicans have sought to tie the proposals for “Medicare for All” to all Democrats — and it is true that many Democratic members of Congress are sponsoring the bill (118 in the House and 14 in the Senate).

But Biden has criticized “Medicare for All” throughout his campaign.

Will a GOP lawsuit ‘strip 20 million people’ of their insurance, as Biden claimed?

Biden claimed that the Republican-backed lawsuit targeting the Affordable Care Act would strip 20 million people of their health care.

This checks out, according to multiple studies. The Center for American Progress estimates 23.3 million would lose their health care if the GOP-backed legal challenge to the law succeeded before the Supreme Court in a recent analysis. An estimated 20 million people gained coverage under Obamacare, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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