The first 2020 presidential debate Tuesday night in Cleveland featured an avalanche of lies from President Donald Trump — while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was largely accurate in his statements, though he did make some false or misleading claims.
There were times, particularly during the conclusion of the debate, when almost every comment from Trump was inaccurate. Most of his false claims were ones he’s made before and which have been repeatedly fact-checked and found to be false, rather than one-time slips or gaffes.
Fox News’s Chris Wallace moderated the debate, which covered both candidates’ records as well as the Supreme Court vacancy, Covid-19, the economy, the recent racial justice protests across the country and questions about the integrity of the upcoming election.
Here’s what they said.
Trump used the debate to spread disinformation about mail-in voting and repeated many of the false claims that he has been making all year — including the lie that mail-in voting leads to massive fraud.
“They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country,” Trump said. He added: “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.” He later said mail-in voting is “a disaster” and claimed that “it’s a rigged election.”
Facts First: Trump is lying. There is no widespread fraud in US elections. There are safeguards in place to prevent fraud. States will be dealing with a historic level of mail ballots, which poses a challenge, and there are isolated incidents of fraud. But there is no systematic vote-rigging, including with mail-in ballots.
CNN has repeatedly fact-checked these claims. Millions of Americans voted by mail in the 2016 election, and again during the 2020 primaries, and there has not been widespread fraud. Comprehensive studies of billions of ballots cast over many years indicate that the rate of voter fraud is less than 0.0001%.
Trump was specifically asked how voters should participate in the election. Trump said, “You do a solicited ballot and that’s OK, or you go and vote.” This means Trump gave his blessing to in-person voting or for people to request absentee ballots and then send those ballots back in the mail.
But this leaves out the nine states, plus the District of Columbia, where all registered voters will automatically get ballots in the mail. This is being done in Democratic-run and Republican-run states this year. Experts concede that this voting system is a bit riskier than systems where voters must proactively request absentee ballots. But even with those heightened risks, the fraud rate is still exceedingly tiny.
— Marshall Cohen
Trump brought up a dispute between poll watchers who support his campaign and election officials in Philadelphia.
“As you know today, there was a big problem,” Trump said. “In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They were called poll watchers. A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Trump tweeted that the poll watchers were kicked out because of “corruption.” Other Trump campaign aides flooded social media with complaints about the incident.
Facts First: Trump’s version of what happened is highly misleading. Some pro-Trump poll watchers were turned away from voting sites in Philadelphia. But local officials said this was done because poll watchers — from either party — are allowed only to observe voting at in-person sites on Election Day in November.
Local officials said the poll watchers were turned away because state law allows poll watchers only to participate on Election Day, and that the locations that were open for voting on Tuesday were larger election offices where other services are provided — meaning poll watchers aren’t allowed inside.
Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio, whose office runs the election in the city, told CNN earlier on Tuesday that he encountered someone associated with the Trump campaign who wanted to observe at two in-person voting locations. Custodio told CNN they were denied access because the “satellite election offices” are not the same as Election Day polling places and provide other election services.
David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, responded to Trump’s debate comments, calling them “misinformation” about voting procedures in a key swing state.
“President is spreading misinformation about poll watchers in PA. Poll watchers can’t even be certified yet in PA. You can tell who knows they’re winning by who supports the legal process,” he tweeted.
— Marshall Cohen and Kelly Mena
While railing against mail-in voting, Trump cited an incident that recently took place in Pennsylvania.
“They found some with the name Trump, just happened to have the name Trump, just the other day in a wastepaper basket,” Trump said, adding “they all had the name Trump on them.”
Facts First: It’s true that there was an incident with a small number of discarded ballots in Pennsylvania, but it’s baseless for Trump to cite this as an example of “voter fraud” and of a “rigged” election. Also, he got the number wrong: There were nine discarded ballots, of which seven were Trump votes.
According to federal and local authorities, an election worker improperly threw out nine military ballots in Luzerne County. In an extremely unusual announcement, the Justice Department said all nine of the ballots were marked for Trump, before issuing a correction and saying only seven were Trump votes. Local officials said they will try to reach the affected voters and fix the ballots.
Trump’s campaign has cited this incident as proof that Democrats are “stealing” the election. Trump echoed this on Tuesday night, while accusing his opponents of “fraud” and saying, “They cheat.” CNN fact-checked these claims last week — there is no proof whatsoever of an anti-Trump conspiracy.
Luzerne County officials said that the incident was caused by a “temporary seasonal independent contractor” who “incorrectly discarded (the ballots) into the office trash” on their third day in the election office. The officials called this an “error” and said the fact that it was quickly noticed and investigated proves that “the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works.”
People briefed on the matter told CNN that federal investigators are not treating the incident as intentional fraud but rather as something that occurred because of poorly designed procedures for handling mail-in ballots, and because newly hired election workers weren’t properly trained.
— Marshall Cohen
Trump suggested that postal carriers in West Virginia were selling ballots.
“Take a look at West Virginia mailmen selling the ballots. They’re being sold; they’re being dumped in rivers,” Trump said.
Facts First: This is false. There is no evidence of postal carriers selling ballots in West Virginia. CNN affiliate WDTV reported Tuesday evening that the West Virginia secretary of state “has not reported any incidents of ballots sold by mailmen during the 2020 election.”
There is one known recent instance of attempted election fraud in West Virginia by a postal carrier, who allegedly changed Democratic absentee ballot applications to Republican ones.
This year, the US Justice Department charged mail carrier Thomas Cooper with one count of “attempt to defraud the residents of West Virginia of a fair election” and one count of “injury to the mail.” Cooper admitted to attempted election fraud, according to the DOJ.
Cooper, according to the DOJ, changed the party affiliation on five absentee ballot applications from Democrat to Republican. The DOJ also alleged he changed parts of three other applications.
CNN has reached out to the United States Postal Service, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association for comment on this but has not received a response.
Cooper, who was responsible for mail delivery in the three towns from which the tampered ballot requests were mailed, admitted to altering some of the requests, saying it was a joke, according to the affidavit filed with a complaint written by an investigator working for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.
— Paul P. Murphy
Trump once again accused the Obama administration, including Biden and then-President Barack Obama, of “spying” on his campaign. “There was no transition because they came after me, tried to do a coup, came after me spying on my campaign,” Trump said.
Facts First: There is no evidence Biden or Obama had any personal role in the FBI surveillance of Trump campaign advisers, which came as part of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Trump has been accusing the Obama administration of “spying” as shorthand for a broader conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. There are snippets of truth, like the fact that some Trump aides were investigated and surveilled by the FBI under Obama.
But during the 2016 campaign, Trump aides had extensive contacts with Russian officials and operatives, while Russia meddled in the US election. That raised alarms within the US intelligence community, prompting the FBI to open an investigation, which included routine surveillance methods.
Along the way, the FBI made some serious mistakes, but there’s no evidence Obama or Biden was personally involved in anything.
You can read a longer fact check here.
— Jeremy Herb
Payments to Hunter Biden
Trump claimed that Biden’s son Hunter Biden got a $3.5 million payment from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow. “Why is it, just out of curiosity, the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son $3.5 million?” Trump said.
Facts First: This needs context. Hunter Biden denies the allegation. His lawyer, George Mesires, told CNN that Hunter Biden was not an owner of the firm Senate Republicans allege received the $3.5 million payment in 2014.
“Hunter Biden had no interest in and was not a ‘co-founder’ of Rosemont Seneca Thornton, so the claim that he was paid $3.5 million is false,” Mesires said.
A partisan investigation conducted by Senate Republicans, whose report was released this month, alleged that Elena Baturina, a Russian businesswoman and the wife of late Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, sent $3.5 million in 2014 to a firm called Rosemont Seneca Thornton, and that the payment was identified as a “consultancy agreement.” The report did not provide any further details about the transaction.
Hunter Biden was a co-founder and CEO of the investment firm Rosemont Seneca Advisors. But Mesires said Hunter Biden did not co-found Rosemont Seneca Thornton. It’s not clear what connection exists between Rosemont Seneca Advisors and Rosemont Seneca Thornton.
Neither the Senate report nor Trump have provided any evidence that the payment was corrupt or that Hunter Biden committed any wrongdoing.
— Daniel Dale and Jeremy Herb
Supreme Court and the Affordable Care Act
In an exchange about filling the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Biden said Trump’s nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett thought the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. The landmark Obama-era health care law is being challenged by the Trump administration, in a case that’s due to come before the court in November.
“She’s written before she went on the bench, which is her right, that she thinks that the Affordable Care Act is not constitutional,” Biden said.
Facts First: This needs context. It is unclear which of Barrett’s writings Biden was referring to but an essay Barrett wrote before she was appointed to the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals by Trump in 2017, has generated a lot of attention since her nomination.
In that essay — a January 2017 law review essay in which she criticized Chief Justice John Roberts’ rationale preserving the legislation in a 2012 challenge — Barrett does not outright say the law is unconstitutional.
“Chief Justice Roberts pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute,” Barrett wrote. “He construed the penalty imposed on those without health insurance as a tax, which permitted him to sustain the statute as a valid exercise of the taxing power.”
At another point, Barrett refers to “Roberts’ devotion to constitutional avoidance.”
— Caroline Kelly, with Joan Biskupic and Devan Cole
Affordable Care Act
Biden turned a question about the Supreme Court into a defense of the Affordable Care Act, which was enacted while he was in office.
“He’s in the Supreme Court right now, trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which will strip 20 million people from having insurance,” Biden said of Trump’s support of a case coming up before the justices that could overturn the landmark health reform law.
Facts First: Health care experts say this figure is roughly accurate. It is an estimate from the Obama administration as to how many people gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Some 12 million newly eligible, low-income adults have obtained coverage under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion provision, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Some 38 states and the District of Columbia have broadened their coverage or passed ballot measures to do so.
And roughly 10.7 million were enrolled in individual coverage on the Affordable Care Act exchanges in February, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
— Tami Luhby
Trump tried to paint Biden’s health care plan as the same as “Medicare for All,” which was promoted by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and would have shifted the nation’s health insurance to a single government-run program.
“You are going to extinguish 180 million people with their private health care that they are very happy with. You’re going to socialist medicine,” Trump said.
Facts first: This is not true.
Biden’s plan calls for creating a public option, a government-run plan that would be available on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. But he would not eliminate private insurance.
— Tami Luhby
Veterans’ health care
During a discussion on health care and insurance, Trump claimed 308,000 “military people” died because Biden “couldn’t provide them proper health care.”
Facts First: This claim is misleading and misconstrues the findings of a government report.
Trump seems to be referencing findings from a 2015 inspector general report that examined a backlog of healthcare applications at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The report found more than 307,000 records that remained pending in a VA enrollment system were for people who had already died, according to social security records.
But the report did not reach conclusions about whether lack of health care caused those deaths, and due to data limitations, the VA’s inspector general’s office could not determine how many of those records actually represented veterans who applied for health care benefits.
Moreover, the database in question contained some records for veterans who died before 1998, when Biden was a senator. And the report projected that at least 477,000 records pending in the system were missing application dates, which made the system “unreliable” for understanding the timeliness of care.
— Curt Devine
Coronavirus and masks
In a heated exchange with Biden, Trump said that Dr. Anthony Fauci changed his mind about the impact of wearing masks.
Fact First: This needs context. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, did change his mind about masks, but the need to wear one is not an ongoing debate, as Trump implied.
Last week, Fauci told CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta during a CITIZEN by CNN conference that his evolving advice about masks is a “classic example” of how guidance can change as additional scientific evidence emerges. The pandemic, he said, is an “evolving situation.”
Fauci explained that in the spring, “we were not aware that 40 to 45% of people were asymptomatic, nor were we aware that a substantial proportion of people who get infected get infected from people who are without symptoms. That makes it overwhelmingly important for everyone to wear a mask.”
“So when people say, ‘Well why did you change your stance? And why are you emphasizing masks so much now when back then you didn’t — and in fact you even said you shouldn’t because there was a shortage of masks?’ Well the data now are very, very clear,” he said.
“We need to put that nonsense behind us about ‘well they keep changing their minds,’ ” he said.
Contacted by CNN Tuesday, Fauci did not want to speak directly to what the President said during the debate.
“I have no comment,” Fauci told CNN. “I have explained the evolving situation with masks multiple times. Go to the already existing record and look at my statements on masks.”
— Jen Christensen
Coronavirus and the economy
Trump claimed several times that Biden wants to shut down the country to address the coronavirus.
“He wants to shut down this country and I want to keep it open,” Trump said.
Facts First: This is false. Biden said in an August interview with ABC that he would shut down the country if scientists told him it was necessary — but he has not himself advocated a shutdown or introduced a shutdown plan.
Additionally, he clarified his comments after the interview, saying in September, “There is going to be no need, in my view, to be able to shut down the whole economy.”
It’s also worth noting that presidents themselves cannot shut down the country. The pandemic restrictions governing people’s movements and the operations of businesses and other entities have been imposed by state and local officials, not Trump.
You can read a longer fact check here.
— Tara Subramaniam
Coronavirus travel restrictions
Defending his response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump referenced the travel restrictions his administration imposed on foreign nationals who had been in China, then attacked Biden for remarks he had made the same day.
Addressing his opponent, Trump said, “I closed it, and you said, ‘He’s xenophobic. He’s a racist and he’s xenophobic,’ because you didn’t think I should have closed our country.”
Facts First: This needs context. It’s not clear Biden even knew about Trump’s China travel restrictions when he called Trump xenophobic on the day the restrictions were unveiled; Biden has never explicitly linked his accusation of xenophobia to these travel restrictions.
The campaign says Biden’s January 31 accusations — that Trump has a record of “hysterical xenophobia” and “fear mongering” — were not about the travel restrictions at all. The campaign says Biden did not know about the restrictions at the time of his speech, since his campaign event in Iowa started shortly after the Trump administration briefing where the restrictions were revealed by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Given the timing of the Biden remarks, it’s not unreasonable for Trump to infer that the former vice president was talking about the travel restrictions. But Biden never took an explicit position on the restrictions until his April declaration of support.
You can read more about Biden’s comments here.
— Tara Subramaniam
US trade deficit
Biden suggested that the United States currently has a higher trade deficit with both China and Mexico than it has had before.
“His trade deals are the same way, he talks about these great trade deals,” Biden said. “You know, he talks about the art of the deal. China’s made — perfected the art of the steal. We have a higher deficit with China now than we did before. We have the highest deficit, trade deficit with Mexico.”
Facts First: Biden was wrong on China, but correct on Mexico.
He would have been right on China in 2018, when the goods and services trade deficit with China hit $380 billion, but it’s no longer true, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The gap fell to $308 billion in 2019 — which is the lowest it’s been since 2013.
The US goods and services trade deficit with Mexico grew to a record $104 billion in 2019. It was $64 billion in 2016, before Trump took office.
— Katie Lobosco
Jobs and the economy
Biden claimed that Trump is “going to be the first President of the United States to leave office having fewer jobs in his administration than when he became President.”
Facts first: This is correct looking at the last 67 years, but the government data doesn’t go back far enough to compare all presidents’ jobs performance in history.
Since President Harry Truman, who left office in 1953 — 67 years ago — every president has added jobs over the course of his time in office. The Trump administration has lost 4.7 million jobs between January 2016 and August of this year.
President George W. Bush lost jobs during his first term in office on the back of the recession following the dot-com bubble. But looking at both terms in office, jobs were added during the Bush administration even though it ended in the Great Recession that followed the financial crisis.
That said, the dramatic job losses during Trump’s term came during the pandemic shutdown, when more than 22 million jobs vanished.
The official jobs numbers that the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out go back to 1939, the middle of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
— Anneken Tappe
While attacking Biden’s record as vice president, Trump claimed that his administration brought back 700,000 manufacturing jobs.
“They said it would take a miracle to bring back manufacturing. I brought back 700,000 jobs. They brought back nothing. They gave up on manufacturing,” Trump said.
Facts First: This is false. It was not even true before the pandemic-driven recession: as of February, 483,000 manufacturing jobs had been added during Trump’s presidency. As of August, 237,000 manufacturing jobs had been lost under Trump.
In fact, America’s manufacturing sector was in a downturn between August and December of last year on the back of the US-China trade war and waning global demand.
— Anneken Tappe
Defunding the police
After the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, there has been a nationwide surge in protests demanding reform. Some have called for defunding the police and diverting those funds into community programs or other emergency intervention options.
Asked about the issue of law and order, Biden implied Trump’s actually the one who wants to defund the police.
“The only one defunding, in his budget calls for a $400 million cut in local law enforcement assistance,” Biden said, referring to the president.
Facts First: This is true. While Trump has been a vocal opponent of the concept of defunding the police, his administration’s 2021 budget proposed funding cuts for local law enforcement programs.
Biden, trying to turn the tables on Trump, has based his accusation on the Trump administration’s budget proposals for significant 2021 cuts in federal funding for a community policing program known as COPS and for other state and local law enforcement initiatives; the proposed cuts can total more than $400 million depending on how you do the math. Part of Biden’s criminal justice plan includes a renewed investment in community policing initiatives including COPS.
Still, though, federal support is a small fraction of local police funding, and Trump has not proposed that any city or county take away funding from their local force.
— Tara Subramaniam
Violence vs. protests
Trump claimed that Biden has excused rioting and looting in the context of recent racial justice protests.
“What is peaceful protest? When they run through the middle of the town and burn down your stores and kill people all over the place?” Trump asked. “No, it’s not, but you say it is.”
Facts First: This is false.
Biden has correctly noted that many protesters have been peaceful; he has not argued that the violent protesters are peaceful. Rather, he has repeatedly denounced violence, rioting and looting.
Read more here.
— Tara Subramaniam
Politics of violence
Biden argued that then-White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has said riots and violence helped Trump’s cause.
“His own former spokesperson said riots and chaos and violence help his cause,” Biden said, referring to Conway.
“I don’t think she said that,” Trump replied.
Facts First: Trump is wrong. Conway made this statement in late August, though not in these precise words.
Conway was asked on Fox News about criticism from Pete Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor. Buttigieg had faulted Trump for violent protests occurring during his presidency.
Conway rejected Buttigieg’s argument, then mentioned a Wisconsin restaurateur she said had asked, “Are you protesters trying to get Donald Trump re-elected?” She continued: “He knows, full stop, and I guess Mayor Pete knows, full stop, that the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better news for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
— Holmes Lybrand
1994 crime bill
In attacking Biden for his advocacy of the 1994 crime bill, Trump claimed that Biden had called African Americans “super predators.”
“He did a crime bill,” Trump said. “1994. Where you called them super predators. African Americans. Super predators. And they’ve never forgotten it. They’ve never forgotten it.”
Facts First: This is false. Biden never called African Americans “super predators.”
Then-first lady Hillary Clinton used the term “super predators” in a 1996 speech in New Hampshire in support of the 1994 crime bill. Biden did warn in a 1993 speech of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale” in support of the crime bill. The bill itself has come under heavy criticism in recent years for being among the policies that led to mass incarceration, disproportionately affecting Black men.
But Biden himself rejected the theory of “super predators.”
In a 1997 hearing arguing that most youth in the justice system weren’t violent, Biden said most youth weren’t “super predators.”
“In 1994, there were about 1.5 million juvenile delinquency cases,” Biden said then. “Less than 10% of those cases involved violent crimes. So when we talk about the juvenile justice system, we have to remember that most of the youth involved in the system are not the so-called ‘super predators.’ ”
— Andrew Kaczynski
New York City crime
Trump suggested that New York City crime was going up 100% to 200%.
“If you look at New York, where it’s going up like nobody’s ever seen before,” the President said in Tuesday’s presidential debate. ”The numbers are going up 100, 150, 200%. Crime. It’s going up like nobody’s ever seen anything.”
Facts First: This is misleading. While the New York Police Department’s statistics show there have been significant increases in murders, shootings, burglaries and grand larceny of automobiles in New York City to date in 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, the rise is not as steep as Trump cited. Violent crime rates in every other major category tracked by NYPD are down significantly from years past.
There have been 327 murders in New York this year through September 20, according to the NYPD’s CompStat statistics. Although the murder rate has risen 43.4% in the last two years, they show it’s still down 15.3% compared with 10 years ago.
Overall, the statistics show major felony crimes are still down 1.45% from last year and more than 10% in the last 10 years.
Victims of shootings and other incidents this year have increased more than 103% and more than 93%, respectively, according to the NYPD’s numbers.
— Paul P. Murphy