Wednesday, September 26, 2018 1:30 pm
Fact-checking President Trump's speech to the UN General Assembly
GLENN KESSLER | Washington Post
A skilled public speaker often knows how to craft his or her words for the audience. But President Donald Trump started off his speech to the United Nations General Assembly with a number of bragging claims lifted straight from his campaign rallies.
Not only are these claims exaggerated or false, but the first one inspired mirth and laughter from the assembled leaders and diplomats in the chamber. That was certainly unusual, as the General Assembly room is usually silent, with barely any applause, during the speeches.
Here's an examination of key claims made by the president in his speech, listed in the order in which he made them. As is our practice, we do not assign Pinocchios in roundups.
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"In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country."
This is the line that was greeted with laughter. Americans may be used to this kind of boosterism, but world leaders are not. According to The Fact Checker's database of Trump's false and misleading claims, Trump started saying he had done more than any previous president when he was not even at the six-month mark -- and he has now repeated the line more than 30 times.
Trump, unlike many presidents in his first year, had signed few major pieces of legislation. Certainly, the whirlwind of accomplishments under presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama exceed Trump's efforts.
As of Sept. 12, his 600th day, Trump had signed 238 bills, most of which were minor. Trump has signed two more bills and joint resolutions than Obama and 14 more than George W. Bush, but was still behind every other president since Eisenhower, according to a calculation by Josh Tauberer of GovTrack.
He noted that Trump is just behind Obama in number of pages, indicating that much of the legislation Trump has signed has been about increasing government spending.
Trump later said the line "was meant to get some laughter" -- which is odd, since he doesn't play it for laughs at his rallies.
"America's economy is booming like never before."
This is highly dubious, but it's another favorite talking point that Trump has uttered more than 50 times.
The president can certainly brag about the state of the economy, but he runs into trouble when he repeatedly makes a play for the history books. By just about any important measure, the economy today is not doing as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton -- and Ulysses S. Grant.
"We've added more than 4 million new jobs, including half a million manufacturing jobs."
Trump often inflates his totals by including nearly three months when he was not yet president. At the time of this speech, almost 3.6 million jobs had been created during his presidency, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the 19 months starting after Trump's inauguration, the economy created 3.58 million new jobs -- but that is still less than the 3.96 million created in the last 19 months of Obama's presidency. (The White House notes that job creation under Trump has exceeded the Congressional Budget Office's expectations for job growth at the end of Obama's presidency.)
U.S. manufacturing employment has been increasing at a steady rate since 2010 -- and the increase in Trump's presidency has been about 350,000, not half a million, according to BLS.
"We have passed the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history."
Trump loves this line so much he has said it more than 100 times. But it's not true. His tax cut ranks eighth when measured as a percentage of the size of the economy.
"We've started the construction of a major border wall."
This is another false claim that the president keeps repeating -- about 50 times. With great fanfare in March, he toured prototypes of a concrete wall while in California. Yet the language in the appropriations bill is specific: None of the $1.57 billion appropriated for border protection may be used for those prototypes.
Moreover, the bill identified that the money for the barriers -- about $1.3 billion -- could be used only for items listed as "primary pedestrian levee fencing," "primary pedestrian fencing" and "secondary fencing." About $250 million is for secondary fencing, meaning it just backs up other fencing.
The closest thing to a wall would be the levee fencing, which is a concrete levee topped by bollard fencing. As far as we can tell, only 33 miles of new barrier -- fencing on top of an existing levee in Hidalgo County, Texas, and a fence in Starr County, Texas -- would be funded under the 2018 bill. The rest of the money appears to be for replacing existing fencing or barriers -- with fencing.
"In June, I traveled to Singapore to meet face to face with North Korea's leader, Chairman Kim Jong Un. We had highly productive conversations and meetings, and we agreed that it was in both countries' interest to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Since that meeting, we have already seen a number of encouraging measures that few could have imagined only a short time ago."
Trump highlights the visible fruits of his talks with North Korea, such as "nuclear testing has stopped."
But the Washington Post reported in June that U.S. intelligence officials, citing newly obtained evidence, have concluded that North Korea does not intend to fully surrender its nuclear stockpile and instead is considering ways to conceal secret production facilities and the number of weapons it has.
And in July, the Post reported that U.S. spy agencies are seeing signs that North Korea is constructing new missiles at a factory that produced the country's first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
North Korea has a long history of making agreements and then not living up to them.
The document signed by Trump and Kim was remarkably vague, leaving it open to interpretation and debate, compared with previous documents signed by North Korea.
The statement said North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) committed to "work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." The phrase is not defined and "toward" is rather weak.
In the past, North Korea viewed "denuclearization" to mean the United States' removing the nuclear umbrella it provides to Japan and South Korea; there is no indication its definition has changed.
"The Iran deal was a windfall for Iran's leaders. In the years since the deal was reached, Iran's military budget grew nearly 40 percent."
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Iran's military expenditure increased nearly 30 percent from 2015, when the JCPOA was adopted, to 2017. This increase brought Iran's military spending back to near-2006 levels.
But as we've pointed out before, just looking at the raw increase or decrease in any country's military budget misses important context.
Instead, let's consider Iran's military expenditure as a share of overall government spending. In 2015, it accounted for 15.4 percent of government spending. It increased four-tenths of 1 percentage point, to 15.8 percent of government spending, by 2017.
According to a White House official, this spending level is expected to remain stable in 2018. That means military spending increased alongside overall government spending -- not in a silo on its own.
Looking at Iran's military expenditure as a share of GDP, there's a similar trend. It has increased by only half a percentage point -- going from 2.6 percent to 3.1 percent from 2015 to 2017. (For comparison, in 2016, military expenditure accounted for about 3.3 percent of GDP in the United States.)
"We cannot allow a regime that chants 'Death to America,' and that threatens Israel with annihilation, to possess the means to deliver a nuclear warhead to any city on Earth."
This is a bit in the weeds, but as we have documented, it's not entirely clear whether Iran means to annihilate Israel, such as "wiping it off the map."
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been consistent in speaking of his hatred of Israel, but without a military context. He has said his goal is the dissolution of Israel through a "popular referendum" that would give power to Palestinians.
"Even worse, some countries abused their openness to dump their products, subsidize their goods, target our industries and manipulate their currencies to gain unfair advantage over our country. As a result, our trade deficit ballooned to nearly $800 billion a year."
The U.S. trade deficit in 2017 was $568 billion, according to the Commerce Department. Trump gets his $800 billion number by looking only at the deficit for trade in goods ($811 billion) even though U.S. trade in services runs a substantial surplus of $243 billion.
Moreover, Trump blames the trade deficit on the actions of other countries. But trade deficits are also affected by macroeconomic factors such as the relative strength of currencies, economic growth rates, and savings and investment rates.
"The United States lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs, nearly a quarter of all steel jobs, and 60,000 factories after China joined the WTO."
Just on Sept. 20, Trump blamed the loss of thousands of factories on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now he pegs the same phenomenon on China's joining the World Trade Organization.
Most economists would agree that China's industrial rise caused millions of job losses in the United States and thousands of factory closures. There's no definitive estimate of how many of these jobs were lost or how many of these factories closed specifically because of China.
The research on this question is limited, indicating that China had an outsize effect but that there were other factors at play, such as automation.
"The ICC claims near-universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country, violating all principles of justice, fairness and due process."
Trump goes too far here to claim that the International Criminal Court claims "near-universal jurisdiction" over citizens of every country.
The ICC was established by the Rome Statute, which 118 countries have ratified. The United States is not among those countries, and it has signed what are called Article 98 agreements with many countries to shield U.S. citizens from prosecution under the court.
Afghanistan is a member of the ICC, and in theory a war crimes prosecution in that country could cover possible crimes committed by U.S. forces. However, Afghanistan has also signed an Article 98 agreement with the United States.
A U.S. law prohibits the government from assisting the ICC in extraditing U.S. citizens.
"OPEC and OPEC nations, are, as usual, ripping off the rest of the world, and I don't like it. Nobody should like it. We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices. Not good."
Trump blames the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for rising oil prices, but a key factor in the recent rise in the cost of oil is his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord and the imposition of new sanctions on one of the world's leading oil producers. Experts say U.S. sanctions could drive oil prices to above $100 a barrel, up from about $70 currently.
"The United States is the world's largest giver in the world, by far, of foreign aid."
Trump is using raw dollars here, but that's misleading. It is more appropriate to look at the dollars given as a percentage of the size of a country's economy.
For instance, the United States gave $35.3 billion in 2017, compared with $24.7 billion for Germany and $18 billion for Britain, according to preliminary data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But as a percentage of gross national income, the United States ranks near the bottom of industrialized countries, providing just 0.18 percent of GNI. That's far below the U.N. target of 0.7 percent.
In fact, just four countries -- Sweden (1.01 percent), Luxembourg (1 percent), Norway (0.99 percent) and Denmark (0.72 percent) exceeded that target. Britain met it and Germany, at 0.66 percent, was close.