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Fact-checking the third Republican primary debate

NBC News aired the third GOP debate of the 2024 election cycle from Miami on Wednesday night, featuring five candidates. Not every candidate uttered facts that are easily checked, but the following is a list of 12 claims that caught our attention. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates. These claims are examined in the order in which they were uttered.

“We’re almost $34 trillion in debt. Sixty percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Fifty percent of American families can’t afford diapers. One in six American families can’t pay their utility bills. …. He [Trump] put us $8 trillion in debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for that.”

— Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley

Haley accurately cited statistics on the national debt, people living paycheck to paycheck and being able to afford diapers and utility bills. She faulted former president Donald Trump for running up the national debt by $8 trillion. That’s also accurate: According to the Treasury Department, the nation’s total public debt, including intragovernmental holdings, climbed from about $20 trillion to $27.8 trillion under Trump, a gain of $7.9 trillion.

Of course, it is arbitrary and somewhat silly to tag presidents with the debt increase, as much of the gain is because of events, such as the pandemic, and policies made long before they took office. More than half of the debt under Trump came in the last 10 months of his term because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the biggest drivers of the debt are spending on Social Security and Medicare, established decades ago. That spending happens automatically, not subject to annual appropriations made by Congress.

“Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden got a $5 million bribe from Ukraine. That’s why we’re sending $200 billion back to that same country.”

— entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy

This is baseless. Congressional Republicans released an FBI document from 2020 this year that makes a shocking allegation about President Biden — that he and his son Hunter were involved in a foreign bribery scheme with a Ukrainian business executive. The identity of this FBI source and any connection to Ukraine remain unknown, and the FBI has not publicly confirmed any tips the person supplied in the document. Moreover, the person was interviewed by telephone in 2020 about conversations that took place as many as four years earlier.

The Fact Checker examined a business transaction described in the document, comparing its account with publicly available information. Upon examination, the facts didn’t add up.

Ramaswamy then makes an unjustified leap to claim that the United States is backing Ukraine in its war with Russia because of this unproven allegation. There is no evidence that is the case.

“Obama sent millions to Iran. Frankly, President Biden has sent billions to Iran.”

— Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)

This is misleading. In both cases, the president returned money that was Iran’s in the first place — to facilitate the release of Americans detained in Iran.

Obama settled a decades-old claim between the two countries. An initial payment of $400 million was handed over on Jan. 17, 2016, the day after Iran released four American detainees, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian. The timing — which U.S. officials insisted was a coincidence — suggested the cash could be viewed as a ransom payment.

But the initial cash payment was always Iran’s money. In the 1970s, the then-pro-Western Iranian government under the shah paid $400 million for U.S. military equipment. The equipment was never delivered because the two countries broke off relations after the seizure of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. Two other payments totaling $1.3 billion — a negotiated agreement on the interest owed on the $400 million — came weeks later.

As for Biden, he released $6 billion in Iranian funds that had been held by South Korea — as part of a deal to win the freedom of five American detainees — but that money has not yet been received by Iran. After the Hamas attack in Israel, the administration said it had prevented Iran from tapping the money.

“China has the largest naval fleet in the world. They have 350 ships. They’ll have 400 ships in two years. We won’t even have 350 ships in two decades.”

— Haley

Not all ships are created equal. The United States has 11 aircraft carriers, compared with China’s two, and the U.S. Navy operates 92 destroyers compared with China’s 50, according to Global Firepower’s 2023 military rankings. China has an edge on submarines — 78 to 68. The United States is seeking to bolster the number of submarines.

“Ukraine is not a paragon of democracy. This is a country that has banned 11 opposition parties. It has consolidated all media into one state TV media arm.”

— Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy, who advocates cutting a deal with Russia that would allow Moscow to keep the Ukrainian territory it has seized, often paints an unflattering portrait of a country that is on a war footing.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has signed decrees that ban religious organizations with ties to Russia and suspended 11 Ukrainian parties with ties to Russia; most are small, but one, Opposition Platform for Life, has 44 seats in the 450-seat Ukrainian parliament. Both actions were aimed at Russia and earned Russian protests. He also consolidated the country’s television outlets into a single TV platform, citing the need for a “unified information policy” under martial law. The stated aim was to combat Russian propaganda on independent TV channels, but the effect is to limit freedom of speech.

Ramaswamy also oddly labeled Zelensky — who is Jewish — a Nazi.

“She [Haley] welcomed them into South Carolina, gave them land near a military base, wrote the Chinese ambassador a love letter saying what a great friend they were.”

— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

DeSantis is echoing an attack ad by a super PAC supporting him — which earned Three Pinocchios.

As South Carolina governor from January 2011 to January 2017, Haley recruited Chinese companies to her state. Chinese capital investment in South Carolina more than doubled, from $308 million in 2011 to nearly $670 million in 2015. Haley has sought to distance herself from the specifics of these deals, but she acknowledged at an Iowa town hall in October: “I recruited a fiberglass company,” known as China Jushi.

According to the contract between the county and China Jushi, the company would receive almost 200 acres of county-owned land free of charge if promised investments were made. The company’s factory is 5 miles from an Army training base, but it’s not a sensitive facility that would require a government review if such a foreign-owned company was located within 1 mile.

As for the “love letter,” DeSantis is referring to a letter sent to then-Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai on Dec. 30, 2014. Haley thanked the diplomat for congratulating her on her reelection and said she is “grateful” for China’s “contributions on the economic front.” In the letter, she said she considered China “a friend.”

“What he left out, though, Ron, and be honest about it, there was a lobbying-based exemption in that bill that allowed Chinese nationals to buy land within a 20-mile radius of a military base, lobbied for by one of your donors.”

— Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy suggested that DeSantis, who signed a bill restricting Chinese land purchases, allowed loopholes in the legislation. He got the radius wrong — it is 10 miles, not 20 — and the exemptions concern residential property. A foreign person can buy a residential property if it is less than 2 acres, if the property is more than 5 miles from a military installation and the buyer has an active visa to lawfully reside in the country. No donor who supposedly successfully lobbied for this exemption has been identified.

“He [DeSantis] has opposed fracking; he’s opposing drilling.”

— Haley

This is complicated, but Haley’s framing is misleading. Running for president, DeSantis has advocated for fracking. But he has opposed it in Florida. When he ran for governor, he pledged “to pass legislation that bans fracking in the state.”

In November 2018, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that banned drilling under Florida waters, a stance supported by many of the state’s Republicans. But it did not mention fracking.

Two days into his term, on Jan. 10, 2019, DeSantis signed an executive order that implemented the measure. The order directed the Department of Environmental Protection to “take necessary actions to adamantly oppose all offshore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.” In effect, according to PolitiFact, that has meant no oil and gas permit authorizing hydraulic fracturing has been issued during his term as governor.

DeSantis has not yet fulfilled his pledge to pass legislation that would ban fracking. As a member of Congress in 2013, DeSantis voted for a bill that would prohibit the Department of Interior from imposing federal rules and regulations on states’ fracking operations, in effect deferring to state rules.

Asked about offshore drilling at a Sept. 7 town hall, Haley said: “I think that states need to be able to make that decision because it affects the quality of life for people of the states. For the states that want to do it, I’m all for it. For the states that don’t want to do it, the people have a right to make that decision.”

“I will make sure we claw back the $500 billion of unspent covid dollars that are out there instead of 87,000 IRS agents going after Middle America.”

— Haley

This figure is a common GOP talking point, but it is wildly exaggerated. When Congress passed a bill last year to provide the IRS with an additional $80 billion in funding over 10 years, that money would be used in part to hire 86,852 full-time employees in the next decade. But many would not be enforcement “agents” but employees hired to improve information technology and customer service. Treasury officials say that because of attrition, after 10 years of increasing spending, the size of the agency should grow only 25 to 30 percent when the hiring burst is completed.

The Biden administration’s strategic plan for the IRS, released in April, estimated that an additional 1,543 full-time employees would be hired in enforcement in 2023, or about 15 percent of newly hired staff. That would grown to 7,239 in 2024, or 37 percent of new staff.

Biden administration officials have pledged that enforcement efforts to collect unpaid taxes will concentrate on those earning more than $400,000.

“Social Security will go bankrupt in 10 years. Medicare will go bankrupt in eight.”

— Haley

Haley, like many politicians, uses “bankrupt” in a misleading way. The trustees for Social Security and Medicare predict there is 80 percent probability that reserves for Social Security will be exhausted between 2032 and 2037. If nothing is done, the program still could pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits. But Congress probably would be forced to act.

As for Medicare, there are four parts to the program, which covers 66 million people: Part A (hospital insurance), Part B (medical insurance), Part C (Medicare Advantage — private plans for parts A and B), and Part D (prescription drug plans). Just Part A, which covers hospital visits, hospice care, nursing facilities and the like, is in danger of going “bankrupt.”

Part B, which involves seeing a doctor, is paid out of general funds and premiums, as is Part D. Thus, if costs rise, premiums can be adjusted. But Part A is financed mainly through payroll taxes of 1.45 percent on earnings paid both by workers and employers; self-employed people pay 2.9 percent. The money raised is then credited to a pay-as-you-go trust fund, which uses the revenue raised to pay the benefits of Medicare beneficiaries.

There is no provision to use general revenue to make up the deficit, but there are various ways that Congress could deal with this problem, as it has in the past. In fact, from its inception, the Part A fund has been on the brink of going “bankrupt.” Page 4 of a useful report by the Congressional Research Service, titled “Medicare: History of Insolvency Projections,” shows that in 1970, it was due to go “bankrupt” in 1972.

“When life expectancy is declining, I don’t see how you could raise it the other direction. So it’s one thing to peg it on life expectancy. But we have had a significant decline in life expectancy in this country.”

— DeSantis

In avoiding a question on whether he would raise the retirement age for Social Security, DeSantis referred to a recent dip in U.S. life expectancy because of the pandemic and drug overdoses. But that’s a misleading frame because life expectancy has increased greatly since Social Security was established in 1935. Life expectancy at birth in 1930 was 62 for women and 58 for men. In 2021, American women had a life expectancy at birth of 79 years, while men were at about 73. The retirement age was raised slightly in a bill signed by Ronald Reagan in 1983, and even with the recent setback, life expectancy has continued to increase.

“I certainly wouldn’t allow — not allow — for governors — former governors, Democratic governor of Virginia who talked about infanticide. … I think it’s unethical, unethical and immoral to allow for abortions up until the day of birth.”

— Scott

This is a common Republican talking point — that Democrats support nationwide abortion on demand up until the moment of birth. The implication is that late-term abortions are common — and that they are routinely accepted by Democrats.

The reality, according to federal and state data, is that abortions past the point of viability are extremely rare. When they do happen, they often involve painful, emotional and even moral decisions.

About two-thirds of abortions occur at eight weeks of pregnancy or earlier, and nearly 90 percent take place in the first 12 weeks, or within most definitions of the first trimester, according to estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, which favors abortion rights. About 5.5 percent of abortions take place after 15 weeks, with just 1.3 percent at 21 weeks or longer.

Increasingly, there is a period when premature births and late abortions begin to overlap. In 2021, the CDC recorded almost 22,000 births between 20 and 27 weeks. Babies born before 25 weeks are considered extremely preterm, with vital organs such as heart, lungs and brain very immature. But the survival rate has climbed to 30 percent for 22-week babies and 55 percent for 23-week babies, according to a 2022 study.

Meanwhile, Scott mischaracterizes remarks by former Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D), a physician.

Northam told a radio show in 2019 that late-term abortion procedures are “done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable. So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.” Critics suggested the governor was endorsing infanticide. His office later said Northam was referring to medical treatment, not ending the life of a baby.

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2024 presidential election
Catch up on the winners and losers of the third Republican debate. Compare where the 2024 presidential candidates stand on key issues like abortion, climate, and the economy.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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