Fact Checking The Final Presidential Debate

Published on October 22, 2020

The last presidential debate was rife with misinformation and false claims. Now, ahead of the final presidential debate, we’ve decided to fact check the claims made by each candidate. The good news is that the two candidates, President Trump and former Vice President Biden, will have their microphones muted while their opponents answer questions after their last debate in September sparked tensions (and by that we mean screaming).

The debate tonight will take place in Nashville, Tennessee at Belmont University and will represent the two candidates final in-person meeting before the election in just over a week. The Vice Presidential debate just two weeks ago between Vice President Mike Pence and Kamala Harris took place at The University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, where the two candidates faced off on topics like the economy, COVID-19 response, healthcare, climate change, police reform and voting in the United States.

The debate topics:

Tonight’s debate will focus on six key topics: COVID-19 response, American families, climate change, race, national security and leadership. President Trump has been working hard in recent weeks to hammer home on his efforts to appeal to families in suburban America through special tax cuts in his first term that he claims helped American families take advantage of the tax system in order to further afford caring for children. Critics argue, though, that the tax cut did little to help the working class families that needed it most.

Both President Trump and former Vice President Biden have argued in recent months on how the COVID-19 pandemic should be handled, a key topic that remains one of the biggest points of interest in the 2020 election. President Trump claims that his response was as good as it could have been, while Biden suggests there could have been a different, more effective approach. Right now, President Trump claims to be working on delivering another economic stimulus package in the coming weeks that could bring another direct payment to the American people, but experts warn that the delivery of such a stimulus bill is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Climate change is, admittedly, not a topic that both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have struggled with in the past. Biden is likely to appeal to voters that care about climate change considering he is the only of the two candidates to have created a well-defined outline for how he would address climate change should he take office in 2021. Kamala Harris, though, received criticism after the Vice Presidential debate for giving conflicting statements on climate change—first saying that climate change is a high priority to the Biden campaign, but then clarifying that there would be no ban on fracking in an attempt to appeal to voters in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state for the Biden campaign.

The topic of national security would target each candidates approach to foreign policy. President Trump has increased sanctions on countries like Iran in recent years, as well as increasing tariffs on China and France—two key countries that import heavily into the United States (though France is not a national security concern). Trumps upcoming ban on TikTok also touches on national security, though it’s unclear whether that ban could be avoided should the brand sell majority stake to Oracle and Walmart. Biden’s approach to foreign policy outlines a dedication to focus on building relationships with allies rather than imposing sanctions on countries that have historically been a national security concern. Now, with the latest revelation from the FBI that Russia and Iran have allegedly engaged in election manipulation, national security could be a bigger topic than originally anticipated.

Leadership will become a bigger focus in the debate this time around as the candidates face off on what, exactly, that means to them. Biden’s campaign has leaned heavily on criticism over President Trump’s leadership, especially amid the rise of disinformation in the United States. Race is another topic that Biden and Harris have each leaned into, especially as President Trump has been criticized in recent months for his lack of leadership around topics of racial tension in the United States. However, Biden will have to work hard to win over minority voters that might be cynical toward voting in the first place, and minority groups that have, historically, voted Republican in the past.

Fact checking:

We will update this section with fact-checked information on each claim that the two candidates make throughout the debate on Thursday night.

Claim: One model predicted 2.2 million COVID-19 fatalities in the United States.

True or False? True

Context: A March 2020 report from the Imperial College in London predicted monumental COVID-19 fatalities based on response at that time. Since then, widespread closures of businesses and events, as well as initiatives to encourage Americans to wear masks cut that projected amount back significantly. In other words, the 2.2 million projected deaths was based on zero mitigation of the disease.

Claim: Biden ran the response team for the H1N1 Swine Flu

True or False? Needs context.

Context: While there are suggestions that Biden was responsible for the leadership on the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak in 2009, there were other factors at play that influenced how its response went and what the results were. Originally, this claim began circulating after influencer Charlie Kirk posted a similar claim on social media. Another article from Poynter fact checks this claim and provides a more in-depth analysis to its validity, but in short the claim that Biden was directly responsible for the outcome of the H1N1 pandemic requires context, as there were other notable figures that came into play.

Claim: The United States is projected to see 200,000 more COVID-19 deaths

True or False? True

Context: There are projections that see 200,000 more deaths from COVID-19 in the United States by the end of the year assuming that social distancing guidelines continue to ease, but with mitigation initiatives that number could go down by at least 50,000.

Claim: Transmit rate to teachers is very small.

True or false? True

Context: The CDC wrote here that evidence suggests that transmission rates in school settings is lower than first expected.

Claim: Plexiglass shields are expensive

True or false? False

Context: Plexiglass is more affordable than human life. This website offers sheets of plexiglass for less than $200/sheet.

Claim: Biden takes money from Wall Street, Trump does not.

True or false? Needs context

Context: The President of the United States is technically not supposed to hold stock in a public company, but they can appoint their investments to another person while in office. Without looking at President Trump’s tax returns it’s hard to say exactly what his stock portfolio might look like, but this Motley Fool article from 2017 suggests that it could be vast, and while he’s in office it might have been divested or put into a blind trust. Biden, on the other hand, does not hold stock as reported by a Snopes fact check.

Claim: No President has been tougher on Russia than President Trump

True or false? True, sort of.

Context: President Trump has imposed more sanctions on Russia in the post-Cold War era than any other U.S. President has in the past. Trump increased military spending in 2018 specifically toward Russia, and imposed tariffs on goods and energy initiatives that would compete with Russian gas and oil. Trump however has received widespread criticism for his relationship with Vladimir Putin, making the claim misleading.

Claim: Trump has a secret Chinese bank account.

True or false? Unproven

Context: The New York Times report on President Trump’s tax returns suggested that holds a secret Chinese bank account that paid the equivalent of $188,561 in taxes in China because of it between 2013 and 2015. While the New York Times report has not been confirmed, as it would require Trump to release his tax reports himself, it would suggest that Trump paid more taxes in China than he did in the United States the year he won the Presidential election.

Claim: Biden has released 22 years of his own tax returns.

True or false? True.

Context: You can read an analysis of them here.

Claim: Trump prepaid millions of dollars in taxes.

True or false? Unclear

Context: Again, this would have been reflected in the New York Times report about Trump’s taxes, but was not. If the reports are true, then this claim would mean he did pay in advance in order to avoid being penalized. However, we won’t know until (or if at all) Trump releases his tax information. The whole thing is pretty complicated, but here’s what the New York Times said: “Each time, he requested an extension to file his 1040; and each time, he made the required payment to the I.R.S. for income taxes he might owe — $1 million for 2016 and $4.2 million for 2017. But virtually all of that liability was washed away when he eventually filed, and most of the payments were rolled forward to cover potential taxes in future years.”

Claim: Obama spied on Trump’s campaign.

True or false? false

Context: There is no evidence to support that President Obama spied on Donald Trumps campaign illegally. There was, however, an investigation from the FBI at that time. Trump’s claims that Obama spied on his campaign are part of a widely pushed and disproven conspiracy theory called spygate.

Claim: President Trump is friendly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

True or False? True

Context: The leader of North Korea has been quoted as calling his relationship with President Trump “special,” and that the two have trust in one another. Trump, however, claims that this is a positive relationship as it means the United States may not be a target.

Claim: 180 million people have private healthcare

True or false? True in 2018.

Context: A 2018 report said that 178 million Americans had private healthcare. It’s not clear how many of those have lost it due to the pandemic or whether that number was maintained in 2019 and into 2020.

Claim: Any minimum wage lower than $15 per hour would be poverty level

True or false? False

Context: The Poverty Guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that the 2020 poverty line is $12,760 for a one-person household after taxes. At that annual income, the hourly income would be $6.40. All of this is calculated without taxes being taken into consideration. However, this number is used to determine qualification for special government aide and does not mean livable wage. The estimated livable wage in the United States in 2020 is $16.54 per hour.

Claim: Biden called Black people “super predators” over a 1994 crime bill.

True or false? False

Context: Biden co-wrote the 1994 crime bill that Hillary Clinton later talked about in 1996 when she used that term. Biden did use the term “predators in our streets” in 1993, but the phrase was not used to describe Black people specifically.

Claim: President Trump called for the death penalty on the Central Park 5

True or false? True

Context: Here is the video from the 1989 interview where Trump talked about the Central Park 5, a group of men that were later exonerated over the rape of a female jogger.

Claim: When talking about the Green New Deal Trump said, “They want to knock down buildings and build new buildings with little tiny windows.”

True or false? False

Context: The proposal says that the United States should upgrade existing buildings to maximize efficiency. It does not mention windows. This claim has been talked about for weeks now.

Claim: The United States has added 11.4 million jobs this year.

True or false? True

Context: The number represents new jobs as well as jobs that have come back after the initial shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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