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Trump's ABC News town hall: Fact-checking the president's answers

ABC News logo ABC News 2020-09-16
Donald Trump, George Stephanopoulos are posing for a picture: Seven weeks before Election Day, ABC News will host a town hall with President Donald Trump and uncommitted voters. ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos will anchor the event in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020. © Heidi Gutman/ABC Seven weeks before Election Day, ABC News will host a town hall with President Donald Trump and uncommitted voters. ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos will anchor the event in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020.

President Donald Trump answered questions from uncommitted voters Tuesday night during a town hall hosted by ABC News from the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

MORE: Trump's ABC News town hall: Uncommitted voters ask questions in Philadelphia

Below, ABC News fact checks what Trump said throughout the 90-minute special, which was anchored by ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos.

COVID-19 is unlikely to go away on its own, despite Trump's insistence

TRUMP'S CLAIM: COVID-19 is "probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccine. It would go away without the vaccine, George, but it's going to go away a lot faster with the vaccine," Trump said. Stephanopoulos asked, "It will go away without the vaccine?" To which Trump said, "Sure, over a period of time. Sure, with time it goes away."

FACT CHECK: This statement is misleading.

The virus is unlikely to go away definitively even with a vaccine. Similar to what has happened with past pandemic influenza viruses and the more mild human coronaviruses that cause "colds," experts believe that as the pandemic wanes, it may synchronize to a seasonal pattern with diminished severity over time due to mutations and reinfection.

Even so, its trajectory is difficult to predict as the virus is still being studied.

--Sony Salzman and Dr. Alexandra Lambert

Donald Trump standing on a stage: Seven weeks before Election Day, ABC News will host a town hall with President Donald Trump and uncommitted voters. ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos will anchor the event in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020. © Heidi Gutman/ABC Seven weeks before Election Day, ABC News will host a town hall with President Donald Trump and uncommitted voters. ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos will anchor the event in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020.

Trump is wrong to suggest there is no consensus on wearing masks

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "People don't want to wear masks. There are a lot of people [who] think the masks are not good."

FACT CHECK: This view does not reflect the scientific consensus.

The recommendation to wear a mask is now almost unanimous among health experts, including some of the president's own appointees, who have all been very vocal in encouraging the American people to wear masks to curtail the spread of the disease.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have issued statements urging people to wear masks in public settings.

"There are people that don't think masks are good," Trump said, prompting Stephanopoulos to ask, "Who are those people?"

"Waiters," Trump said. "They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. They're playing with the mask, so the mask is over and they're touching it, and then they're touching the plate. That can't be good."

But researchers from Stanford University found the opposite.

"Wearing a mask reminds people to continue to be cautious," they said. "With a mask on, you actually touch your face less."

In an interview last month on ABC News' "World News Tonight," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said "a universal wearing of masks is one of five or six things that are very important in preventing the upsurge in infection."

"We know that during the first wave of the pandemic, those countries that implemented masking early were more successful than others at reducing the spread of the virus," the Stanford researchers wrote.

Duke University researchers have also concluded that "if 95 percent of people wear cloth masks when within 6 feet of other people in public, it will reduce COVID-19 transmission by at least 30 percent."

Trump noted that health experts had originally recommended against wearing a mask -- but his claim was misleading.

"If you look at Dr. Fauci's original statement, you look at a lot of people -- CDC -- they said very strongly, George, [they said], 'Don't wear masks,'" Trump said. "Then all of a sudden, they went to 'wear masks.'"

At the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC and the WHO, as well as Fauci and other top experts, initially discouraged wearing masks because of concerns that masks and other personal protective equipment were in short supply for health care workers who needed them.

MORE: 5 key takeaways from President Donald Trump's ABC town hall in Pennsylvania

While Fauci mainly cited the need to conserve masks, he did say in an interview with "60 Minutes" that wearing a mask may also have unintended consequences, such as leading people to touch their face more often to adjust them, spreading germs from their hands.

In early April, the CDC changed its recommendation about face coverings for the general public, based on evidence that a significant number of people who were asymptomatic or not yet feeling sick were transmitting the virus.

--Arielle Mitropoulos

Trump claims he didn't 'downplay' COVID-19 -- despite admitting to having done just that

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "I didn't downplay it. I, actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action. My action was very strong."

FACT CHECK: During the town hall, Trump said he "didn't downplay" the virus -- when in fact, he has admitted to just that.

"I wanted to always play it down," Trump said in a March 19 interview with veteran journalist Bob Woodward, according to CNN, which obtained an audio recording of the interview, and The Washington Post. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

When the audio was first played last week, a reporter asked if he had misled the public in order to reduce panic.

"I think if you said, 'in order to reduce panic,' perhaps that's so," Trump replied. "I'm a cheerleader for this country.'

After Trump said Tuesday night he "didn't downplay it," Stephanopoulos pressed him: "Did you not admit to it yourself saying that you--?"

"Yeah, because what I did was, with China, I put a ban on," Trump said, referring to limitations he put on travel from China starting on Feb. 2. "With Europe, I put a ban on, and we would have lost thousands of more people had I not put the ban on," he added; the ban on certain travel from Europe began March 13.

"So that was called 'action,' not with the mouth but in actual fact," Trump said.

--Ben Gittleson

George Stephanopoulos wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump participates in ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020. © ABC News President Donald Trump participates in ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020.

Black-white income gap persisted before pandemic, and Trump does not have 'tremendous African American support'

TRUMP'S CLAIM: Trump claimed that he had "tremendous African American support" and that, "had we not been hit by this horrible disease ... we would be in a position where I think income inequality would be different. It was really getting there. We were really driving it down -- I can only compare it to the past. The African American, the Black community, was doing better than it had ever done by far, both in terms of unemployment, homeownership, so many different statistics."

FACT CHECK: The income gap between Black and white Americans has persisted since 1970, despite Trump's comment that it had improved before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Median Black household income was 61% of median white household income in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.

The homeownership gap between Black and white individuals was also at the widest level in 50 years in 2017, according to a 2019 report from the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

The president, in his pitch to the Black community, also said, "We have tremendous African American support. You've probably seen it in the polls, we're doing extremely well with African Americans."

But his claim runs counter to recent polling, in which he garners between 5% to 11% support among Black likely voters, according to polls from Fox News and Quinnipiac University.

The most recent polling is similar to where Trump stood in 2016, when 8% of African American voters supported him, according to exit polls. Trump saw slightly higher support in 2016 among this demographic compared to Mitt Romney when he ran on the Republican ticket for president in 2012, and received 6% of the Black vote.

--Stephanie Ebbs and Kendall Karson

MORE: 'I up-played it': In ABC town hall, Trump denies minimizing pandemic threat

Trump is suing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which guarantees coverage for preexisting conditions, and has not proposed an alternative

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "We're going to be doing a health care plan, very strongly, and protect people with preexisting conditions," Trump said. "We have other alternatives to Obamacare that are 50% less expensive and that are actually better," he added.

FACT CHECK: While Trump and Republicans have repeatedly insisted on protecting preexisting conditions, the Trump administration is currently in court seeking to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which guarantees coverage for Americans with preexisting medical conditions.

Republicans, urged on by Trump, sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, falling several votes short in the Senate. They sought to replace the program with an alternative that included multiple options, which experts said offered skimpier preexisting condition protections than Obamacare.

These short-term and association health plans, alternatives promoted by the Trump administration, while cheaper, have fewer benefits for consumers, including weaker preexisting condition protections.

Trump has also repeatedly promised his own health care proposal that has failed to materialize; in June of 2019, he told Stephanopoulos it would be unveiled within two months, and said as recently as last month that it would be released in "two weeks."

Trump again claimed the health care plan was forthcoming -- but offered no specific details or timeline.

"I have it already, and it's a much better plan for you," he said on Tuesday.

--Ben Siegel

Trump exaggerates number of confirmed judges

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "At the end of my first term, we're going to have close to 300, maybe over 300 new federal judges, including Court of Appeal, two Supreme Court justices."

FACT CHECK: It is true that the Republican-controlled Senate has confirmed a large number of judicial nominations in Trump's first term, but 300 is an exaggeration.

To date, 210 of Trump's judicial nominees, including two Supreme Court justices, over 50 circuit court judges and over 150 district court judges, have been confirmed.

There are currently 74 judicial vacancies, with 48 nominations pending.

Judicial nominations require Senate confirmation, so it is highly unlikely that all vacancies would be filled before the conclusion of Trump's first term.

--Allison Pecorin

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump speaks during ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020. © ABC News President Donald Trump speaks during ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020.

Wall Street does not represent Main Street

TRUMP'S CLAIM: Trump touted the success of the stock market, which has rallied after early coronavirus losses in March, as proof that Americans are “doing better than they were doing before the pandemic came."

FACT CHECK: Trump's claim wrongly suggests Wall Street is a strong indicator of how well Main Street is doing.

“Look, we're having a tremendous thing in the stock market, and that's good for everybody,” Trump said during the town hall.

“Stocks are owned by everybody," he said. "I mean, you know, they talk about the stock market is so good. That's 401(k)s."

Trump claimed the benefits of the stock market directly benefit everyone, when in fact the vast majority of stocks are owned by the rich. The wealthiest top 10% of American households own over 80% of stocks, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, and almost half of U.S. households don’t own any stock at all, including 401(k)s, according to the Survey of Consumer Finances.

Meanwhile, there are other indicators that more clearly paint a picture of Americans' economic situation as a result of the coronavirus, even as the stock market excels. The unemployment rate skyrocketed from around 3% pre-pandemic to nearly 15% in April. It now sits at 8.4%, meaning more than half of the Americans who lost their jobs are still out of work. Consumer confidence is also down -- a measure that show Main Street is struggling even if Wall Street is staying afloat.

--Cheyenne Haslett

Trump misrepresents impact of Biden's tax plan

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "If you look at his policies ... he wants to raise everybody's taxes."

FACT CHECK: The Democratic nominee for president, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said he wants to raise taxes on high earners.

When asked about his tax plan in August, former Vice President Joe Biden told “World News Tonight” Anchor David Muir," "I will raise taxes for anybody making over $400,000."

Biden added, “no new taxes” would be levied for anyone making under $400,000.

However, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Tax Policy Foundation, under Biden's plan, taxes do appear to increase by a small amount across the board. But 93% of increases would be shouldered by the top quintile of taxpayers, according to the analysis.

The Tax Policy Foundation found that the Biden tax plan "would lead to 7.8 percent less after-tax income for the top 1 percent of taxpayers, 1.1 percent lower after-tax income for the top 5 percent, and around 0.6 percent less after-tax income for other income quintiles."

--Beatrice Peterson

a person wearing a costume: Registered nurse Laura Galvas asks President Donald Trump a question during ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020. © ABC News Registered nurse Laura Galvas asks President Donald Trump a question during ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020.

Trump misrepresents Republican police reform bill

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "We have a great senator named Tim Scott, from South Carolina, and he had a plan that was very much of a compromise plan, but it was a plan that everybody pretty much agreed to."

FACT CHECK: Trump mischaracterized Republican Sen. Tim Scott's policing reform proposal, unveiled in June and voted down about a week later, as a "compromise plan."

Democrats did not agree with many of the proposals in the Scott bill, and many, including Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., argued the bill did not go far enough to "meet the moment" following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis.

Democrats offered their own, more-sweeping police reform proposal to counter Scott's. The Democratic proposal passed the House, but has not been taken up for a vote by the Senate.

Scott's proposal differed from the Democratic proposal in several key ways: The Democrats hoped to ban the use of chokeholds, which the Scott proposal did not do. The Republican bill also did not eliminate qualified immunity for police officers or ban "no-knock" warrants, both measures Democrats sought.

The Republican bill offered cities incentives for ending the use of chokeholds but did not ban them entirely, establish a 19-member Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, and included a proposal to beef up funding for popular Community Oriented Policing programs. It also imposed stiff penalties for any officer who knowingly alters a police report in his or her favor.

While Trump claimed that "a lot of Democrats agreed to" the bill, only three voted to advance it to debate on the Senate floor, effectively killing the legislation.

--Allison Pecorin

Trump doesn't tell full story of crime by focusing on cities' Democratic leadership

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "This is a Democrat problem, George. ... This is largely a Democrat problem if you just take a look at the list. Every Democrat city -- almost, not all, but a lot of them, certainly in the top 25, even if you go the top 50 -- almost every city is run by the Democrats. People don't respect our police."

FACT CHECK: Trump repeatedly argued that cities experiencing surges in violent crime are all run by Democratic leaders and that crime is "largely a Democrat problem."

The 20 cities with the highest rates of violent crime per capita are currently led by Democratic mayors, with the exception of Jacksonville, Florida, which is run by a Republican, and two other cities that are run by independents, according to a review of the FBI's uniform crime report from the first six months of 2019, the most recent national data set focusing on violent crime reports.

It is misleading to state, however, as Trump did in the town hall, that rising crime is primarily driven by the Democratic leadership in their respective states.

Cities with higher population and urban areas are certainly represented predominantly by Democrats, but the rise in violent crime across the nation has not been restricted to those that are run by Democrats. The insinuation of a Democratic leader as the cause of the rising crime is not an accurate claim. High population areas and urban areas, run by leaders on both ends of the political spectrum, have historically had higher reported instances of violent crime.

For instance, the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks mass shootings nationwide, last month reported that the country was on pace for nearly 600 mass shootings, which would be the highest total tallied by the group in its history. That predicted total was not a summation of only Democratic-run cities but as a result of the rising crime rate nationwide, including cities and towns led by Republican officials.

--Alexander Mallin and Terrance Smith

Trump paints misleading picture of crime in New York City

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "New York was a very safe city. Rudy Giuliani did a fantastic job. The city was safe and then, all of a sudden, we have a mayor -- he starts cutting the police force, and crime is up 100%, 150%. I saw one form of crime up 300%."

FACT CHECK: To bolster his baseless claim that Democrats are the driving factor for increases in crime in certain cities, Trump pointed to his hometown of New York City -- where he incorrectly argued that under Mayor Bill de Blasio's leadership crime has worsened since the tenure of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who left office in 2001 and now serves as Trump's personal attorney.

The numbers tell a different story, though, with crime rates under Giuliani much higher than they are now.

While New York City has seen a spike in homicides and shooting incidents this year – a rise that preceded cuts to the New York Police Department – statistics from the NYPD show that totals for most major crimes still remain well below where they were in 2001, Giuliani's last year in office.

Giuliani indeed oversaw a significant decrease in crime levels during his tenure, but a side-by-side comparison between last year's crime totals and the totals in 2001 show a dramatic difference.

In 2001, there were 649 murders, 27,873 robberies, 23,020 felony assaults and 32,694 burglaries in New York. Last year, there were 319 murders, 13,369 robberies, 20,695 felony assaults and 10,778 burglaries.

While the most recent crime statistics in New York City show that murders are up 35% and burglaries are up 41% in comparison with this time last year, totals for both by the end of the year are still not on track to exceed the totals from 2001.

--Alexander Mallin

Trump says 'we want people to come,' but legal immigration down, too

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "We want people to come into our country ... but we want them to come in through a legal system.”

FACT CHECK: Trump campaigned on the promise to crack down on both legal and illegal immigration.

Under his administration, levels of legal immigration have decreased using such measures as caps on refugee admissions and sharp restrictions on people making asylum claims at the border.

Last year, the administration set a refugee cap of 18,000 people, which was down from the 110,000 limit set by Obama in 2016. The U.S. no longer leads the world in refugee admissions, according to a Pew Research Center report.

The president has ordered the suspension of several visa types this year, including employment-based visas, citing the health crisis.

--Anne Flaherty and Quinn Owen

Trump claims to run Obamacare well -- but cut funding, added limits

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "We have run it so much better than Obama ran it."

FACT CHECK: This claim grossly misrepresents how the Trump administration has administered the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which the administration is currently in court seeking to dismantle.

Trump has cut funding for Obamacare advertising and navigators that help people obtain health care coverage, and limited enrollment periods for Americans.

The administration in March decided against opening up a window for people to sign up for health care at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

--Benjamin Siegel

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump participates in ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020. © ABC News President Donald Trump participates in ABC News' town hall hosted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sept. 15, 2020.

Trump overly optimistic on vaccine timing, exaggerates availability

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "We're very close to having a vaccine. ... We're within weeks of getting it. You know, could be three weeks, four weeks but we think we have it."

FACT CHECK: Trump's timeline is overly optimistic and exaggerates how soon most Americans will be able to get vaccinated.

Several potential COVID-19 vaccines are currently going through phase III of trials, with pharmaceutical companies enrolling tens of thousands of participants to test the vaccines' safety and efficacy before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will approve their general use.

Top U.S. government public health officials and other experts have said that it's possible if everything goes well -- but unlikely -- that vaccine trials will have enough clear and compelling data will be available by the end of October or beginning of November. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's foremost infectious disease expert, has said he thinks there will be a "safe and effective vaccine" by "the end of this calendar year."

But even once that data becomes available for one or more of the vaccines, it will still need to be reviewed by the FDA and an independent advisory committee.

At that point, if the FDA determines the data shows the vaccine is safe and effective, it's possible the agency will grant approval for its use, either in a limited manner with an "emergency use authorization," or for more broad use. At that point, the vaccine is expected to be first given to high-priority groups, like health care workers or those living in nursing homes. It will take months before the wider U.S. general population receives it, according to public health officials.

--Ben Gittleson

Trump cites coronavirus ‘excess mortality,’ an unreliable international comparison

TRUMP'S CLAIM: "We're starting to get very good marks if you look at what we've done compared to other countries with the excess mortality, the excess mortality rate." // "Excess mortality rate -- it’s compared to Europe. Compared to other places, it's about 25% better. In one case, it's over 60% better. And we also have a very big country -- you know, this is -- we're talking about a lot bigger than most countries. "

FACT CHECK: "Excess mortality" is the number of total deaths in a period of time compared with the number of expected deaths.

It's a poor comparison to make, since it doesn't reflect differences in demographics, population density and the state of the pandemic in each place.

The available data is poor, but using the midpoint of an estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EuropeMOMO data adjusted for population -- the latter of which is missing large parts of Europe -- the rate is about the same for the United State and Europe, according to an analysis by FactCheck.org.

Another source, the "Human Mortality Database," shows that Europe's rate -- not adjusted for population -- is 32% higher, but accounting for population, it's actually 32% lower, according to the FactCheck.org analysis.

Due to the unavailability of strong data, demographic differences, uneven timing of outbreaks, and other factors, Trump's comparison is misconstrued.

--Ben Gittleson

Trump falsely states that more testing accounts for US coronavirus rate

TRUMP'S CLAIM: Stephanopoulos noted that the United States had just 4% of the world's population but more than 20% of its COVID-19 cases and more than 20% of its COVID-19 deaths. Trump replied: "Well, we have 20% of the cases because of the fact that we do much more testing. If we wouldn't do testing you wouldn't have cases. You would have very few cases."

FACT CHECK: While the U.S. has conducted more COVID-19 tests than any other country, Trump is incorrect to say that the level of testing accounts for the country's proportionately higher number of confirmed cases, which he has repeatedly claimed for months.

Fundamentally, cases of COVID-19 exist in a population whether or not testing picks them up.

More testing will, of course, identify more cases.

But according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, there are at least several countries that have conducted more testing per capita than the U.S., but also have fewer cases per capita than the U.S. does -- such as Australia, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Those figures reflect all-time averages of daily tests conducted per capita -- and the daily percentage of tests that come back positive, which is known as the "positivity rate" or the "percent positive rate."

Despite having one of the highest rates of tests per capita, the U.S. faces the largest outbreak in the world and new cases continue to trend upward in many states. The percent positivity in the U.S. remains high at 8%, when other countries with high testing figures report a significantly lower percent positivity rate, according to Johns Hopkins.

Trump is mistaken to suggest the higher reported rate of cases in the United States is purely a result of the increased testing.

--Ben Gittleson and Arielle Mitropoulos

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a fact check of Trump's claims about crime in New York City.

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