FactCheck: Trump, Clinton whoppers of 2016; rise of fake news
A year ago, we broke with past practice and named Donald Trump our first ever "King of Whoppers." This year, the reigning champ defended his title well – once again dominating our annual review of political whoppers.
At his campaign rallies, Trump regularly disparaged the media as "dishonest," referring at one point to fact-checkers as "dishonest scum." Yet, he peddled conspiracy theories from a supermarket tabloid and a website that serves as a platform for the alt-right.
The Republican president-elect used a thinly sourced story from the National Enquirer to make the baseless claim that Sen. Ted Cruz's father "was with Lee Harvey Oswald" prior to John F. Kennedy's assassination — a claim he doubled down on after Cruz already had dropped out of the presidential primary. Trump also cited Breitbart as evidence that he was "right" when he suggested that President Obama supported terrorists. No, Trump wasn't right.
During the campaign, Trump also made the wild accusation that Obama "is the founder of ISIS," the terrorist group based in Syria and Iraq, and retweeted a fake image of Fox News host Megyn Kelly that purported to show her posing with Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.
Of course, we wrote about plenty of others who distorted the facts and made false claims in 2016. After all, it was the year when the facts caught up with Hillary Clinton's numerous false and distorted claims regarding her use of a private email server while secretary of state. Contrary to what she said, Clinton did have classified material on her server and did not have government approval to use a private server because she never requested it.
Even so, Trump is in a league of his own.
Here we present — as we do every year — a wrap-up of the biggest whoppers in an election year that stunned the political experts, shook up the party establishment and kept fact-checkers very busy.
On the campaign trail, Trump relentlessly portrayed the U.S. as a once-proud nation in decline, and held himself out to voters as the man who could make it great again. That's his opinion, of course, and he is entitled to it.
We took issue, though, with how he distorted the facts on employment, crime, immigration, taxes, refugees, terrorism and other topics, to make his case.
In February, Trump said he "heard" the unemployment rate was really 42 percent, and vowed to be "the greatest jobs president that God ever created." At the time, the official unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, and it has since dropped to 4.6 percent — the lowest in more than nine years. Trump's inflated figure includes millions of people 16 years and older who are not in the labor force and don't want to work — including retirees, high school and college students, and stay-at-home parents.
Even after the election, Trump continued to grossly misrepresent the facts on unemployment, claiming that "96 million people out there … gave up looking for jobs" and that they "want to work," when, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 5.5 million of them "want to work." His 96 million figure, for example, includes 18.2 million people age 75 and older who were not in the workforce in November, BLS says.
Similarly, Trump took up the mantle as the "law and order candidate," claiming in October that the murder rate in the U.S. last year was the "highest it's been in 45 years," and lamenting that "the press never talks about it." Wrong and wrong.
The murder rate in 2015 was 4.9 per 100,000 inhabitants — far lower than it was 45 years ago at 7.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1970, according to FBI data. It peaked at 10.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1980 — which was 35 years ago. In fact, the murder rate was lower in 2015 than it had been at any time between 1965 and 2009.
As for his claim that the "the press never talks about it," Trump was actually distorting news reported by the New York Times. In September, the paper reported that the 2015 murder rate was 10.8 percent higher than it was in 2014 — the highest one-year increase "in nearly half a century." That's not the same as saying the murder rate is the "highest it's been in 45 years," as Trump claimed.
There are many more examples of false and misleading claims by Trump, and readers can see them all by clicking here. For now, we review some of his whoppers:
Trump claimed that U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens "was left helpless to die as [then Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed" during the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. That's false, and Trump later admitted he had no evidence for it.
Trump claimed that Clinton was "raising everybody's taxes massively," a regular talking point at his rallies. Not so. Almost all of the tax increases under her plan would fall on the top 10 percent of taxpayers, according to analyses by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center and the pro-business Tax Foundation. The hardest hit would be the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers, the TPC said.
Trump claimed in 2015 that he opposed the Iraq War before it started and had "25 different stories" to prove it. He didn't provide any evidence. In 2016, Trump provided two sources: a pre-war TV interview with Neil Cavuto, which didn't support his claim, and unrecorded, off-the-air conversations with Trump supporter Sean Hannity.
Trump's charge about Cruz's father was based on the National Enquirer story "Ted Cruz Father Linked to JFK Assassination!" The article was based on a photo of a man who looked like Rafael Cruz, but no facial recognition technology was used to confirm it was Cruz. Even the paper's primary source described Trump's statement as "stupid."
At a meeting with the National Border Patrol Council, Trump claimed that the Obama administration is "letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote." But only citizens can vote, and immigrants must reside in the U.S. legally for several years before they can even apply for citizenship.
Trump said the terrorist group ISIS "is making millions and millions of dollars a week selling Libya oil," and that Iran is "taking over the oil" in Iraq. Experts told us at the time that there was no evidence for either claim.
Trump said that Trump University "had an 'A' rating from the Better Business Bureau," and "many" of the instructors were "handpicked" by him. No instructors were handpicked by Trump, and his university had a "D-" rating when it stopped taking new students in 2010.
Trump repeatedly had said that "many people" saw — but failed to report — "bombs all over the floor" in the apartment of the San Bernardino couple who killed 14 people last year. A neighbor and a worker reportedly noticed what they described as unusual activity outside the apartment, but not any bombs in the home.
Trump said "many people" thought that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in Orlando in June, "was a whack job," but they didn't report him. In fact, Mateen's co-workers in 2013 reported that he boasted of terrorist ties, and the FBI interviewed him. Also, a friend who attended the same mosque as Mateen reported him to the FBI in 2014.
After the Orlando shooting, Trump implied that Obama supported terrorists, and tweeted out a link to a Breitbart story to declare that he was "right." The story was based on a misreading of a 2012 intelligence memo, experts said. One described Trump's claim as "an old conspiracy theory … that has no place in our public discourse."
Trump finally acknowledged that Obama was "born in the United States, period." But he followed that up with two falsehoods: "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it." There's no evidence the so-called birther movement originated with Clinton or her campaign. And the issue was "finished" long before Trump revived it in 2011.
During the campaign, Trump stated that "voter fraud is very, very common." After it, he said he "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." Trump provided no credible evidence for either claim. One professor cited by Trump as a source said Trump's claim about the popular vote was "not at all" possible.
Trump and his campaign manager declared that he had won in an electoral "landslide." Although still unofficial, Trump's share of electoral votes would rank him 46th out of 58 presidential campaign winners, dating to George Washington.
Trump Wildly Inflates Unemployment, Feb. 10
Groundhog Friday, Dec. 9
'What Evidence Do You Have?' June 24
Donald Trump and the Iraq War, Feb. 19
Trump's Foreign Policy Speech, April 28
Trump Wrong on Iraqi Oil, June 7
Trump's ISIS Conspiracy Theory, June 16
FactChecking the First Debate, Sept. 27
Trump on Birtherism: Wrong, and Wrong, Sept. 16
Trump's Bogus Voter Fraud Claims, Oct. 19
Trump University's D- Rating, March 8
Donald Trump on Orlando Shooting, June 14
Trump Retweets Bogus Fox Graphic, Jan. 28
Trump Landslide? Nope. Nov. 29
Trump's Tall Tabloid Tale, May 3
News about Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for government business as secretary of state dominated the coverage of her candidacy — and her statements on the topic headline the false claims she made in 2016. In her public comments dating to March 2015, Clinton wrongly claimed that she didn't send or receive any emails that contained classified information – a claim she later revised to say she did not send or receive any information that was "marked classified." After an investigation, FBI Director James Comey said in early July that more than 2,000 emails contained classified information, including 110 emails that contained classified information at the time they were sent or received. Three emails "bore markings indicating the presence of classified information."
Clinton later claimed in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" that Comey found her public statements about not sending or receiving classified email on her private server to be "truthful." But she was parsing his words. Comey did say "we have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI," but he was not referring to her public statements. Indeed, Comey clearly said "there was classified material emailed."
Earlier in the year, she also repeated a claim that "my predecessors did the same thing." But as we pointed out a few times, only former Secretary of State Colin Powell used a private email account, and he didn't have a private server in his home.
The FBI found evidence of "potential violations" of federal law on handling classified material, Comey said, but such cases are generally not prosecuted. "Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case," he said.
Also, the inspector general for the State Department issued a report in May that said Clinton "had an obligation" to discuss her use of a private server for official business with the department's cybersecurity officials, but there's "no evidence" that she sought or received their approval. That was contrary to Clinton's claim that her personal email account was "allowed by the State Department."
Clinton's Email Falsehood, Aug. 1
IG's Report on Clinton's Emails, May 27
Clinton also made a few false and misleading claims to bolster her position on gun control. She said the FBI needed "just one more day" to stop Dylann Roof from being able to purchase the handgun he used to kill nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. (Roof was convicted of murder and other counts in December.) But one day wouldn't have made a difference. The FBI said clerical errors led to Roof being able to buy the gun, and the agency didn't confirm the sale shouldn't have been permitted until after the shooting two months later.
During the primary campaign, Clinton also claimed that Vermont, the home state of her then-opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders, was the source of the "highest per capita" number of guns that come from out of state and were "used in crimes and violence and killings in New York." That's a misleading attempt to tie Sanders to weak gun laws. Clinton's statistic is true for all guns, not just those used in a crime, successfully traced in New York in 2014, and in raw numbers, the small state of Vermont ranked 13th among outside states with guns recovered in New York.
Clinton's Vermont Gun Stat, April 12
Clinton pushed for policies to lower prescription drug costs, but early this year, in a TV ad, she misleadingly claimed that "in the last seven years drug prices have doubled." The report cited by her campaign said brand-name drug prices, on average, had more than doubled — but more than 80 percent of filled prescriptions are for generic drugs, which have seen a price drop of nearly 63 percent.
And in making the argument that she had been tough on Wall Street, Clinton wrongly said during the primaries that she was "the only candidate" from "either side" in the presidential campaign who had been attacked in advertising funded by "Wall Street financiers and hedge fund managers." At the time, in early April, several candidates had been targeted by such ads, including Trump, who appeared to be the top target.
Clinton also went beyond the facts in some of her claims about what Trump had said. She misrepresented his words in saying he "thinks wages are too high" — a claim that was one of the top Democratic talking points of the year. Trump said raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would be "too high," not that wages in general were too high. At one point in the campaign, Trump said the minimum wage should be "at least $10" – but that the states, not the federal government, should "call the shots." This month, Trump nominated a labor secretary who, in May, said he was "not opposed to raising the minimum wage rationally." Although he didn't define what "rationally" meant, he opposed the Obama administration's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
Clinton also falsely claimed that "back in the Great Recession … Donald Trump said rescuing the auto industry didn't really matter very much. He said, and I quote again, 'Let it go.'" But back in 2008, Trump supported the auto bailout. It was in 2015 that Trump said the government could have provided automakers with financial assistance or let them go into bankruptcy without assistance, but either way the industry "would have ended up ultimately in the same place."
Clinton on the Stump, Oct. 3
Clinton's Auto Bailout Falsehood, Oct. 14
And the Democratic presidential nominee twisted her own record in a few cases. In a TV ad, the Clinton campaign overstated her work on the New START agreement, saying she secured "a massive reduction in nuclear weapons" as secretary of state. The agreement doesn't require the U.S. or Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, and Russia was below the limit for deployed long-range nuclear warheads when the treaty took effect in 2011 and has increased them since.
Clinton revised history in discussing her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She claimed that in 2012, as secretary of state, she had said she "hoped" the TPP would set the gold standard, when, in fact, she said it "sets the gold standard in trade agreements." Clinton later came out against it in October 2015.
Clinton Overstates Nuclear Achievement, April 27
FactChecking the First Debate, Sept. 27
With so much attention on Trump and Clinton in the second half of the year, it's easy to forget that both remained in hotly contested primaries well into 2016. Two of the last challengers standing, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, make our list of the year's biggest whoppers.
Cruz on gun laws: Just a few weeks before dropping out of the race, Cruz distorted the facts while making a point about gun control, saying that Washington, D.C., and Chicago "for years" have been "right at the top of murder rates," and claiming that most "jurisdictions with the worst murder rates" have "the very strictest gun control laws." Aside from the fact that neither city was in the Top 25 in murder rates in 2014, there is no evidence that gun control laws result in higher murder rates. In fact, studies suggest the opposite, although the studies do not support a causal relationship.
Cruz's Gun Control Deception, April 20
Cruz on Obamacare: During the seventh Republican debate, Cruz claimed that "millions" had lost jobs and been forced into part-time work because of the Affordable Care Act. But jobs statistics at that time didn't back that up. The economy had added millions of jobs since the employer mandate, and fewer people were working part-time for economic reasons.
FactChecking the Seventh GOP Debate, Jan. 29
Cruz on welfare to immigrants: Cruz said he would "end welfare benefits for those here illegally." But immigrants in the U.S. illegally are already barred from receiving most government benefits, including food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Sanders on disposable income. Sanders claimed at multiple rallies that "Mom is working, Dad is working, and the kids are working, and yet together they're bringing in less disposable income today than a family did with one breadwinner 40 years ago." But Census data show an 85 percent increase in median disposable income for the households Sanders described from 1979 to 2014 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Sanders' False Income Claim, May 5
Sanders on Clinton getting fossil fuel money. Sanders used padded data to back up his claim that "Hillary Clinton received $4.5 million from the fossil fuel industry." The figure relied on a tortured definition of fossil fuel money. It included contributions donated by lobbyists who represent many clients other than oil or gas companies. It also included money those lobbyists raised from other donors who have nothing to do with the oil and gas industry.
While much of our focus this year was on the presidential election, we also kept tabs on President Barack Obama, who again makes our list.
Obama on the VA: President Obama suggested that his administration "fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities" involved in the wait-times scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. At the time of Obama's remark, only nine people had been fired from the VA for issues pertaining to patient wait times, according to VA documents. Of those nine, four were senior officials at one facility in Phoenix. That's not "a whole bunch of people who were in charge" considering USA Today reported employees at 40 VA facilities manipulated data indicating how long veterans waited for appointments, including supervisors in at least seven states who instructed employees to falsify data.
Fired Over VA Wait Times, Oct. 6
Obama on access to guns: Obama said "it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book." But the White House couldn't provide anything more than anecdotal evidence to support his claim. We found that while there is a dearth of research, the available data show that the percentage of teenagers who own a computer is far higher than those who have a gun, and a teenager can "get his hands" on a book as easily as a walk to the local library.
Obama on Access to Guns, July 15
Republicans on "unvetted" Syrian refugees: Trump claimed that "there's no way to screen" Syrian refugees, and Republican congressional candidates said the refugees were coming to the U.S. "unvetted." The FBI director testified to the challenges of screening Syrian refugees, acknowledging that he could not guarantee that there is no risk involved. But that's not the same as saying Syrians aren't screened at all. In fact, all refugees seeking to enter the U.S. must pass a more rigorous screening than anyone else allowed into the country, and those from Syria are subjected to special measures including iris scans and an "enhanced review" by the Department of Homeland Security.
FactChecking Trump's Big Speech, July 22
We would be remiss if we didn't mention a bit about what has become a hot topic since the election, the prevalence of "fake news." Here, we are not talking about distorted or misleading political rhetoric, but rather outright made-up news.
Fake news stories are nothing new; we have been dealing with viral claims in Ask FactCheck for nine years. But the growth of social media has made it possible to spread fake news farther and easier than ever before. In fact, an entire cottage industry of fake news has emerged, with purveyors in places as far flung as Macedonia making substantial advertising profit by getting readers to click on totally made-up stories.
Nearly a quarter of Americans fessed up to sharing a fake news story, though more than half said they didn't know it was fake until after they shared it, according to a new Pew Research Center report. About two-thirds of those surveyed said fake news had caused "a great deal of confusion" about "basic facts of current events."
We flagged a few such stories this year:
Did Obama's mother-in-law get a $160,000 pension for babysitting her granddaughters during Obama's time as president? No. Did the pope endorse Trump? He did not. Did President Obama sign an executive order banning the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools? Of course not. Did the Obamas buy a vacation home in Dubai? Negative.
All of these bogus stories came from fake or satirical news sites.
Another whopper: the fake medical records for Clinton, which circulated on social media and some conservative websites, purporting to show that she suffers from seizures and dementia. Clinton's longtime physician — whose name appears atop the alleged "leaked" documents — released a statement to FactCheck.org calling the documents "false," and reiterating her diagnosis that Clinton was "in excellent health and fit to serve as President of the United States."
No 'First Grandma' Pension, Nov. 9
Did the Pope Endorse Trump? Oct. 24
Obama Did Not Ban the Pledge, Sept. 2
Debunking Obama's Dubai Domicile, Feb. 10
Fake Clinton Medical Records, Aug. 16
Although Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, scoffed at the idea of fake news influencing the outcome of the presidential election, he acknowledges that fake news spread via Facebook is a growing problem. On Dec. 15, Facebook announced an experiment to try to stem the spread of fake news by, in part, enlisting the help of independent fact-checkers — including us here at FactCheck.org — to flag fake news. Stay tuned.