FACT CHECK: Trump floats fictions about the border
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s relationship with the truth tends to be borderline, at best, when it comes to the border.
So it was this past week when he made a flurry of false or unsupported statements about immigration. He said, with no evidence, that migrants are plagued with disease. He asserted that Mexico has in effect agreed to pay for his border wall, even as he threatens a partial government shutdown if Congress doesn’t approve billions of dollars to build it. He twisted federal statistics to claim the recent arrest of 10 terrorists who don’t exist.
On another front, Trump tried to cast doubt on whether his former national security adviser had lied to the FBI even after the aide pleaded guilty to doing just that.
A look at recent rhetoric and the reality:
TRUMP: “People with tremendous medical difficulty and medical problems are pouring in, and in many — in many cases it’s contagious. They’re pouring into our country. We have to have border security.” — statement in Oval Office meeting Tuesday with Democratic leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer.
THE FACTS: Trump provided no evidence that people coming into the country, including the caravan at the U.S.-Mexico border, are carrying contagious diseases at a higher rate than the U.S. population. Medical screening is part of the process for vetting people who seek asylum.
A study published this month by the UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health called scares about contagion one of the most pervasive myths about migrants. The study found no evidence that migrants pose a significant public health risk to countries such as the U.S. that have good health systems. In fact, migrants themselves face health threats from arduous journeys, violence along the way, or overcrowding in shelters or camps, the Lancet commission said. While some may come from regions where certain diseases are common, the report noted that international tourism and movement of animals spread illness, too.
As for the caravan and other migrants from the south, World Bank statistics show Mexico and Central America vaccinate most children against measles, sometimes at a bit higher rate than the U.S. Along the border between Mexico and California, public health departments have long had a system in place to watch for signs of outbreaks of a variety of illnesses, whether they’re immigration-related or not.
TRUMP: “Our Southern Border is now Secure and will remain that way.” — tweet Tuesday.
TRUMP: “We need border security. People are pouring into our country, including terrorists. We have terrorists. But we caught 10 terrorists. These are over the last very short period of time — 10. These are very serious people.” — statement in Oval Office meeting.
THE FACTS: Trump contradicted himself, declaring the border secure and insecure on the same day. And Trump is wrong about the government recently catching 10 terrorists.
His statement is a mangling of federal statistics showing that U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped an average of seven to 10 people a day in the 2017 budget year who were denied entry to the U.S. because they were on a watch list. That average applied to all points of entry, and overwhelmingly from airports, and was not specific to the southern border. The standard for placing someone on the list is reasonable suspicion, a lower bar than the probable cause needed to arrest someone for an alleged crime. The statistics do not show how many might have been arrested or charged with anything.
In any event, Trump rendered a daily average as 10 recently captured terrorists in the flesh.
As for border security, U.S. arrests on the Mexican border jumped 78 percent in November from a year earlier to the highest level in Trump’s presidency. Increased arrests indicate that more people are trying to cross the border illegally.
PELOSI: “We came at a place to say, ‘How do we meet the needs of American people who have needs?’ The economy has — people are losing their jobs.” — Oval Office meeting.
TRUMP: “Well, we have the lowest unemployment that we’ve had in 50 years.” — Oval Office meeting.
THE FACTS: Trump is correct about jobs.
There may always be some layoffs even if the economy is strong. General Motors, for instance, said last month it would cut as many as 14,000 workers in North America in a restructuring aimed at generating cash to spend on innovation, even though U.S. auto sales are near historic highs.
But the U.S. economy has now added jobs for a record 98 straight months, dating to October 2010, during the Obama administration.
The Labor Department reported the unemployment rate in November stayed at 3.7 percent, a five-decade low, for the third straight month.
The job gains are pushing down unemployment rates to historically low levels for a variety of groups. The unemployment rate for men aged 20 and above fell last month to 3.3 percent, the lowest in 18 years. The rate for Americans with just high school diplomas dropped to 3.5 percent, the lowest since December 2000. The African-American jobless rate declined to 5.9 percent, matching May’s figure as the lowest on record.
That’s making it more challenging for businesses to find the workers they need. Employers have posted 7 million open jobs, outnumbering the ranks of the unemployed, which fell last month to just under 6 million.
SCHUMER: “The one thing I think we can agree on is we shouldn’t shut down the government over a dispute. And you want to shut it down. You keep talking about it.” — Oval Office meeting.
TRUMP: “No, no, no, no, no. The last time, Chuck, you shut it down.”
SCHUMER: “No, no, no.”
THE FACTS: There’s no settling any argument over who is responsible for a shutdown. But the last one, in January, was generally attributed to Senate Democrats seeking to force protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants.
Parts of the government closed for three days as Democrats united against a Republican-backed temporary spending bill unless Republicans and Trump agreed to extend the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected the children of parents who came to the U.S. illegally. The White House was resisting bipartisan efforts to help the young immigrants.
Schumer ultimately gave in to GOP demands in exchange for a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to address the issue at a later date, infuriating liberal activists who were pushing Democrats hard for an immigration deal.
Schumer had grounds, though, for accusing Trump of wanting a partial shutdown now. The president said he’d be “proud to shut down the government” and eager to take responsibility for it if he didn’t get enough money from Congress for border security.
TRUMP: “If we don’t get what we want one way or another … I will shut down the government.” — in meeting with Pelosi and Schumer.
SCHUMER, asked after the meeting what happens if Trump doesn’t compromise: “He will get no wall and he will get a shutdown.”
PELOSI: A “Trump shutdown” could be his “holiday president to the American people.”
THE FACTS: Everyone’s exaggerating. The government is not at risk of closing if a deal is not reached by the end of this coming Friday.
About three-quarters of the government would continue to have enough money to operate. But even a partial shutdown could be disruptive. Among the affected departments absent a deal: Homeland Security, Transportation, Agriculture, State, Justice.
Congress has approved continued financing of the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, among other federal operations, and workers deemed essential would not be idled.
TRUMP: “Well the FBI said Michael Flynn, a general and a great person, they said he didn’t lie. And Mueller said: ‘Well, maybe he did.’ And now they’re all having a big dispute, so I think it’s a great thing that the judge is looking into that situation. It’s an honor for a lot of terrific people.” — remarks Thursday.
THE FACTS: That’s not what the FBI said. And Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, has agreed that he lied to the FBI. He pleaded guilty to it and is to be sentenced next week — the first White House official punished as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia investigation.
The idea that Flynn didn’t lie to the FBI picked up steam after Republicans on the House intelligence committee issued a report this year that said ex-FBI director James Comey, in a private briefing, told lawmakers that agents who interviewed Flynn “discerned no physical indications of deception” and saw “nothing that indicated to them that he knew he was lying to them.” But Comey called that description “garble” in a private interview with House lawmakers this month.
Comey, in essence, said Flynn was a good liar, having a “natural conversation” with agents, “answered fully their questions, didn’t avoid. That notwithstanding, they concluded he was lying.”
As for Trump’s comment that the judge is looking into the matter, it’s true U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has asked for documents related to the agents who interviewed Flynn. It’s not clear from Sullivan’s order whether he considers there to be a dispute to resolve or if he just wants to see the underlying documents as he decides Flynn’s sentence.
TRUMP: “I often stated, ‘One way or the other, Mexico is going to pay for the Wall.’ This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico (and Canada), the USMCA, is so much better than the old, very costly & anti-USA NAFTA deal, that just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: This is a face-saving statement to mask the fact that Mexico refused to pay for a U.S. border wall, Trump gave up trying to make it do so and U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for it.
In essence, Trump is arguing that new terms of trade with Mexico will increase economic growth in the U.S. and produce more tax revenue. That’s what everyone hopes trade agreements will do. As part of that, he hopes for a lower trade deficit with Mexico. Neither outcome is assured.
The deal negotiated with Mexico and Canada is an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement he railed against, not a transformative pact. The three countries will continue trading in an environment of mainly low or no tariffs, with improvements here and there for all three partners. There is no credible way for Trump to forecast additional growth covering costs that are being charged to U.S. taxpayers if the wall is built. Trade balances depend on too many factors — consumer tastes, exchange rates, overall economic performance, and the choices of thousands of companies among them — and some are well outside any government’s control.
Trump specifically promised in the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall. That is not the same as trying to reduce the U.S. trade deficit, which is about the exchange of goods and services among private entities rather than payments between governments. Nor is a trade deficit necessarily a penalty on consumers. It is the result of consumers buying things made in another country.
He wants some $25 billion from Congress for wall construction over five years and promises a partial government shutdown if he does not get a $5 billion or so portion in the next week. Congress may or may not give him that. If it does, it will not be because lawmakers expect a refund to the treasury in future years from extra growth produced by a trade deal.
TRUMP: “Tremendous amounts of wall have already been built.” — statement in meeting Tuesday with Pelosi and Schumer.
TRUMP: “People do not yet realize how much of the Wall, including really effective renovation, has already been built.” ″We have already built large new sections & fully renovated others, making them like new.” — tweets.
THE FACTS: Tremendous portions of the wall have not been built. Yes, some barrier renovation has happened, but little wall construction has been completed under Trump.
Congress allocated roughly $1.4 billion in the spring — a bit more than 5 percent of what Trump wanted — for border security and specified that the money was not to be used for construction of the prototype wall sections that stand near San Diego. Instead, the money is to strengthen or replace existing fencing with more secure fencing.
Altogether, Trump promised in the campaign that he’d build a 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometer-) wall, as high as 40 feet or 12 meters (and have Mexico pay for it, which isn’t happening). If some 650 miles (1,050 km) of existing fencing are considered in the equation, that leaves him with about 350 miles (560 km) of wall to build.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, Trump adviser: “You just want to keep saying ‘wall, wall, wall.’ … There are many ways to secure a border.” — to reporters asking Tuesday about Trump’s wall.
THE FACTS: Trump, of course, has been saying wall, wall, wall, since the 2015 Republican primaries, in a torrent of tweets and in countless rallies. Or, as he put it in Tuesday’s tweet, “the Wall.” He’s described the material, the dimensions and the beauty of it, and had prototype sections built, and they are of a wall, not a fence.
Federal officials, and Trump himself, at times, have tried to scale back expectations by noting, for example, that “there are places where you can’t have a physical wall,” as Conway put it Tuesday. “There are rivers. There’s brush.” But Trump already accounted for that when he promised 1,000 miles of wall to supplement an additional 1,000 miles of rivers and other natural barriers.
“The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it,” he tweeted in January, as if inviting voters to hold him to his literal promise.