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Fact-checking Donald Trump's First Speech to Congress

  • VOA Staff

U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, gestures on Capitol Hill in Washington before his address to a joint session of Congress, Feb. 28, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump gave his first address to Congress on Tuesday evening. Titled Renewal of the American Spirit, the address focused on economic opportunity and protecting the American people.

But how much of what the president said was true, fair and accurate? Here is a look at some of his statements, along with a check of the facts.

Achievements in office

TRUMP: "We've saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing down the price" of the F-35 fighter jet.

THE FACTS: The cost savings he persists in citing were in motion before he became president.

The head of the Air Force program announced significant price reductions in the contract for the F-35 fighter jet Dec. 19 — after Trump had tweeted about the cost but weeks before he met the company's CEO about it.

Pentagon managers took action even before the election to save money on the contract. Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the aerospace consulting firm Teal Group, says there is no evidence of any additional cost savings as a result of Trump's actions.

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017.
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017.

Unemployment

TRUMP: "94 million Americans" out of the labor force.

THE FACTS: That statement is misleading.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government’s official collector of employment data, either 92 million or 93 million members of the civilian, non-institutionalized population who were age 16 and over were not in the labor force in July 2015. (There are slight differences in the figure if you use seasonally adjusted numbers as opposed to non-seasonally adjusted numbers.)

But what does this number actually mean?

For one, it includes lots of people who likely aren’t looking for work. It includes every American of retirement age — 65 and older. It includes every high school student at least 16 years of age. It includes every college and many graduate or professional-school students. It includes every person who has a disability that makes it impossible for them to work. It includes parents who are choosing to stay home to take care of their kids. It includes every adult who’s gone back to school full time. It even includes trust-fund kids who are living off investments.

Put it all together and this is not a trivial group of people.

Out of the 93.8 million Americans age 16 and up who are deemed "not in the labor force," 9.7 million of them are between 16 and 19 years of age. Another 5.7 million are between 20 and 24. And 37.8 million are age 65 and over. (In fact, 17.5 million are over 75 years old.)

What’s left? This leaves 40.5 million Americans who are not in the labor force and are between the ages of 25 and 64. It’s possible to argue that this number should be a bit higher — college typically ends at age 22, not everyone goes to college, and healthy seniors today can usually work past 65 if they wish. But right off the top, Trump’s claim significantly overstates the matter.

So what’s a better number?

The official number of unemployed Americans is 8.3 million — less than one-tenth of what Trump says.

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017.
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017.

Debt

TRUMP: Former President Barack Obama added more debt than all other presidents combined?

THE FACTS: This is a talking point that many Republicans have used, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who wrote in February 2016, "Barack Obama will somehow manage to add more than $8 trillion to the national debt, which is more debt than the 43 presidents who held office before him compiled together."

On Jan. 20, 2009, the day Obama was inaugurated, the public debt stood at about $6.31 trillion. By February 2016, it stood at about $13.67 trillion. That’s an increase of $7.36 trillion.

By the end of Obama’s second term, if the debt continued to rise at the same pace it had increased over the past seven-plus years, it would have ended up at nearly $8.4 trillion when Obama left office.

Using this measurement, then, Bush was right that Obama would see the debt increase by north of $8 trillion on his watch, and that this amount would exceed the amount accumulated by the previous 43 presidents ($6.31 trillion).

Job creation

TRUMP: "Since my election, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart and many others have announced that they will invest billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs."

THE FACTS: Many of the announcements reflect corporate decisions that predate Trump's presidential election, making it unlikely that his administration is the sole or even the primary reason for the expected hiring.

In the case of Intel, construction of the Chandler, Arizona, factory referred to by Trump actually began during Barack Obama's presidency. The project was delayed by insufficient demand for Intel's high-powered computer chips, but the company now expects to finish the factory within four years because it anticipates business growth.

Still, even as some companies create jobs, others are laying off workers. The best measure of whether more jobs are actually being created are the figures in the monthly employment reports issued by the Labor Department, which nets out those gains and losses. The department will issue its report for February, the first full month of Trump's term, on March 10.

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017.
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017.

Middle East

TRUMP: U.S. spent "$6 trillion in the Middle East."

THE FACTS: Trump said the wars in the Middle East have cost $6 trillion dollars.

Trump is citing the high-end estimate of credible analyses of spending associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet he is confusing money that’s been spent with money that researchers say will be spent.

That’s a $1 trillion difference or more.

Trump’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details.

Illegal drugs

TRUMP: "We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth — and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted."

THE FACTS: Addicts and mentally ill people who gained access to treatment programs for the first time as a result of the Obama-era health care law are worried about the consequences if it's repealed as Trump calls for. Repeal could end coverage for 1.8 million people who have undergone addiction or mental health treatment, and cut $5.5 billion in spending on such services, according to estimates by economist Richard Frank, a former Obama administration official now at Harvard Medical School.

The key question is what will happen to Medicaid as a result of changes Republicans are pursuing. Broadly speaking, Republicans want to transform the health insurance program for low-income people from an open-ended federal entitlement to a system that provides states with a limited amount of financing and gives them latitude on how to spend it.

If Congress is too stingy with the state allotments, states would be hampered dealing with emergencies like the opioid epidemic.

Immigration numbers

TRUMP: "According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs America's taxpayers many billions of dollars a year."

THE FACTS: That's not exactly what that report says. It says immigrants "contribute to government finances by paying taxes and add expenditures by consuming public services."

The report found that while first-generation immigrants are more expensive to governments than their native-born counterparts, primarily at the state and local level, immigrants' children "are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the population."

The report found that the "long-run fiscal impact" of immigrants and their children would probably be seen as more positive "if their role in sustaining labor force growth and contributing to innovation and entrepreneurial activity were taken into account."

First Lady Melania Trump, and guests, applaud on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017, during President Donald Trump's address to a joint session of Congress.
First Lady Melania Trump, and guests, applaud on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 28, 2017, during President Donald Trump's address to a joint session of Congress.

Crime

TRUMP: "Largest single-year increase in" murder in the U.S. in half a century.

THE FACTS: The number of murders nationally did rise by the biggest amount in 45 years, and criminologists agree that this is a development worth paying attention to. But they add that it comes after a steep, quarter-century decline, which suggests that it is not yet a cause for panic.

The statement is accurate, but needs clarification and additional information.

Imports

TRUMP: America doesn’t tax imports.

THE FACTS: Taxes on imports and exports are important given that Trump has been highly critical of America’s trade policies. Three days after his inauguration, he signed a presidential memorandum officially directing the United States to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the biggest trade deal struck in two decades.

Regarding taxes in imports, while there are no direct taxes, there are tariffs.

A foreign company that sells goods from abroad into the United States does not pay any U.S. income taxes unless it has subsidiaries based in the United States or branches in the United States. For example, Toyota USA pays income taxes on cars made in Japan that it buys and resells to U.S. consumers.

But the statement ignores the existence of tariffs — another form of tax that is imposed on many goods as they come into the United States. On average, the tariff imposed at the border is 1.5 percent, according to a March 2016 report from the U.S. International Trade Commission.

(Tariffs are aimed at making American companies more competitive with their foreign counterparts, but consumer costs in the United States almost certainly would rise if tariffs are increased. Trump has promised to raise tariffs on "any country that devalues their currency to take unfair advantage of the United States.")

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Feb. 28, 2017, in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Feb. 28, 2017, in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

Tax cuts

TRUMP, in prepared remarks: "At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class."

THE FACTS: Trump has provided little detail on how this would happen. Independent analyses of his campaign's tax proposals found that most of the benefits would flow to the wealthiest families. The richest 1 percent would see an average tax cut of nearly $215,000 a year, while the middle one-fifth of the population would get a cut of just $1,010, according to the Tax Policy Center, a joint project by the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute.

Health law

TRUMP, in prepared remarks: "Obamacare is collapsing ... so I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster. "

THE FACTS: There are problems with the 2010 health care law, but whether it's collapsing is hotly disputed.

One of the two major components of the Affordable Care Act has seen a spike in premiums and a drop in participation from insurers. But the other component, equally important, seems to be working fairly well, even if its costs are a concern.

Trump and congressional Republicans want to repeal the whole thing, which risks leaving millions of people uninsured if the replacement plan has shortcomings. Some critics say GOP rhetoric itself is making things worse by creating uncertainty about the future.

The health law offers subsidized private health insurance along with a state option to expand Medicaid for low-income people. Together, the two arms of the program cover more than 20 million people.

Republican governors whose states have expanded Medicaid are trying to find a way to persuade Congress and the administration to keep the expansion, and maybe even build on it, while imposing limits on the long-term costs of Medicaid.

While the Medicaid expansion seems to be working, the markets for subsidized private health insurance are stressed in many states. Also affected are millions of people who buy individual policies outside the government markets, and face the same high premiums with no financial help from the health law.

Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation says ``implosion'' is too strong a term. An AP count found that 12.2 million people signed up for this year, despite the Trump administration's threats to repeal the law.

The report includes information from AP and Politifact.

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