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Debate fact check: Claims from a Trumpish debate

Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and businessman Donald Trump argue as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich listen during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Thursday in Detroit. (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)
Jeff Horwitz Associated Press

EDITOR’S NOTEA look at political claims that take shortcuts with the facts or don’t tell the full story

WASHINGTON – One way or another, the 11th Republican presidential debate was pretty much all about Donald Trump – his shifts on positions, the gaps in his policies, his defunct university, his character and some rather personal chatter about the man.

Here’s a look at some claims from the debate – above-the-belt claims, that is – and how they compare with the facts:


DONALD TRUMP: On whether his now-defunct Trump University provided value to students it enrolled, “We have an A from the Better Business Bureau.”

MARCO RUBIO: “The Better Business Bureau gave it a D-minus.”

MEGYN KELLY of Fox News: “With respect, we went back and looked at this…The rating from the Better Business Bureau was a D-minus.”

THE FACTS: Trump’s school only had an A rating from the Better Business Bureau after it stopped taking students, in 2011. At the time the school was operating, in 2010, news sources reported the D-minus rating. The bureau has said the school’s rating fluctuated.

Trump has portrayed a lawsuit brought against his school as the work of a law firm that recruited former students to try to squeeze money out of him.


RUBIO: “And Vladimir Putin, who you’ve expressed admiration for, Donald… “

TRUMP: “Wrong. Wrong.”

RUBIO: “Donald, you said he’s a strong leader.”

TRUMP: “Wrong.”

THE FACTS: Admiration might be a stretch, but Trump did compare Putin favorably against President Barack Obama.

In a Dec. 18 interview on MSNBC, Trump welcomed the Russian leader’s praise of him, saying, “when people call you brilliant, that’s always good – especially when the person heads up Russia.” When the interviewer pointed out charges that Putin kills opponents and that he invaded neighboring Ukraine, Trump responded that Putin is “running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”


TRUMP: Families of the 9/11 hijackers were allowed to leave the U.S. around the time of the attacks, even though “they knew what was happening. The wife knew exactly what was happening. They left two days early … and they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon.”

THE FACTS: No relatives of the hijackers were known to be in the U.S. before or after the attacks.

Trump appears to be confusing relatives of the hijackers with relatives of Osama bin Laden who were in the U.S. at the time. They left the U.S. nine days after the attacks, not two days before.

After bin Laden became the prime suspect in the attacks, Saudi Arabia organized the evacuation of more than 20 members of his family – mostly nieces and nephews – from the United States because some feared reprisals from Americans. The Bush administration came under harsh criticism for the action.


TED CRUZ on his proposal to abolish the IRS: “Now, at the end of that there will still be an office in the Treasury Department to receive the postcards but it will be dramatically simpler.”

THE FACTS: Cruz dodged the question of how the tax system will be enforced if he abolishes the IRS and has people pay taxes on simple postcard-like forms. No matter how simple taxes might become, the government still has to make sure people are paying their share, and that takes a large workforce. It’s not just a matter of receiving postcards.

Cruz’s flat tax would consolidate seven tax brackets into one at 10 percent. It’s almost certain that this level would give the wealthy huge tax breaks and cause budget deficits to soar.


TRUMP: “Because of the fact that the pharmaceutical companies are not mandated to bid properly, they have hundreds of billions of dollars in waste.”

THE FACTS: This relates to Trump’s unachievable promise to save $300 billion by allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. That’s impossible because the entire country – Medicare, private insurance, individuals and other government programs – spends about $300 billion on drugs ($297.7 billion in 2014).

Trump’s promise could only be fulfilled, in essence, if drugs were free.

Savings estimates from Medicare-negotiated drug prices have not been nearly as huge as Trump supposes.

A study last year by the advocacy group Public Citizen and a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa estimated that Medicare’s prescription program would save $15.2 billion to $16 billion a year if it were able to get the same discounted prices for brand name drugs that state Medicaid programs and the Veterans Health Administration receive.

That’s far from a $300 billion savings.


RUBIO dismissed Trump’s business record, saying he “inherited over $100 million.”

THE FACTS: That’s hard to pin down. Trump’s father, Fred Trump, died in 1999, and left behind an estate publicly estimated at between $200 million to $250 million. But no firm numbers are available – and the estate was to be split among Trump and two of his siblings.

If Rubio’s estimate is high, however, Trump’s insistence that he only received a “small loan” from his father is even harder to justify. Fred Trump not only gave his son an initial stake, but also guaranteed loans on the Grand Hyatt project that first made Trump’s name. Fred Trump also let his son borrow against his future inheritance – and, in 1991, one of Trump’s casinos admitted it had broken New Jersey law by accepting an illicit $3.5 million loan from Fred Trump.


TRUMP: “We are getting absolutely crushed on trade…. With China we’re going to lose $505 billion in terms of trades. You just can’t do it. Mexico, $58 billion. Japan, probably about, they don’t know it yet, but about $109 billion.”

THE FACTS: Trump is way off on the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with China. It was $365.7 billion in 2015 – indeed, a record and the largest deficit the United States had with any country.

But the U.S. deficit with all countries last year was $531.5 billion, up from $508.3 billion in 2014, close to the $505 billion deficit that Trump assigned just to one country, China. Trump did get the deficit with Mexico correct.

But not Japan. His estimate of a $109 billion trade deficit with Japan compares with the actual deficit of $68.6 billion last year.


TRUMP: Repeating his advocacy of harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects, “We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That’s my opinion.” Asked what he’d do if the military refuses to go along with the order because it’s against U.S. law, “They don’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.”

THE FACTS: Members of the military are obligated to refuse to follow an order that is illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If they follow unlawful ones, they risk punishment.


CRUZ: Obamacare is “the biggest job killer in America.”

THE FACTS: That evergreen assertion flies in the face of an unemployment rate that has fallen to 4.9 percent from 9.9 percent in March 2010, when President Barack Obama signed the health care law.

The economy has added more than 13.4 million jobs during that period.

While the health care law doesn’t seem to have had a major impact on jobs, some lesser consequences are likely. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the availability of government subsidized health insurance will prompt some people to drop out of the labor market, since they can get coverage without holding down a job.


TRUMP: “I beat Hillary Clinton in many polls. The Pew poll just came out. I beat Hillary Clinton in a recent Fox poll, I beat Hillary Clinton in USA Today, I beat her today in a poll in Ohio. I beat – I’m the only one that beats Hillary Clinton.”

THE FACTS: Actually the latest Fox poll finds Clinton besting him, while a USA Today poll has him on top.

In a sea of polling since May – some with sound methodology and others without – Clinton is far more often found to be the likely winner over Trump in a hypothetical matchup. But even scientifically solid polling during the primary season is a poor measure of what’s likely to happen when the two parties have two nominees running against each other in the fall.