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Fact-checking the Democratic debate in South Carolina

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Top moments from the CBS News Democratic debate in South Carolina 01:41

It's candidates' final chance to pitch themselves to voters before the pivotal primary in South Carolina. And with so many statements flying back and forth, it's hard to track what's accurate and what isn't.

In a fiery debate filled explosive attacks on one another, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer took on their opponents' records. 

Here's how accurate the candidates' statements are:


FACT CHECK: Sanders says U.S. has more people in jail than China because of drug-related incarceration

CLAIM: U.S. has more people incarcerated than any country, including China
Sanders: "We have a criminal justice system today that is not only broken, it is racist, got more people in jail than any other country earth, including China. 
"One of the reasons for that is a horrific war on drugs. So, I do believe that on day one we will change the Federal Controlled Substance Act, which if you can believe it, now equates heroin with marijuana. That's insane. We are going to take marijuana out of that and effectively legalize marijuana in every state in the country. 
What we also are going to do is move to expunge the records of those people arrested for possession of marijuana, and I'll tell you what else we are going to do.  We are going to provide help to the African-American Latino Native American community start businesses to sell legal marijuana rather than let a few corporations control the legalized marijuana market."

FACT CHECK: Partly true, partly not provable.
Marijuana and heroin: Both heroin and marijuana are considered Schedule I controlled substances by the DEA, meaning that they are currently accepted for medical use and have a high potential for abuse.
The Drug Policy Alliance reports that in 2018, 663,367 people were arrested for a marijuana law violation. And 46.9% of those arrested for drug law violations were Black or Latino, although they only make up 31.5% of the U.S. population.
China incarceration: There is no way to be certain about the veracity of this claim. The Prison Policy Initiative did a study, which found that 70% of convictions result in confinement — far more than other developed nations with comparable crime rates. It also found that the U.S. incarceration rate is about six times higher than the next NATO country, the U.K. 
The World Prison Brief found that the U.S. does have more inmates than China, which reportedly has 1.65 million inmates, plus unknown numbers in pre-trial detention and other forms of detention, based on information available from September 2018.

Clare Hymes


FACT CHECK: Biden says Obama admin asked McConnell to join it in pointing out Russian meddling in 2016 election. He said no.

CLAIM: Joe Biden said the Obama administration asked Mitch McConnell to join them in pointing out Russian meddling in the 2016 election. McConnell said no.

Biden: "This man (Trump) stood before the whole world, turned to the Russian leader and said, 'Why in God's name would this man ever interfere in our election?' Give me a break. Seventeen intelligence agents said he did. When we got the information, we went to the committee in the Senate that's responsible for knowing these issues and dealing with them. We went to Mitch McConnell and said join us and point out what is happening here. He said "No, we want no part in it." 


In September of 2016, the Washington Post reported, Obama administration officials presented Congress with intelligence that showed Russia's role in cyber-intrusions in at least two states and in hacking Democratic National Committee emails. And they argued for a united bipartisan front against the threat posed by Russia's meddling in the U.S. presidential election. 
The Post reported that the administration debated for months about how to respond to the alleged Russian hacking, worried both about escalating tensions with Russia and about being accused of trying to unfairly help Hillary Clinton's campaign.
McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and again in December 2016, according to the Post, and after the election, when the CIA briefed members of Congress of their assessment that Russia had intervened in the election to help Mr.  Trump win the presidency, more than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system. The Senate majority leader told the administration he'd view any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly as an act of partisan politics. 
—  Shani Benezra


FACT CHECK: Sanders claims Obama said Cuba had made progress on education

Sanders defends his past comments on authoritarian governments 02:44

CLAIM:  Sanders defended his comments on Fidel Castro by claiming that President Barack Obama acknowledged Cuba's progress on education.
SANDERS: "What Barack Obama said is they made great progress on education and health care.  That was Barack Obama."
FACT CHECK: Half true.
Bernie Sanders was attacked by rivals for his comments on "60 Minutes" defending the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. On "60 Minutes," he said, "You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?"
During the debate, he said President Obama, too, had praised Cuba's "great progress on education and health care." Mr. Obama, as he sought to reset of relations with the country, did acknowledge progress Cuba had made on education. 
But he did not directly credit Castro for the improvement, as Sanders had. In remarks at a joint press conference in Havana in 2016, Mr. Obama said, "The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care." 
CLAIM: Biden said President Obama "did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government."
At the aforementioned news conference in Havana, Mr. Obama said, "The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care."
He did go on to say, "At the same time, as we do wherever we go around the world, I made it clear that the United States will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future."

Eleanor Watson


FACT CHECK: Bloomberg says Trump fired pandemics specialist 2 years ago and cut the CDC

Candidates discuss coronavirus outbreak and containment 04:09

CLAIM:  Bloomberg says President Trump fired the U.S. pandemics specialist and cut the CDC.

"You read about the virus. What's really happening here, the president fired the pandemic specialists in this country two years ago, so there's nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing. And he's defunded Centers for Disease Control, CDC, so we don't have the organization we need."
On the pandemics specialist — according to the Washington Post, "The top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic has left the administration, and the global health security team he oversaw has been disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton." 
On CDC funding: President Trump has consistently requested funding decreases for the CDC in his annual budget requests, for 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. 
His most recent budget would cut CDC funding by 9% overall, the New York Times noted, though Congress may appropriate more than what the president proposes.

— Rob Legare


FACT CHECK: Biden's role in stopping Ebola from spreading in the U.S.

CLAIM: Biden says he was part of ensuring Ebola pandemic didn't reach U.S. during Obama administration.
BIDEN: "What we did with Ebola — I was part of making sure that pandemic did not get to the United States, saved millions of lives. And what we did. We set up. I helped set up that office in the presidency.. The president's office on diseases that are pandemic diseases. We increased the budget of the CDC. We increased the NIH budget. The president today has wiped all that out. We did it. We stopped it."
FACT CHECK: Mostly True
It is accurate that in 2018, officials at the National Security Council who were leading the response to pandemics left the administration. Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer left in May of 2018. It was part of an NSC reorganization led by then-national security adviser John Bolton during the Trump administration.
Biden said he led the Obama administration's response to the Ebola outbreak. The president appointed Ron Klain to coordinate the U.S. Ebola response. Klain had been Biden's Chief of Staff – so it is at least partially true that Biden was involved.
President Trump's budgets have called for CDC and FDA reductions. This year's budget request calls for a 9% cut.
In May of 2017, the former director of the CDC tweeted about the dangers of the proposed cuts, proposed to be 17%.
"Proposed CDC budget: unsafe at any level of enactment. Would increase illness, death, risks to Americans, and health care costs," Dr. Tom Frieden tweeted in May 2017.

Andy Triay


FACT CHECK: Did Biden "beat the NRA twice?"

CLAIM: Biden says he "beat the NRA twice."

BIDEN CLAIM: I beat the NRA twice. I got assault weapons banned. I got magazines that could not hold more than 10 rounds in them, and got them eliminated, except we had a thing called an election with hanging chads in Florida and it was not reauthorized. In addition to that, I passed the Brady Bill with waiting periods. I led that fight. 

Biden points to the Brady Bill and its background checks provision, as well as his efforts to get the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban passed and signed into law to illustrate how he "beat the NRA twice."

On the Brady bill, Biden did sponsor the Senate legislation that changed the waiting period for background checks from seven to five days. While that measure didn't pass the Senate, the final version that reinstated the five-day waiting period while installing an instant background check system was passed into law on Nov. 30, 1993. 

Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Biden and Senator Diane Feinstein led the way on the assault weapons ban. Feinstein sponsored the 1994 bill in the Senate, and it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The 10-year ban restricted the manufacture, transfer, and possession of certain semiautomatic assault weapons and large capacity ammunition feeding devices, but it only applied to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment. It also banned high-capacity magazines capable of holding more than 10 bullets. Biden "fought hard to extend" the ban in 2004, but Congress did not reauthorize the ban, so it expired that year. The ban had loopholes, however, as the Washington Post pointed out. Gun companies were often able to get around banned gun elements by making slight modifications to weapons.

Shani Benezra


FACT CHECK: Does it cost $500 billion to administer private health insurance plans?

CLAIM:  Sanders: What we need to do is to do what every other major country on earth does, guarantee health care to all people, not have thousands of separate insurance plans which are costing us some $500 billion a year to administer.
FACT CHECK:   Partly True, according to 2017 studies by The Lancet and the Annals of Internal Medicine, but the total of $500 billion under Medicare for All saved seems generous. The two estimates noted here estimate savings of $220 billion or $450 billion.
From The Lancet:   "Although health care expenditure per capita is higher in the USA than in any other country, more than 37 million Americans do not have health insurance, and 41 million more have inadequate access to care. Efforts are ongoing to repeal the Affordable Care Act which would exacerbate health-care inequities. By contrast, a universal system, such as that proposed in the Medicare for All Act, has the potential to transform the availability and efficiency of American health-care services. Taking into account both the costs of coverage expansion and the savings that would be achieved through the Medicare for All Act, we calculate that a single-payer, universal health-care system is likely to lead to a 13% savings in national health-care expenditure, equivalent to more than U.S. $450 billion annually (based on the value of the US$ in 2017). 

The entire system could be funded with less financial outlay than is incurred by employers and households paying for health-care premiums combined with existing government allocations. This shift to single-payer health care would provide the greatest relief to lower-income households.
From the Annals of Internal Medicine:   "The economic case for single-payer reform is compelling. Private insurers' overhead currently averages 12.4% versus 2.2% in traditional Medicare (2). Reducing overhead to Medicare's level would save approximately $220 billion this year"
Maggie Dore


FACT CHECK: Has Bloomberg supported GOP candidates?

Elizabeth Warren goes after Bloomberg's record of funding GOP Senate campaigns 01:42

CLAIM: Elizabeth Warren says Bloomberg has supported Republicans. 

"I mean that Mayor Bloomberg — let's think of it this way — we're here in Charleston and you know who is going to be in Charleston later this week, is Donald Trump. He's going to be here to raise money for his buddy Senator Lindsey Graham. Who funded Lindsey Graham's campaign for re-election last time- it was Mayor Bloomberg. And that's not the only right-wing Senator Mayor Bloomberg has funded.
In 2016, he dumped $12 million into the Pennsylvania Senate race to help re-elect an anti-choice right-wing Republican senator and I just want to say, the woman challenger was terrific. She lost by a single point. 
In 2012 he scooped in to try to defend another Republican senator against a women challenger —  that was me. It didn't work, but he tried hard."
According to the FEC, Bloomberg gave $250,000 to West Main Street Values Pac Inc on May 24, 2014. West Main Street Values Pac supported Lindsey Graham in 2014.
The New York Times noted that in 2012, Bloomberg "agreed to host a fund-raiser at his Upper East Side town house for the re-election campaign of Senator Scott P. Brown, a Republican, who is being challenged by a fiery consumer advocate, Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who is also a professor at Harvard Law School." 
FEC data says that Bloomberg and Independence USA PAC spent at least $5,911,092.98 in support of Republican Senator Pat Toomey. Toomey beat Democrat Katie McGinty by 1.5% in 2016. There are also reports of ad buys in the Pennsylvania race, but cannot yet find how much the PAC spent on those ads.

Rob Legare

By Caroline Linton

FACT CHECK: Is Buttigieg's campaign funded by billionaires?

CLAIM: Sanders has criticized Buttigieg for having a campaign funded by billionaires.

SANDERS' CLAIM:. "Pete has gotten funding from over 50 billionaires."

BUTTIGIEG'S CLAIM: Something that is untrue about my campaign, the idea that my campaign is funded by billionaires.

SANDERS: I didn't say that Pete.

BUTTIGIEG: "50 people, all right, in Charleston alone, just in Charleston, over 2,000 people have contributed to my campaign. That means the dollars that have come to my campaign just from Charleston is more than the dollars that have come from the fifty people that you mention." 
FACT CHECK: Sanders: Slightly exaggerated. Buttigieg has 40 billionaires supporting him. 

Buttigieg: Mostly true (not enough data available for part of check).

 It is unclear whether the 2,000 individual donations from voters in Charleston have contributed more than the billionaires mentioned by Buttigieg tonight. A Forbes analysis found that there are 40 billionaires supporting Buttigieg, not 50. Thirteen of those donors have given exclusively to Buttigieg. 
According to Open Secrets, Buttigieg has raised a total of $81,490,817. Numbers released earlier this month by his campaign show he raised $6 million in the first month of this year, and an additional $11 million so far this month. Earlier this month, he announced 40,000 donors and $4 million raised since the Iowa caucuses.

According to, Buttigieg has received over $46 million in large contributions, meaning over $200 – making up 56.5% of his donations. Smaller contributions, less than $200, 43.39% of his fundraising – total nearly $36 million.
The Washington Post offers this handy comparison of the candidates' decidedly non-billionaire  January small-dollar fundraising (share of total raised in January that came from donors giving lower than $200):

  • Sanders: 53%
  • Warren: 48%
  • Klobuchar: 44%
  • Gabbard: 39%
  • Biden: 35%
  • Buttigieg: 29%

—  Clare Hymes


FACT CHECK: Sanders voted against Brady Bill five times

CBS News Democratic debate — Charleston, South Carolina
Democratic presidential hopefuls Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. Getty

CLAIM: Biden: "We talk about progressive, let's talk about being progressive. Within walking distance to here is Mother Emanuel church. Nine people shot dead by a white supremacist. Bernie voted five times against the Brady Bill. And waited — a waiting period of 12 hours. I'm not saying he's responsible for the nine deaths but that man would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period would have been what I suggested until you are cleared."

DETAILS: Sanders did vote against certain provisions in the the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, or the "Brady Bill" while in the House and against the final version in November 1993. Politifact has a breakdown of his voting record from when Hillary Clinton made the same accusation.
According to Politifact, Sanders voted against the Brady bill in May 1991, November 1991, November 1993 twice in the same day, and against the final version later signed into law in 1993. He did support an instant background check amendment, however, and he voted against an amendment to end state waiting periods, Politifact noted. 
— Shani Benezra


FACT CHECK: Bloomberg's record on "stop-and-frisk"

Michael Bloomberg defends record on race 01:26

Bloomberg: "We let it get out of control, and when I realized that, I cut it back by 95%. And I've apologized and asked for forgiveness. I've met with black leaders to try to get an understanding of how I can better position myself and what I should have done and what I should do next time."
The New York stop and frisk program pre-dates Michael Bloomberg's time in office. But as mayor of New York, he saw the number of stop and frisk stops rise – a federal judge eventually ordered stop and frisk to be scaled back, and Bloomberg appealed the ruling but also oversaw a decline in numbers.
He was mayor of New York between 2002 and 2013. According to court documents, the New York City Police Department ("NYPD") made 4.4 million stops between January 2004 and June 2012. Over 80% of these 4.4 million stops were of blacks or Hispanics.
The number of stops per year rose sharply from 314,000 in 2004 to a high of 686,000 in 2011. A federal judge ordered the practice scaled back in 2013 and according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, in 2013, there were fewer — some 192,000 stops. 
—   Andy Triay


FACT CHECK: Was Warren fired from a teaching job because she was pregnant?

CLAIM: Warren: "When I was 21 years old I got my first job as a special education teacher. I loved that job. And at the end of the first year I was visibly pregnant. The principle wished me luck and gave my job to someone else. Pregnancy discrimination? You bet. But I was 21 years old, I didn't have a union to protect me and I didn't have any federal law on my side. So I packed my stuff and I went home."
FACT CHECK: Mostly True.
On the campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren often tells the story of how she was fired from her first teaching job in 1971 because she was pregnant. She has received criticism.

In an exclusive interview with CBS News in October, Warren said she stands by her characterizations of why she left the job. 

"All I know is I was 22 years old, I was 6 months pregnant, and the job that I had been promised for the next year was going to someone else. The principal said they were going to hire someone else for my job," she said. 

The "showed me the door" anecdote came up often on the campaign trail until recently. And now some outlets have found a 2007 interview Warren gave in which she presents the story in a different light. 

In an interview that year at the University of California, Berkeley, Warren gave the first known public account of her time at Riverdale. 

"I worked in a public school system with the children with disabilities. I did that for a year, and then that summer I didn't have the education courses, so I was on an 'emergency certificate,' it was called," Warren said in 2007. "I went back to graduate school and took a couple of courses in education and said, 'I don't think this is going to work out for me.' I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years."

Asked by CBS News why she told the story differently at Berkeley a decade ago, Warren said her life since her election to the Senate in 2012 caused her to "open up" about her past. "After becoming a public figure I opened up more about different pieces in my life and this was one of them. I wrote about it in my book when I became a U.S. Senator," she said in a statement from her campaign. 

—  Ellee Watson and Zak Hudak

By Caroline Linton

FACT CHECK: Did Sanders want to primary Obama?

CLAIM: Biden: "Being progressive, he (Sanders) thought Barack Obama — he wanted to primary — he wanted to primary Barack Obama."

FACT CHECK: Partly true. Sanders thought it would be a "good idea" for Mr. Obama to be primaried, but he did not plan to challenge Mr. Obama himself.

Sanders did bring up the possibility of a primary challenge to President Obama on the Thom Hartmann radio show on July 22, 2011, but he did not say that he himself would run.

"So my suggestion is, I think one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him," Sanders said, "and I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing…Discouragement is not an option. I think it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition."

The idea was mentioned again in a recent article in  The Atlantic, and Sanders was asked about the story at a February 24, 2020 CNN Town Hall. Here's that exchange: 

CUOMO: ..."The Atlantic" had the reporting. They published an initial report that said then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to talk you into it.
SANDERS: No, not true at all. And call up Harry, and he will deny that. There's another one that involved Senator Leahy. He will deny it, as well. Just wasn't true.

I did not give any consideration — you know, I'm the senator from a small state. And I did not give any consideration to running for president of the United States until 2015. And that was — I was looking around and I thought that the working families of this country needed a progressive voice.

And the truth is, as you will recall, Chris, there was a lot of discussion about Elizabeth Warren running for president. And I waited. And Senator Warren said, no, she's not going to run. I did run. But the idea of running in 2012, absolutely untrue.
—   Maggie Dore

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