Fact check: Trump ignores U.S. trade strengths in G7 dispute
President Donald Trump is presenting a lopsided portrait of how the world does business with the U.S to rationalize his escalating trade dispute with allies.
At the same time, he's glossing over aspects of the U.S. economy that don't support his faulty contention that it's the best it's ever been. The complexities of health care for veterans are also set aside as he hails a new era in the Department of Veterans Affairs' system.
A look at some of his statements over the past week and the reality behind them:
PRESIDENT TRUMP: "Last year, they lost 800 — we as a nation, over the years — but the latest number is $817 billion on trade. That's ridiculous and it's unacceptable. And everybody was told that." — news conference Saturday at the Group of Seven summit in Canada.
THE FACTS: Mr. Trump's bottom-line number in his dispute with trading partners is wrong. The U.S. ran a trade deficit last year of $568.4 billion, says his administration's Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, not $817 billion.
Mr. Trump refers only to the deficit in goods. Last year, the U.S. bought $811 billion more in goods from other countries than other countries bought from the U.S. But the U.S. had a surplus in trade in services, which brought the actual trade deficit down.
He made a similar error in a tweet Thursday, saying "The EU trade surplus with the U.S. is $151 Billion." It was $101 billion.
The U.S. is more competitive in services than in goods overall, and services are a big part of the trade equation. Mr. Trump glosses over that aspect of trade.
He made the same error when asserting earlier this year that the U.S. suffers a trade deficit with Canada. But figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows a trade surplus with Canada of $2.7 billion last year.
Figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce showed a trade surplus with Canada of $2.7 billion last year. Mr. Trump ignored the trade in services that the U.S. does with Canada, which flips a deficit into a surplus.
MR. TRUMP: "Why isn't the European Union and Canada informing the public that for years they have used massive Trade Tariffs and non-monetary Trade Barriers against the U.S. Totally unfair to our farmers, workers & companies. Take down your tariffs & barriers or we will more than match you!" — tweet Thursday.
MR. TRUMP: "Farmers have not been doing well for 15 years. Mexico, Canada, China and others have treated them unfairly. By the time I finish trade talks, that will change. Big trade barriers against U.S. farmers, and other businesses, will finally be broken. Massive trade deficits no longer!' — tweet Monday.
THE FACTS: Whatever his beef with farm trade with specific countries, he's wrong in suggesting U.S. agriculture runs a trade deficit. The U.S. exports more food products than it imports, running a $17.4 billion surplus last year. It's long been a bright spot in the trade picture and it's why many U.S. farmers are worried about losing markets as Mr. Trump retreats from, renegotiates or disparages trade deals.
U.S. farmers do brisk business with the three countries he complains about in the tweet, two of them under the umbrella of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Mr. Trump is threatening to leave if it's not recast to give the U.S. greater advantage. The U.S. exported $20.5 billion in agricultural products last year to Canada, the largest market for U.S. farmers. That made for a modest deficit of $1.8 billion. The U.S. exported $18.6 billion in farm goods to Mexico, running a deficit of $6 billion.
The U.S. has a lopsided advantage with China on farm goods, in contrast to manufactured products. It sold $21 billion in agricultural products to China in 2016, for a surplus of $16.7 billion.
The Agriculture Department says exports of food products have grown "steadily over the last two decades."
Mr. Trump's unrelievedly negative view of the EU may be grounded in a substantial trade deficit with the continent, but his administration's trade office takes a longer and more benevolent view of the relationship.
"Two-way U.S.-EU trade has been roughly balanced over time," says the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, "and the very high levels of foreign investment accounted for by each in the other's markets means that the trans-Atlantic economy is arguably the most integrated on Earth."
MR. TRUMP: "We have the strongest economy that we've ever had in the United States — in the history of the United States. We have the best unemployment numbers." — news conference Saturday.
MR. TRUMP: "Best Economy & Jobs EVER, and much more." — tweet Monday referring to achievement in his first 500 days in office.
THE FACTS: May's unemployment rate of 3.8 percent is not the best ever. And the economy has seen many periods of stronger growth.
The lowest unemployment rate since World War II was reached in 1953, when it averaged 2.9 percent, almost a full point lower than today. The job market is certainly strong, with unemployment at an 18-year low, and if it drops another tenth of a point, it'll be the lowest since 1969.
Yet the jobless rate was at or below 4 percent for four straight years back then, from 1966 through 1969, and wages were rising more quickly. The cost of items such as college and health care was much lower then.
Overall the economy has yet to show it can sustain growth in excess of 3 percent, as Mr. Trump has promised.
To be sure, the economy is the strongest it's been since the recession, which ended in mid-2009. Unemployment is at its lowest point in 18 years, with employers hiring more workers in May than economists had forecast. Economic activity, which grew a modest 2.3 percent in the first three months of the year, is spurting to well above 3 percent in the second quarter, analysts say.
But in the 1990s boom, still the longest on record, the U.S. economy expanded at an average annual pace of 4.3 percent for five years, from 1996 through 2000. In the 1980s, growth averaged 4.6 percent annually from 1983 through 1987.
FAMILIES AT THE BORDER
MR. TRUMP: "Separating families at the Border is the fault of bad legislation passed by the Democrats. Border Security laws should be changed but the Dems can't get their act together! Started the Wall." — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: No law mandates that parents must be separated from their children at the border, and it's not a policy Democrats have pushed or can change alone as the minority in Congress. Children are probably being separated from the parents at the border at an accelerated rate because of a new "zero tolerance policy" being put in place by Mr. Trump's own administration. Announced April 6 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the policy directs authorities to prosecute all instances of illegal border crossings, even against people with few or no previous offenses.
Administration officials are quick to note that Sessions' policy makes no mention of separating families. That is correct. But under U.S. protocol, if parents are jailed, their children are separated from them because the children aren't charged with a crime.
So while separating families might not be official U.S. policy, it is a direct consequence of Sessions' zero-tolerance approach.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 650 children were separated from parents at the border during a two-week period in May.
MR. TRUMP: "I have to tell you, the Coast Guard saved 16,000 people. ... Saved 16,000 people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn't work out too well. That didn't work out too well." — hurricane preparation briefing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: There is no indication the Coast Guard was busy saving the lives of foolhardy hurricane gawkers drifting off the Texas coast. Texas officials are baffled at Mr. Trump's words and the Coast Guard does not back them up. Some of the most powerful images from Hurricane Harvey were of flooded Houston streets swarming with volunteer boaters who answered the call of overwhelmed first responders and used their personal watercraft to rescue families from their homes.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Edward Wargo of Houston said the service didn't take note of how or why people got stranded during Harvey, but said most rescues appeared to occur within city limits and neighborhoods. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he had "no information one way or the other" about Mr. Trump's claim that people were on the water to watch Harvey. But the outgoing speaker of the Texas House, Republican Joe Straus, rejected the idea.
"The people who took their boats into the water during Harvey were not storm-watchers," Straus tweeted. "They were heroes who went toward danger to rescue friends, neighbors, strangers. Texans helping Texans in a time of desperate need."
VETERANS' HEALTH CARE
MR. TRUMP: "In the campaign, I also promised that we would fight for Veterans Choice. ... It seemed like if they're waiting on line for nine days and they can't see a doctor, why aren't they going outside to see a doctor and take care of themselves, and we pay the bill? It's less expensive for us, it works out much better, and it's immediate care. And that's what we're doing." — remarks Wednesday during the signing of a bill intended to give veterans more access to private health care as an alternative to the VA system.
THE FACTS: The care provided under the Choice private-sector program is not as immediate as Mr. Trump suggests, nor does it always work out much better. Currently, only veterans who endure waits of at least 30 days — not nine days — for an appointment at a VA facility are eligible to receive care from private doctors at government expense. Under a newly expanded Choice program that will take at least a year to implement, veterans will still have to meet certain criteria before they can see a private physician, such as when a local VA facility does not offer the services required or veterans face an "unusual or excessive burden" to getting the care they need.
Waits for a private doctor are not always shorter. The VA has said its medical facilities are "often 40 percent better in terms of wait times" compared with the private sector.
There also is little evidence that providing private care to veterans compared with treatment at one of VA's 1,300 clinics and hospitals will be "less expensive." Experts generally agree that VA care is less costly due to economies of scale. A congressional commission in 2016 determined that giving veterans more flexibility to see doctors outside the VA system would probably increase costs, due in part to growing demand from veterans who are drawn by the idea of picking their own doctor.
MR. TRUMP: "This bill speeds up the claims process, increases the health services, expands access to walk-in clinics, and fights opioid addiction."
THE FACTS: It's not clear whether a newly expanded Choice program will speed up the claims process.
A Government Accountability Office report released this past week found that despite the Choice program's guarantee of providing an appointment within 30 days, veterans waited an average of 51 to 64 days; the process took as long as 70 days. Investigators faulted bureaucratic inefficiency and understaffing at VA, which contributed to delays in making referrals and scheduling appointments. They warned of continuing problems of long waits under a newly expanded Choice program until the VA is able to more easily exchange veterans' medical records with outside physicians; the VA has said achieving that could take years.
Pointing to faulty data, government investigators said the VA "cannot determine whether the Choice program has helped to achieve the goal of alleviating veterans' wait times for care."
MR. TRUMP, on expanding the Choice program: "This has been for years; for 30, 40 years, they've been trying to get this done, and they haven't been able to. And we got it done."
THE FACTS: It's not done. Mr. Trump signed into law a bill that would loosen restrictions for veterans seeking medical care outside the VA system, but it'll take at least a year to implement and its actual scope in expanding choice to veterans will depend on the next VA secretary, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. A successful expansion of private care will also depend on an overhaul of electronic health records at VA to allow for a seamless sharing of records with private physicians. That overhaul will take at least 10 years to be complete.
Limited money for the program could also hamper its effectiveness. A group of senators is seeking to pay for the law by adding new money to cover the VA private care program, but the White House has been quietly working to block that plan, saying it is "anathema to responsible spending." The White House is insisting that added costs of the newly expanded private care program be paid for by cutting spending elsewhere at the VA, something that major veterans groups generally oppose.
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