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First presidential debate: Fact-checking Trump and Biden on mail ballots, the economy, COVID and more

Fact-checking the first presidential debate
Fact-checking the first presidential debate after a chaotic night in Cleveland 02:39

During their first presidential debate, President Trump and Joe Biden made a number of claims that raised questions. CBS News' fact-checking team examined the truth of some of them. Here's what we found.

Trump fact check: Trump says mailmen in West Virginia are "selling the ballots"

TRUMP STATEMENT: "Take a look at West Virginia — mailmen selling the ballots. They're being sold. They're being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country."

CLAIM: Trump says mailmen in West Virginia are "selling the ballots"


DETAILS: A West Virginia mail carrier pleaded guilty to attempted election fraud and "injury to the mail" after admitting he had altered the mail-in request forms for absentee ballots from eight voters in April 2020, according to a statement by the Department of Justice.

The West Virginia secretary of state's office investigated and found that party affiliations on five ballot request forms had been altered from "Democrat" to "Republican." The three other ballot request forms had been altered, though the party affiliation had not been changed. There were no charges of selling ballots brought against the mailman.

BY: Sara Cook

Trump fact check: Trump claims they're "losing 30 and 40 percent" of ballots

TRUMP STATEMENT: "They're losing 30 and 40 percent. It's a fraud. It's a fraud and it's a shame."

CLAIM: Trump says "they're" (an unknown entity) "losing 30 and 40 percent" of ballots. 


DETAILS: Mr. Trump says "they're" — an unknown entity that's presumably the U.S. Postal Service or possibly election stations — losing "30 and 40%" of mail-in ballots. There seems to be no source or basis for this claim.

The president has mentioned this "30 and 40%" figure in a recent interview with Fox News. However, he has previously used different percentages when talking about lost ballots. He said in August that "20%" of ballots are lost by the post office, and later in that same speech said it was "20 to 30%." 

He may be alluding to the recent ballot problems in Paterson, New Jersey, where election officials ended up throwing out 19% of submitted ballots. However, that was the percentage of ballots that were deemed invalid, not the percentage lost in the mail.

Several states have previously — even recently — reported problems with incorrect or incomplete ballots, but there seems to be no evidence of any state ever reporting that 30 to 40% of ballots being "lost."

BY: Kristin Brown

Trump fact check: Trump says crime has increased 100 to 200% in New York

TRUMP STATEMENT: "If you look at New York, where it's going up like nobody's ever seen anything, the numbers are going up 100, 150, 200% of crime."

CLAIM: Trump says crime has increased 100-200% in New York.

FACT CHECK: Misleading

DETAILS: The New York Police Department released citywide crime statistics on September 3, 2020 for the month of August.

  • There has been a 0.7% increase in total crime (including murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny autos) between August 2019 and August 2020.
  • Shooting incidents in New York City have increased 165.9% between August 2019 and August 2020 (242 vs. 91).
  • Murders have increased 47% compared to August 2019.
  • Year-to-date, through August 31, there has been an 87% increase in citywide shooting incidents.

BY: Sara Cook

Trump fact check: Obama had the "slowest recovery" since 1929

TRUMP STATEMENT: "They (The Obama administration) had the slowest recovery — economic recovery — since 1929. It was the slowest recovery. Also they took over something that was downhill."

CLAIM: Trump said President Obama and Biden presided over the slowest economic recovery since 1929.


THE DETAILS: While economists have pointed out that the economy was unusually slow to snap back after the downturn of 2008-2009, Mr. Trump is wrong when he says it was the slowest recovery since the Great Depression of 1929.

In fact, the 2001 recession brought on by the dotcom boom that popped around March of 2001, was slower than the 2008-2009 recovery under Mr. Obama.

Six years after the 2001 recession ended, the number of jobs had grown by just 6%, compared with 8% six years after the economic collapse of the Great Recession. The recovery that started during Mr. Obama's presidency was also longer than the 2001 recovery as well. The U.S. economy added 2.3 million jobs in the last year of the Obama administration. 

Mr. Trump said that the corporate tax cuts that were passed in late 2017 created a huge uptick in jobs. In fact, 2.3 million jobs were created in the year following the tax cuts, roughly the same as during the last year of Mr. Obama's presidency, and only 200,000 more than the year before the tax cuts. In the second year after the tax cuts passed by Republicans and signed by Mr. Trump, job growth dropped by 180,000.

BY: Stephen Gandel

Biden fact check: Trump's "own former spokesperson" said "riots and chaos and violence help his cause"


BIDEN: "You know his own former spokesperson said, you know, riots and chaos and violence help his cause. That's what this is about.  

TRUMP: "I don't know who said that."  

BIDEN: "I do."  

TRUMP: "Who?" 

BIDEN: "Kellyanne Conway"  

TRUMP: "I don't think she said that." 


DETAILS: In defending Mr. Trump, Conway cited polling that suggested that people want more law enforcement in their cities, specifically African American and Hispanic citizens. She made these comments in an interview on "Fox & Friends." 

She began by quoting an unnamed businesswoman from Wisconsin. "I was thinking of a very specific small businesswoman," Conway said. "She got her store ready all over again for the post-COVID lockdown lifting, and then had to do it all over again after she was vandalized and looted. And this just can't stand. I also noticed there was a quote today from a restaurateur in Wisconsin saying, 'Are you protesters trying to get Donald Trump reelected?'"

"He knows, full stop, and I guess Mayor Pete knows, full stop, that the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order."

BY: Adam Aigner-Treworgy

Trump fact check: Moscow mayor's wife gave Hunter Biden $3.5M

TRUMP STATEMENT: "The mayor of Moscow, his wife, gave your son three and a half million dollars."

CLAIM:  Hunter Biden received financial compensation from Elena Baturina for consultancy work.

FACT CHECK: Misleading, no evidence

THE DETAILS:  President Trump was referencing a claim made in a recent controversial report issued by the Republican majority on the Senate Finance and Homeland Security Committees. 

The report, which follows a yearlong investigation mounted by Republican Senators Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affair Committee, alleges that "Hunter Biden received a $3.5 million wire transfer from Elena Baturina, the wife of the former mayor of Moscow." 

The GOP report claims that the money was transferred during a "consultancy agreement" between Baturina and Rosemont Seneca Thornton, an investment firm it alleges was co-founded by Hunter Biden. An attorney for Hunter Biden has repeatedly denied that his client co-founded the company, and therefore did not receive the $3.5 million.

"Hunter Biden had no interest in and was not a co-founder of Rosemont Seneca Thornton, so the claim that he was paid $3.5 million is false," Hunter Biden's lawyer George Mesires told PolitiFact.

Grassley and Johnson said the report was focused solely on records from the Obama administration and the consulting firm Blue Star Strategies, but have not publicly shared any documents that can substantiate their claim about the former vice president's son. According to PolitiFact, Democratic Senate staff who've seen the documents referenced by Republicans said they don't tie Biden to an account for the company.

Politifact noted that Hunter Biden had co-founded a firm called Rosemont Seneca in 2009, but it's not possible to know whether Rosemont Seneca Thornton involves Hunter Biden without access to the ownership documents of the entitity, which is private. "The partnership with Thornton — even though it uses the Rosemont Seneca name — could exist without other partners in Rosemont Seneca having a stake. A business partner could have created this entity on his own," Politifact said.

Top Democrats on both committees have dismissed Grassley and Johnson's investigation, calling it "an attempted political hit job facilitated by the State Department" that is spreading Russian disinformation.

BY: Audrey McNamara

Trump fact check: Trump claims 308,000 died under Obama administration at the VA because they "didn't have proper health care"

TRUMP STATEMENT: "A fixing of the VA — which was a mess under [Obama] — 308,000 people died because they didn't have proper health care. It was a mess. And we now got a 91% approval rating at the VA, our vets. We take care of our vets."

CLAIM: 308,000 veterans died because they "didn't have proper health care" at the VA.

FACT CHECK: Misleading

The president's number was off, and his details were wrong. He appears to be referencing a report issued in 2015 that found that some 307,000 records stalled in the VA healthcare system. These were for veterans who were deceased. Some framed this as evidence these veterans may have died waiting for VA health care, but the report specifically says the data was so poor that it cannot verify how many of those records were for veterans "who applied for health care benefits or when they may have applied."

The report also analyzed records going back many years, and found that more than 250,000 of the veterans later identified as deceased had died before 2010.

DETAILS: Here are the VA inspector general's report and two quotes relevant to this claim. "ES" refers to the Enrollment System of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA):

"As of September 2014, more than 307,000 pending ES records, or about 35 percent of all pending records, were for individuals reported as deceased by the Social Security Administration," the report said, adding that because of "data limitations," "we could not determine specifically how many pending ES records represent veterans who applied for health care benefits."

The enrollment program "did not effectively define, collect, and manage enrollment data," and VHA "lacked adequate procedures to identify date of death information and implement necessary updates to the individual's status."

Later, the report is more specific. "[P]ending ES records included entries for individuals reported to be deceased," it said. "As of September 30, 2014, over 307,000 pending ES records were for individuals reported as deceased by the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, due to the data weaknesses identified in Allegation 1, we cannot determine specifically how many pending ES records represent veterans who applied for health care benefits or when they may have applied." 

Citing one record for a veteran who died in 1993, the report notes when the individuals whose records were stalled had been recorded as deceased in the Social Security Administration's database:

  • Individuals who died in the last 2 years: 30,706 (10%)
  • Individuals who died between 2 and 4 years ago: 18,100 (6%)
  • Individuals who died more than 4 years ago: 258,367 (84%)

It appears that a number of deaths did take place during the Obama administration, perhaps as many as 50,000 or more. But this report clearly states that the vast majority occurred before Obama took office. 

On Mr. Trump's claim of a "91% approval rating at the VA," a 2019 survey released by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. found that 90% of veterans would recommend VA care to fellow veterans. Here's the relevant quote from the VA press release: 

"The survey, which asked Veterans about their experience with VA health care since the MISSION Act was implemented, found that more than 80% were satisfied with their VA health care. Nearly 75% of Veteran respondents reported improvements at their local VA, and more than 90% would recommend VA care to fellow Veterans." 

But a similar survey released under Mr. Obama in 2013, found similarly high ratings over the previous decade: "One signature finding for 2013 is the continuing high degree of loyalty to VA among Veterans,with a score of 93 percent favorable. This score has remained high (above 90 percent) for the past ten years."

BY: Adam Aigner-Treworgy

Biden fact check: Manufacturing under Trump "went in the hole," even before COVID-19

BIDEN STATEMENT: "Because of what [Trump] did  — even before COVID, manufacturing went in the hole. Manufacturing went in the hole." 

CLAIM: Biden says under President Trump, even before the coronavirus pandemic, manufacturing was suffering, "went into a hole.

FACT CHECK: Misleading

From the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017 through February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the U.S. added about 443,000 manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

DETAILS: As Politifact noted in July 2020, "manufacturing employment did increase from mid-2017 to early 2019, but at roughly the same pace as it did for most of Obama's tenure."

From February 2020 through August 2020, around 720,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost.

Politifact also noted in July 2020 that by another measure — gross manufacturing output by quarter — there was a rise in output in the first year and a half of Mr. Trump's presidency, but this also was not much faster than under the Obama administration. And hourly earnings for manufacturing workers have also continued to rise under Mr. Trump "much as they did under Obama."

BY: Ellis Kim

Biden fact check: "There is 100 million people who have pre-existing conditions"

BIDEN CLAIM: "There is a hundred million people that have pre-existing conditions, and they'll be taken away as well, those pre-existing condition — those insurance companies are going to love this. That's not appropriate to do this before this election."

FACT CHECK: Mostly true

THE DETAILS: In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services released a study which found that 23% to 51% of non-elderly Americans (those under age 65) — or 61 million to 133 million people — have pre-existing health conditions.

BY: Sara Cook

Trump fact check: He claims he banned travelers from China early and that Biden called his ban "xenophobic"

TRUMP STATEMENT: "You (to Biden) don't think we should've closed our country because you thought it was too-- it was terrible. You wouldn't have closed it for another two months."

CLAIM: Mr. Trump says that he banned travelers from China early on during the pandemic, and that Biden called that ban "xenophobic" and "racist."
FACT CHECK: Inconclusive: Mr. Trump's decision to "close our country" wasn't as strict as he claims, and while Biden criticized it, he did not use the terms the president accused him of using. 
THE DETAILS: Mr. Trump's "ban" on travelers from China wasn't a full ban — it allowed travel from China's Hong Kong and Macao territories. Largely in line with restrictions other countries around the world were implementing at the time, the limitations on travel took effect February 2, after the virus was already widely prevalent in China, according to the Associated Press.  

After Mr. Trump's restrictions took effect, the New York Times reported that 40,000 Americans and other authorized travelers made the trip from China to the U.S. The AP reported that more than 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals also entered the country after the restrictions were put in place. 

While scientists and experts have praised the travel restrictions, there is little evidence to support the claim that it saved the large number of lives Trump has repeatedly stated. 

As for Mr. Trump's claim about Biden, during an Iowa campaign appearance on the same day the travel restrictions were announced, Biden criticized the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic. 

"This is no time for Donald Trump's record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science," Biden said. He did not directly tie this statement to the president's recently announced travel restrictions, and the campaign claims he was not directly referring to the China travel ban. Biden also repeatedly accused the president of xenophobia on Twitter. 

Eventually, in April 2020, the campaign said Biden supported the ban. "Science supported this ban, therefore he did too," said deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield. 
BY: Adam Aigner-Treworgy

Trump fact check: Young children aren't vulnerable to COVID-19

TRUMP STATEMENT: "We didn't know anything about the disease. Now, we found that elderly people with heart problems and diabetes and different problems are very, very vulnerable. We learned a lot. Young children aren't — even younger people aren't. We learned a lot."

CLAIM:  Young children aren't "vulnerable" to COVID.
FACT CHECK: Misleading
THE DETAILS: While data does show that young children are less likely to contract COVID-19 than adults, it is not true that children have not been affected. It is also not true that children are incapable of spreading the virus.
Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that as of September 24, children represented only 10.5% of all cases in states reporting cases by age. 
The AAP also says "available data indicated that COVID-19-associated hospitalization and death is uncommon in children" and that "it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is rare among children."
However, the AAP also reports that over 624,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic.
Recent Centers for Disease Control data show that children younger than 10 are capable of transmitting COVID  but specifies that teenagers have been twice as likely to contract the virus as elementary school age children.
Although Mr. Trump regularly asserts that children are largely unaffected by COVID-19, he told journalist Bob Woodward in March that "plenty of young people" were affected by the pandemic. It's not clear exactly what age group Trump was referring to, however. 

Bottom line: The CDC and most experts acknowledge that the effect of COVID on young children is still unclear, and that initial data shows relatively low infection rates, but to say young children "aren't" vulnerable to the disease is false.

BY: Kristin Brown 

Kathryn Farrell contributed to this report.

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