Trump makes so many false claims, CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale has lost count
Daniel Dale never planned to spend more than four years fact-checking Donald Trump.
In September 2016, Dale was a Washington-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. He’d previously covered the scandal- and deception-ridden tenure of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and was struck by then-candidate Trump’s serial inaccuracies. He started compiling informal lists on Twitter, tallying various claims made by the Republican nominee followed by parenthetical fact-checks.
Then filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted in praise of Dale, saying he “shames the US media” each day. “I got a ton of followers from that. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to do it every day now to satisfy people,’” Dale recalls wearily. “Like a lot of people, I wrongly thought Hillary Clinton would win and that would be the end of a crazy daily fact-check load, though I’d have to fact-check her too.”
Since Inauguration Day in 2017, Trump has kept Dale busier than he ever imagined. “He was lying about the weather on the first day of his presidency,” he says.
Last year, Dale left the Toronto Star for CNN, where he has become a viral star. Appearing on air after key events in the campaign cycle — including presidential debates or convention speeches — Dale breathlessly enumerates the torrent of false claims made by Trump (while also noting the falsehoods of his opponent, Joe Biden). Despite his evident frustration, the smooth-voiced, gently accented 35-year-old somehow never shouts or becomes flustered, and his plain-spoken fact-checking blitzes have left Anderson Cooper wordlessly sipping from his coffee cup.
As all-consuming as his beat can be, Dale unplugs from politics when he can. He and his partner, Kelsey, unwind by watching “Planet Earth II” or playing with their pet Pomeranian, Breezy. “I’m not slaving away 24 hours a day,” he says, “but it’s easy with this president to spend all of your time fact-checking because it just never stops.”
NBC’s Kristen Welker brought control to the moderator’s chair for the final presidential debate, a calmer matchup still full of lies and attacks.
Tell me a little bit about your process. How do you keep track of the many false claims made by Trump?
I either read or watch everything that Trump says or tweets. And then we have a database at CNN in which we sort all of his false claims with a unique code for each claim. So for the Veterans Choice claim he always makes [that he started the program which expanded healthcare options for veterans], I can go to that code and say, OK, this is the 160th time he’s said that. Each claim is also organized by category codes. So for Veterans Choice, that would be military, veterans and healthcare. So if I want to see how many false claims has Trump made, I can also sort by category over [a given time period]. We can sort by venue or forum, so I can see how many false claims he has been making at his rallies versus interviews, or in tweets versus official speeches. I didn’t build this [database] myself, it was the tech team at CNN. But it’s super helpful because you need a way to organize them or you’ll just drown.
What’s the tally of Trump’s false claims as of right now?
I don’t know because I’ve fallen behind during the campaign. I had to make a decision to stop updating over the last month and just focus on the big stuff. Because the president is talking so much — just the sheer volume of words right now is very large and so many of them are false that if I tried to keep up comprehensively as I have for the past four years, I wouldn’t have found time to write the most important stories about the most egregious stuff he’s saying. So I’ve had to make an executive decision to put it on hold for now. My tally for his presidency is over 9,000 false claims. People ask me why that’s lower than the Washington Post, which I think is over 20,000. I just count the false claims. They also count what they call the misleading claims. I have a narrower rule for what I tally.
Is there one lie that seems to be the most repeated or, in your view, is the most egregious?
Most repeated I can actually tell you. [The claim about] Veterans Choice is up there. The claim that China is paying for all the tariffs. The claim that Democrats want open borders, those are definitely in the top 10. [Dale later emailed a list of Trump’s most oft-repeated lies that also included “Trump put a ‘ban’ on travel from China” and “The Ukraine whistleblower complaint was phony/fake/wrong”].
As for most egregious. It’s so hard. Some of the claims of the pandemic I would put on the most egregious list. The claim that it’s disappearing, which he’s made 40-plus times since February. This is a national crisis where millions of people respond to the president’s words, and he’s constantly reassuring them, “It’s fine, it’s going away” and it is just not. The other claim he’s emphasized this week is that the increase in cases is simply a result of more tests being done. And that’s just not true.
There is some debate, at least within media circles, about the value of fact-checking when there is so much disinformation on social media and the news landscape has become so polarized. How do you feel about that?
I feel that there are obvious limitations to our work and there are people we cannot currently reach. That’s just a fact. There are people who will never click on a CNN article or never watch CNN. Or there are people who will hate-read it. That’s the reality of this moment. The more optimistic way to look at it is there is no form of journalism that ever will be believed by the entirety of the population. The most famous example of investigative journalism is Watergate. Well, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe that reporting. You can’t expect your work to be accepted by everyone or to have an immediate impact on society. But I just think there are enough people who clearly value this work to make it worthwhile. There are a lot of independent or formerly undecided voters who want information. My role is to put as much factual information out there as I can, and what people do with that is up to them.
Whenever you’re on CNN, I am struck by how you manage to get so much in without passing out or getting red in the face. How did you settle on this approach to fact-checking on air?
In the past, my TV appearances have been more organized, more produced. Traditionally an anchor will play a clip and I will respond to it. If you go and watch those [appearances] I seem like a calmer, less breathless person. I think what has happened with some of these big events such as the president’s RNC speech is that the quantity is just so high. Doing a produced hit where I fact-check three claims is just insufficient. Because the story of the president’s remarks is he made 20-plus false claims in this one night. We decided the best way to communicate that is to cram in as many facts as possible, as concisely and as fairly as possible. My fast talking is instinct, knowing we have a lot of TV to get in. I could take up a half hour if I was delving into these in depth.
How did a nice Canadian get involved in messy American politics?
I went to college in Canada but I took a year off and did two internships in D.C. and I just loved the place. Everything here is just bigger and seems more consequential than the sleepier world of politics in Ottawa. So I spent four years covering Toronto city hall, which was the era of our infamous mayor Rob Ford. That was a good education covering a larger-than-life, controversial, populist conservative figure. And coincidentally when that ended, our Washington bureau position opened up at the Toronto Star. The pitch in my internal interview was getting out of the Beltway and writing stories about average Americans and leaving the congressional infighting to this horde of reporters here. And it just didn’t work out this way because the story just became Trump. I got here in January 2015, six months later Trump launched his campaign. I was there at Trump Tower when he launched his campaign. It went from there.
What will you do if Trump loses? Take a vacation?
I will take a vacation regardless. I’ve booked some time off for November. But long-term, I honestly don’t know. We’ve all been so consumed by the election. I have not made any plans for what would happen if Biden were to win. To be clear, Biden requires fact-checking. All politicians require fact-checking. It’s just a fact that he requires less of a team; he speaks less, and when he speaks the quantity of false or misleading claims is just lower. Where the team goes from here is to be determined.
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