Fact-checking the first Trump-Biden presidential debate

President Trump unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods and incessant interruptions of both Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace Tuesday night in Cleveland at the first of three debates. Biden hewed more closely to the facts, but he strayed at times.

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President Trump unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods Tuesday night in Cleveland at the first of three debates with Joe Biden — no surprise for a commander in chief who has set a new low for shading the truth and even lying in office.

His distortions were almost as rapid-fire as his incessant interruptions of both Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace, on topics ranging from the economy to the coronavirus to healthcare. At one point he even accused Biden of playing more golf than he does. Biden hewed more closely to the facts, but he strayed at times. Here’s a look at how each candidate did.

No, Trump isn’t protecting coverage for preexisting conditions.

“We guaranteed preexisting conditions,” Trump said.


The facts: This is one of Trump’s most common falsehoods. The 2010 Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — includes the provision that bars health insurance companies from refusing to cover people with preexisting medical conditions. Trump has been calling for the entire law to be eliminated, and his administration is allied with conservative states on a lawsuit to kill it. The case is now before the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments the week after the election.

Because assured coverage for preexisting conditions is so popular, Trump repeatedly says he is ready with a substitute healthcare program that would retain the guarantee if the court strikes down the law. Yet he said he had such a plan four years ago, and neither he nor congressional Republicans have agreed on an alternative. Last week, Trump signed an executive order declaring his intention to protect people with preexisting conditions, but it otherwise does nothing.


No, Biden didn’t call Trump’s China travel ban “xenophobic.”

Trump: “I closed it, and you said, ‘He’s xenophobic.’”

The facts: Whenever challenged about his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, Trump points to one of his earliest decisions — restricting travel from China, where the pandemic began. However, it was not the ironclad ban that he describes. The Jan. 31 order applied only to mainland China, not Hong Kong, and it allowed tens of thousands of Americans there to return to the U.S., where screening of arrivals was spotty. Although the travel restrictions bought some time before the pandemic worsened here, public health experts say Trump squandered that by failing to prepare widespread testing and tracing to detect and isolate outbreaks.

Trump frequently claims that Biden opposed the restrictions and called them “xenophobic.” He distorts the former vice president’s comments. The day after Trump’s announcement, Biden tweeted that “we need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.” He did not mention the ban or travel from China.


No, the economy isn’t back yet.

Trump: “We’re doing record business.”

The facts: Trump often claims that the country is quickly rebounding from the coronavirus crisis, which forced tens of millions of people out of their jobs. He calls it a “V-shaped” recovery — sometimes upgrading it to a “super V” — suggesting a steep decline followed by a fast ascent.


There are definitely some signs that the economy is on the upswing. The unemployment rate reached 14.7% in April but has since fallen to 8.4%. However, that’s still nearly as high as the peak jobless rate — 10% — in President Obama’s first year, when the country was clawing out of the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Any recovery could be endangered by a renewed coronavirus outbreak, which could force additional restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. Trump has frequently dismissed the need for social distancing or masks, and he’s holding rallies where supporters are crowded together, most without protection.


How much did Trump pay in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017?

Trump: “Millions of dollars”

The facts: It’s impossible for voters to judge because Trump broke with a decades-long tradition of White House candidates releasing their tax returns. He said again in the debate that he cannot make his returns public because they are under audit. But the Internal Revenue Service has said audits do not preclude taxpayers from releasing their own returns.

The New York Times reported this week, based on leaked copies of Trump’s returns, that the president paid only $750 in federal income taxes for the year he was elected and for his first year in office — a startlingly low amount for someone who claims to be a billionaire running a successful real estate business. For 10 of the previous 15 years, he paid no federal income taxes at all. Trump avoided taxes by reporting steep losses, and the returns show he’s facing hundreds of millions of dollars in debts that have placed him in a financial bind.


No, mail-in ballots don’t lead to widespread voter fraud.

Trump: “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”

The facts: Ever since Trump began his first campaign five years ago, he’s baselessly claimed that U.S. elections are rife with fraud and rigged against him. This election is no different, and his allegations still don’t stand up to scrutiny.


Trump singles out mail-in ballots, which voters are expected to use in much larger numbers this year because of concerns about contracting the coronavirus at crowded polling places. The president says the ballots could be forged by anyone, including a foreign country, but local election officials say that would be impossible given safeguards such as bar codes on envelopes.

Trump also complained about “unsolicited” mail ballots. He exaggerates the number of states that automatically send ballots to voters; all of the crucial swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, require residents to request mail-in ballots. And he ignores the fact that such ballots have been used widely in many states for years, and election experts say there’s no evidence of widespread fraud.


No, the trade deficit with China isn’t higher now.

Biden: “We have a higher deficit with China now than we did before.”

The facts: The United States has long run a big trade deficit with China, importing more Chinese goods than it sells to the country. Trump promised to close the gap when he took office. During his first years in office he failed, and the trade deficit grew from $346.8 billion in 2016 to $418.9 billion in 2018. However, due to Trump’s tariffs, the deficit fell last year to $345.2 billion, roughly in line with the figure in the year before Trump took office.