Fact-checking the past week


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In this Jan. 2, 2019, photo, acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, left, and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, right, listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In this Jan. 2, 2019, photo, acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, left, and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, right, listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington after a meeting with Congressional leaders on border security as the government shutdown continues Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)


A migrants jumps the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. Discouraged by the long wait to apply for asylum through official ports of entry, many migrants from recent caravans are choosing to cross the U.S. border wall and hand themselves in to border patrol agents. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)


AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s super-talkative, fact-busting week

By CALVIN WOODWARD and HOPE YEN

Associated Press

Saturday, January 5

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump held forth on all manner of things this past week as he emerged from a “lonely” spell over the holidays. He opined for more than 90 minutes to the press, at the top of a Cabinet meeting, on the shutdown, immigration, drug prices, the Soviet history in Afghanistan, his approval ratings, Syria, oil prices, the nature of walls, the attractiveness of his generals (“better looking than Tom Cruise”), and much more.

He capped the week with a Rose Garden news conference that stretched for an hour. And he’s been tweeting a lot.

Trump’s accounts did not show tremendous fealty to the facts. Here’s a sampling of what he said:

THE WALL

TRUMP: “We’ve already built a lot of the wall.” — Rose Garden news conference Friday.

THE FACTS: He hasn’t.

Trump’s claim is only supported when counting work done under past presidents and ignoring the fact that fences from prior administrations are not the towering walls he promised. The 2006 Secure Fence Act has resulted in about 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) of border barrier. Money approved by Congress in March 2018 is to pay for 84 miles (135 km), but that work is not done. Trump has achieved some renovation of existing barrier.

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TRUMP: “The drugs are pouring into this country. They don’t go through the ports of entry. When they do, they sometimes get caught.” — Rose Garden news conference.

THE FACTS: He’s wrong in saying drug smugglers don’t or only rarely use official border crossings for their trafficking. Land ports of entry are their primary means for getting drugs into the country, not stretches of the border without barriers, says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The agency said in a November report that the most common trafficking technique by transnational criminal organizations is to hide drugs in passenger vehicles or tractor-trailers as they drive into the U.S. though entry ports, where they are stopped and subject to inspection. They also employ buses, cargo trains and tunnels, the report says, citing smuggling methods that would not be choked off by a border wall.

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TRUMP: “The new trade deal we have with Mexico and Canada — what we save on that, just with Mexico, will pay for the wall many times over, just in a period of a year, two years or three years. So I view that as absolutely Mexico is paying for the wall.” — Rose Garden news conference.

THE FACTS: Mexico is not paying for the wall and nothing in the trade agreement would cover or refund the construction cost.

Trump is assuming a wide variety of economic benefits will come from the agreement, but they can’t be quantified or counted on. For example, he said the deal will dissuade some U.S. companies from moving operations to Mexico and he credits that possibility as a payment by Mexico for his wall.

The deal updates the North American Free Trade Agreement, in the main preserving NAFTA’s liberalized environment of low or no tariffs among the U.S., Mexico and Canada, while making certain improvements for each country. Trump stated inaccurately that it’s “brand new. It’s totally different.”

Moreover, it’s not in effect. The deal has yet to be ratified in any member country and its chances of winning legislative approval are not assured.

Trump has argued repeatedly that Mexico is footing the bill even while insisting on $5.6 billion from the U.S. treasury to go toward wall construction. His demand and the refusal of Democrats to satisfy it are behind the budget standoff that has closed parts of the government.

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SYRIA

TRUMP: “We had a fantastic meeting with the generals and the Syria situation. I mean, I’m the only person in the history of our country that could really decimate ISIS, say we’re bringing the troops back home over a period of time. I never said so quickly, but over a period of time.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

THE FACTS: He’s wrong about his past statements regarding the pace of withdrawal. In a video posted to his Twitter account on Dec. 19, for instance, Trump said of the roughly 2,000 troops in Syria: “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”

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TRUMP: “I read, when we pull out, ‘Oh, Russia is thrilled.’ Russia is not happy. You know why they’re not happy? Because they like it when we’re killing ISIS, because we’re killing them for them, and we’re killing them for Assad, and we’re killing ISIS also for Iran.” — Cabinet meeting.

THE FACTS: Russia says it’s happy. A U.S. withdrawal opens opportunities for Moscow and Tehran to increase their influence and may help the Syrian government survive as a Kurdish-led opposition force loses its military ally on the ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the U.S. “has done the right thing” in planning to pull out.

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AFGHANISTAN

TRUMP: “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They (the Soviets) were right to be there.” — Cabinet meeting.

THE FACTS: His assertion that the Soviet Union was experiencing a terrorist influx from Afghanistan when it invaded in 1979 is out of step with history. And his belief that the Soviets were right to invade is a stark departure from U.S. and world opinion.

The Soviets were trying to bolster communists in Afghanistan and possibly expand their influence against the United States and the West.

World condemnation was swift: The U.N. General Assembly voted 104-18 to deplore the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The U.S. supported the anti-communist rebels, giving them shoulder-fired rockets to down Soviet aircraft. The Soviets withdrew in 1989.

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TRUMP: “Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.” — Cabinet meeting.

THE FACTS: Afghanistan was far from the sole reason for the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The dissolution occurred in a time of ethnic and political troubles, economic woes and a series of revolutions that led Soviet republics to seek their independence. The Soviet demise was accelerated by the heavy cost of competing with the West to wield influence around the world, including in Afghanistan.

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OIL PRICES

TRUMP: “Do you think it’s just luck that gas prices are so low, and falling? Low gas prices are like another Tax Cut!” — tweet Tuesday.

TRUMP: “It’s not luck. It’s not luck. I called up certain people, and I said, ‘Let that damn oil and gasoline — you let it flow — the oil.’ It was going up to $125. If that would’ve happened, then you would’ve had a recession, depression.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

THE FACTS: It’s not all about him, or even mostly about him.

While Americans may end up paying somewhat less for gasoline this year, Trump’s suggestion that he deserves all the credit and averted a U.S. economic depression is an exaggeration. Oil prices, which peaked Oct. 3, have been generally falling on the realization that U.S. sanctions against Iran would not create a shortage and on fear that a global oversupply of oil will spill into 2019 if slower international economic growth depresses energy demand.

The president’s supposed “let it flow” edict did not stop OPEC and its Russia-led allies from agreeing last month to cut oil production. That initially failed to stop oil prices from sliding further; they have since rebounded a few dollars in the past week. Continued OPEC production cuts would push prices higher.

Trump has pointed to his positive relations with Saudi Arabia, which remains the biggest oil exporter. As a so-called swing producer with the ability to adjust production up or down relatively quickly, it can indeed influence the price of crude. But the market is complex: Canada, for example, is actually the top source of U.S. oil imports, with Saudi Arabia second.

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TARIFFS

TRUMP: “The United States Treasury has taken in MANY billions of dollars from the Tariffs we are charging China and other countries that have not treated us fairly. In the meantime we are doing well in various Trade Negotiations currently going on.” — tweet Thursday.

THE FACTS: Trump is off on two major issues. First, tariffs are taxes paid largely by U.S. business and consumers, not foreign countries. And while Trump’s “MANY billions” might sound like a lot, it’s doing little to nothing to improve the federal balance sheet. The U.S. government spent $4.1 trillion last fiscal year and the budget deficit shot up, according to Trump’s own Treasury Department.

Customs and duties generated $41.3 billion in revenues last year, up from $34.6 billion in 2017.

That $6.7 billion increase occurred in part because of the president’s tariffs. But it amounted to just 0.16 percent of federal spending.

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MATTIS

TRUMP, on Jim Mattis: “I wish him well. I hope he does well. But, as you know, President (Barack) Obama fired him and essentially so did I. I want results.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Actually, Mattis resigned as defense secretary in protest over Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria.

The retired Marine general announced on Dec. 20 in a resignation letter that he was stepping down after Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Mattis said he would stay on the job until the end of February. Three days later, Trump said he was replacing Mattis with the second-ranking defense official, Pat Shanahan, on Jan. 1.

As to the tenure under Obama, Mattis served as commander of the military’s Central Command. He departed a few months earlier than expected in 2013, in part because of disagreements over Iran.

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DRUG PRICES

TRUMP: “I think you’re going to see a tremendous reduction in drug prices.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Prices continue to rise. Administration policies announced last year and currently being completed don’t seem to have shifted that trend.

Figures on U.S. prescription drug price changes compiled by health data company Elsevier show that from Dec. 20 through Jan. 2, there were 1,179 product price changes. Of those, 30 were price cuts and the remaining 1,149 were price increases, with 328 of them between 9 percent and 10 percent. All but one of the rest were by lower percentages. Elsevier spokesman Chris Capot said more companies will be announcing price increases this month.

Separately, a data firm whose software can help patients find the most cost-effective medications says its information shows price increases on many commonly used drugs for conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

“In the first two days of January, prices have increased on more than 250 different products,” said Michael Rea, CEO of Rx Savings Solutions. The average increase is about 6 percent, he added.

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IMMIGRATION

TRUMP, on the number of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally: “I used to hear 11 million all the time. It would always stay right at 11. I said, ‘Does it ever increase or go down?’ ‘No, it’s 11.’ Nobody knows. It’s probably 30, 35 million people. They would flow in, mostly from the southern border, they’d come in and nobody would talk about it, nobody would do anything about it.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

THE FACTS: It’s nowhere close to 30 million to 35 million, according to his own Homeland Security secretary as well as independent estimates.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center estimates there were 10.7 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally in 2016, the most recent data available. Advocacy groups on both sides of the immigration issue have similar estimates.

At a House hearing last month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen acknowledged the number was “somewhere” between 11 million and 22 million, significantly lower than Trump’s claim of 35 million.

According to Pew, the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally had reached a height of 12.2 million in 2007, representing about 4 percent of the U.S. population, before declining in part because of a weakening U.S. economy.

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TRUMP: “The coyotes are using children to gain access into this country. They’re using these children. They’re not with families. They’re using the children. They’re taking the children. And then they dispose of the children after they’re done. This has been going on for years. This isn’t unique to us. But we want to stop it.” — Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

THE FACTS: This does happen, though it’s not as common as Trump suggests by talking about it so often.

He is referring to adults who come with children they falsely claim to be theirs, so that they won’t be detained under a no-child-separation policy.

But such cases of fraud are rare. According to the Homeland Security Department, about 500 immigrants were found to be not a “legitimate family unit” and thus separated upon detention from April 19 to Sept. 30 of last year. That’s a small fraction of the 107,000 families apprehended in the last budget year, which ended Sept. 30.

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Associated Press writers Josh Boak, Michael Balsamo, Colleen Long, Jill Colvin, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Robert Burns and Deb Riechmann in Washington, David Koenig in Dallas, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and AP Medical Writer Linda A. Johnson in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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Find AP Fact Checks at http://apne.ws/2kbx8bd

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ A look at the veracity of claims by political figures

The Conversation

No, Trump is not like Obama on Middle East policy

January 7, 2019

Author: James L. Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

Disclosure statement: James L. Gelvin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners: University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

On Jan. 6, National Security Advisor John Bolton walked back President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would quickly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying that such a withdrawal might actually take months or years.

Trump’s announcement came more than two weeks earlier. Soon after, Trump also directed the Pentagon to halve the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Whatever the fate of either order, pundits and politicians are having a field day comparing Trump’s Middle East policy to that of Barack Obama.

“On this issue…there is more continuity between Trump and Obama than would make either administration comfortable,” Richard N. Haas, president of The Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times in an article headlined “A Strategy of Retreat in Syria, with Echoes of Obama.”

The next day, The Hill repeated the sentiment in an article whose headline holds nothing back: “Trump’s Middle East Policy Looks a lot Like Obama’s – That’s not a Good Thing.”

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose support for Trump is matched only by his disdain for Obama’s Middle East policy, called Trump’s plan “an Obama-like mistake.”

As someone who has studied and written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, this comparison immediately struck me as wrong.

While both presidents have advocated decreasing America’s footprint in the region, I believe their policies are comparable only on the most superficial level. Understanding why enables us to see the fundamental flaw underlying the current policy.

Trump vs. Obama: Afghanistan

Obama and Trump have taken contrasting approaches to the Afghanistan war, America’s longest. Both favored troop withdrawal – but with different intentions.

In June 2011, Obama announced a multi-year timetable for a withdrawal, after an initial surge. His goal was to let the Afghan government know that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan was not open-ended. The Afghans had to get their house in order, then take over the fight before the U.S. left for good.

It was, in effect, an announcement of the “Afghanistanization” of the war, similar in intent to Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization.” In 1969, Nixon proposed replacing U.S. combat troops with South Vietnamese troops in order to extricate the United States from a seemingly endless war. This was Obama’s goal in Afghanistan as well. By the end of his second term, however, circumstances there persuaded him to slow the withdrawal.

When Trump announced his policy toward Afghanistan during the first year of his presidency, he mocked Obama’s plan. According to Trump, “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.”

And instead of “Afghanistanization,” Trump originally supported increasing the use of force to compel the Taliban, whom the U.S. and its allies are fighting in Afghanistan, to come to the bargaining table.

The Taliban had other ideas.

Rather than being backed into a corner, the Taliban recently made battlefield gains and is defying U.S. efforts to negotiate a settlement. It was in this context that Trump decided that “conditions on the ground” were ripe for a partial U.S. withdrawal.

Trump vs. Obama: The greater Middle East

Obama’s Afghanistan policy was part of a broader approach his administration took toward the Middle East.

As I have argued elsewhere, Obama believed that the United States had expended far too much blood and treasure in the Middle East under his predecessor, George W. Bush. For Obama, the region’s deep-seated problems made it more trouble than it was worth.

Obama believed that an economically ascendant Asia, not the Middle East, will be the epicenter of global competition in the 21st century. His goal, then, was to get the United States out of the Middle East and “pivot to Asia.”

Obama wanted to calm the waters in the Middle East, then shift the burden of policing it to America’s partners there, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, as the United States had done during the Cold War. Hence, his policies were aimed at the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region, forging an Iran nuclear deal and restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This strategy could have enabled the United States to focus its attention on Asia.

Unfortunately for Obama, the chaos created by the Arab uprisings of 2010-11, the resistance of U.S. partners in the region to what they believed was American disengagement and poor execution stymied his grand strategy.

Unlike Obama, Trump does not have a Middle East strategy, grand or otherwise. He has impulses.

Trump’s move to withdraw troops from Syria came as a spur-of-the-moment decision during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After Erdoğan asked Trump why the United States still had troops there, Trump reportedly replied, “You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving.”

This surprised his national security team, which assumed that the United States was still committed to fighting Islamic State militants in Syria alongside the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which the United States will now abandon.

Does this mean that Trump is prepared to jettison the global war on terror, not to mention the Saudi-led coalition to stop the spread of Iranian influence in the region? At one time, both seemed bedrock policies of the Trump administration. Now, not so much.

With U.S. forces gone from Syria, so is a check on Iranian ambitions to expand its military presence and political influence there – much to the horror of officials not only in the United States, but in Saudi Arabia and Israel as well. Adding insult to injury, Trump followed his “I’m leaving” statement with another that was just as impulsive. In a conversation with reporters, he said: “Iran is pulling people out of Syria, but they can frankly do whatever they want there.”

None of this is to say that America’s open-ended commitments in Afghanistan and Syria and the global war on terror do not deserve rethinking.

I and numerous other observers have been calling for that for years.

But while we are doing that rethinking, it is important to remember an aphorism that is often repeated in military circles: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” It is a useful guide to the difference between the Obama and Trump approaches to the Middle East.

Comments

Mark Woods: Obama’s plan gave us ISIS, so there’s that to consider.

Joe Dirk, In reply to Mark Woods: Obamas plan to pull out? I hope you realize that ISIS existed before the withdrawal plan was even drawn up.

In this Jan. 2, 2019, photo, acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, left, and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, right, listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/01/web1_122078470-fed40ebf97564f8591fa0a0e53387aec.jpgIn this Jan. 2, 2019, photo, acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, left, and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, right, listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington after a meeting with Congressional leaders on border security as the government shutdown continues Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/01/web1_122078470-32adc849b2d24730aa43a2f484b74305.jpgPresident Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington after a meeting with Congressional leaders on border security as the government shutdown continues Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A migrants jumps the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. Discouraged by the long wait to apply for asylum through official ports of entry, many migrants from recent caravans are choosing to cross the U.S. border wall and hand themselves in to border patrol agents. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/01/web1_122078470-dc9efc638f1747bf84169ed490362407.jpgA migrants jumps the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. Discouraged by the long wait to apply for asylum through official ports of entry, many migrants from recent caravans are choosing to cross the U.S. border wall and hand themselves in to border patrol agents. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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