Fact-checking Trump’s Skewed Ledger of Achievements
The start of a new administration is never a clean slate, even when parties flip. Day One is just another day for military operations, a budget that is still in place from the old crowd and a vast array of economic, social and law enforcement initiatives left over by the last president.
You would not know this from President Donald Trump.
He loudly and proudly takes credit for any positive development that has bloomed since he took office Jan. 20, even when the roots and buds of it were from President Barack Obama’s time. In his speech to Congress and other remarks in recent days, Trump has claimed credit for:
- big savings in an F-35 fighter jet contract that were in motion well before he became president.
- corporate job announcements that also had been months or longer in the making.
- an infusion of money from NATO partners that has not materialized at all, but reflects a long-standing intent by some members to increase their military capabilities.
- a tough-on-criminals approach to immigration enforcement that was planned and put into place during Obama’s presidency.
- a $12 billion drop in the U.S. debt, a routine blip traced to the regular timing of tax payments and other fiscal factors unconnected to any president.
- his plan to restore military supremacy, though he inherited military capabilities that are already second to none.
Trump does, though, seek to shift some responsibility to the last administration for an operation he authorized that did not go smoothly — the covert mission in Yemen in which a Navy SEAL and civilians were killed.
That mission “was started before I got here,” Trump said.
It can take months for a new president to pile up achievements or failures that are truly his own. A look at a selection of his statements from the past week:
TRUMP: Speaking of the NATO alliance, “Our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that. In fact, I can tell you the money is pouring in. Very nice. Very nice.”
THE FACTS: No new money has come pouring in from NATO allies. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a strong case when he met with allied defense ministers at a NATO gathering last month, pressing them to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Mattis and other leaders said the allies understood the message and there was some discussion about working out plans to meet the goal.
Only five of the 28 member countries currently meet the 2 percent level, and no new commitments have been made since the NATO meeting. Others in the alliance have routinely said they will work toward the increase. In any event, the commitment is for these nations to spend more on their own military capabilities, which would strengthen the alliance, not to hand over money.
TRUMP: “According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs America’s taxpayers many billions of dollars a year.”
THE FACTS: That’s not exactly what that report says. It says immigrants “contribute to government finances by paying taxes and add expenditures by consuming public services.”
The report found that while first-generation immigrants are more expensive to governments than their native-born counterparts, primarily at the state and local level, immigrants’ children “are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the population.” This second generation contributed more in taxes on a per capita basis, for example, than did the rest of the population in the period studied, 1994-2013.
The report found that the “long-run fiscal impact” of immigrants and their children would probably be seen as more positive “if their role in sustaining labor force growth and contributing to innovation and entrepreneurial activity were taken into account.”
TRUMP: “We’ve saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing down the price” of the F-35 jet fighter.
THE FACTS: The cost savings he persists in bragging about were secured in full or in large part before he became president.
The head of the Air Force program announced significant price reductions in the contract for the Lockheed F-35 fighter jet Dec. 19 — after Trump had tweeted about the cost but weeks before Trump met the company’s CEO about it.
Pentagon managers took action even before the election to save money on the contract. Todd Harrison, a defense analyst and aerospace specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “I don’t see any evidence to suggest that President Trump had anything to do with this.”
TRUMP: “Since my election, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Wal-Mart and many others have announced that they will invest billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.”
THE FACTS: Trump is taking credit for corporate jobs decisions that largely predate his election. In the case of Intel, construction of the factory in Chandler, Arizona, that Trump referred to actually began during Obama’s presidency. The project was delayed by insufficient demand for Intel’s high-powered computer chips, but the company now expects to finish the factory within four years because it anticipates business growth.
Some of the job announcements have come after companies, such as the wireless carrier Sprint, reduced their numbers of workers.
More important, even as some companies create jobs, others are laying off workers. The best measure of whether more jobs are actually being created is the monthly employment report issued by the Labor Department, which nets out those gains and losses. The department will issue its report for February, the first full month of Trump’s term, on March 10.
TRUMP: His budget plan will offer “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
THE FACTS: Three times in recent years, Congress raised defense budgets by larger percentages than the $54 billion, or 10 percent, increase that Trump proposes. The base defense budget grew by $41 billion, or 14.3% in 2002; by $37 billion, or 11.3 percent, in 2003, and by $47 billion, or 10.9 percent, in 2008, according to Defense Department figures.
And going back farther, his increase doesn’t come close to ones in the defense budget seen in the early 1980s, when they hit 20 percent or more, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
TRUMP: “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force.”
THE FACTS: That’s true, but for the vast majority of them, it’s because they choose to be.
That 94 million figure includes everyone age 16 and older who doesn’t have a job and isn’t looking for one. It also includes retirees, parents who are staying home to raise children, and high school and college students who are studying rather than working.
They are unlikely to work regardless of the state of the economy. With the huge baby boomer generation reaching retirement age and many of them retiring, the population of those out of the labor force is increasing and will continue to do so, economists forecast.
It’s true that some of those out of the workforce are of working age and have given up looking for work. But that number is probably a small fraction of the 94 million Trump cited. The nation’s unemployment rate stands at 4.8 percent, near the lowest in a decade.
TRUMP: “Our Navy is now the smallest it’s been since, believe or not, World War I. Don’t worry. It’s going to soon be the largest it’s been.”
THE FACTS: No, the fleet is not growing to the largest it’s been, or anything close.
The fleet indeed shrank to its smallest size since the decade after World War I — bottoming out at 271 in 2015 before rising to 274 this year, compared with 139 in 1930. But that number alone is not that meaningful.
The nature of warfare has changed since the naval battles of the world wars; the rise of air power is just one significant factor. As well, for the past few decades the Navy has dramatically increased the warfighting effectiveness of its ships, meaning it can do more with far fewer vessels than it could during the Cold War, for example.
The fleet stood at a record high of 6,768 fighting ships during World War II, declined gradually in the 1950s and 1960s and dropped significantly after the Vietnam War. During the 1990s the number fell from the high 500s to the mid-300s as the Navy decommissioned many older ships and the U.S. reaped a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War. The count includes aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, amphibious assault ships and other large combat ships.
The fleet may grow more than planned if Trump’s military expansion is approved by Congress. But no one is talking about matching — much less exceeding — the enormous armada of another age.
The number of Navy personnel has fallen over time, too, from more than 725,000 in 1954 to about 323,000 now. It’s unlikely to grow anywhere near that higher level.
TRUMP: “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country. We have seen the attacks at home — from Boston to San Bernardino to the Pentagon and yes, even the World Trade Center.”
THE FACTS: It’s unclear what Justice Department data he’s citing, but the most recent government information doesn’t back up his claim. Just over half the people Trump talks about were born in the United States, according to Homeland Security Department research. That report said of 82 people the government determined were inspired by a foreign terrorist group to attempt or carry out an attack in the U.S., just over half were native-born citizens.
Even the attacks Trump singled out weren’t entirely the work of foreigners. Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his Pakistani wife killed 14 people in the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, was born in Chicago.
It’s true that in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the FBI’s primary concern was with terrorists from overseas feared to be plotting attacks in the United States. But that’s no longer the case.
The FBI and the Justice Department have been preoccupied with violent extremists from inside the U.S. who are inspired by the calls to violence and mayhem of the Islamic State group. The Justice Department has prosecuted scores of IS-related cases since 2014, and many of the defendants are U.S. citizens.
TRUMP on military capability: “We are going to have very soon the finest equipment in the world.”
THE FACTS: Pentagon leaders have said for years that the U.S. already has the world’s best weaponry and military equipment. They sometimes claim the U.S. is in danger of losing its advantage unless the Congress continues to spend heavily to develop and build new generations of weapons.
The Navy’s top officer, Adm. John Richardson, has said repeatedly that the Navy is the world’s finest. He also has said the Navy must adapt to a world of changing security threats. Richardson’s main focus has been on sharpening and changing the way sailors think about the nature of war, rather than relying on bigger budgets.
“We will not be able to ‘buy’ our way out of the challenges that we face,” he wrote in a January 2016 plan for maintaining U.S. naval superiority.