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MarketWatch First Take: Washington Post’s 10,000 Trump untruths is about 25% fake news

The Washington Post’s count of what it calls “false and misleading statements” by President Trump is itself inflated. Read More...

President Donald Trump is about 25% less untruthful than the Washington Post says.

President Donald Trump, according to one well-publicized tally, has told 10,000 whoppers during this presidency.

His falsehoods include such incredible claims such as accurately stating the number of new jobs since the election. Or Trump saying he signed executive orders that he did, in fact, sign. Or claiming that Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wants corporate taxes to increase, worker wages to rise, and stock buybacks to end, wants 401(k) values to “dissipate.”

If those don’t sound so fraudulent, that’s because they’re not. The Washington Post’s count of what it calls “false and misleading statements,” and what other media outlets quickly short-handed to “lies” by Trump, is itself inflated.

Sensing that the fact checkers are a bit too quick on the draw, I decided to review a series of contentions made by Glenn Kessler and the fact-checking team at the Washington Post. Rather than review all 10,000, I focused on the most recent 50 claims in both “economy” and “jobs,” mostly because I’m confident in the subject matter, and the data is well at hand. I found 27 out of 100 Trump comments to be defensible if not unimpeachably accurate.

Sometimes Kessler seems to be assuming words Trump said that the president did not. Other times he seems to demand a level of surrounding context that most would not insist from any other politician.

Kessler, to his credit, responded to a number of questions about his rankings.

“Many of the economic comments you have highlighted would be in the Two Pinocchio range [on its 1-4 scale], in which important context is missing or factual information is exaggerated (i.e., lowest unemployment rate in history, when the data only goes back 30 years, or describing the low as current when it took place a while ago),” he said in an email. “As you well know, ‘literally true’ comments can be misleading without the proper context, especially in the economic sphere.”

Kessler also said the newspaper has only used the word “lie” once — about Trump’s comments on Stormy Daniels hush money — and tries to distance its assessments from that word. “We are always careful to say this is a list of false or misleading statements, but I obviously can’t control how other people write about our work,” he said.

I also asked Kessler about his criticizing Trump for not including context, but not providing context in his criticism, particularly when such surrounding information would be helpful toward the president.

For example, I pointed out that, while the U.S. is not the fastest growing economy in the world, as Trump has stated, it is nonetheless the fastest in the developed world, which the Post did not point out. “Your point about growth in the developed world is a fair one and I will consider adding that context, though that is not what Trump said,” he said.

I also asked Kessler whether Trump deliberately exaggerates to get “caught out” — so that he can insert into the public discussion an underlying claim that’s mostly true. “I covered Trump 30 years ago as a business reporter and he’s no different now than when he was then. He’s never been especially accurate,” he said.

It’s also important to stress, that the Washington Post exaggerating the truth about Trump is not to say that the president isn’t uniquely untruthful. Even if you accept the 25% figure I come up with, and give another 5%-to-10% leeway for comments pretty close or almost true, Trump does spout untruths on a daily basis, sometimes wildly at odds with the facts.

But it also seems that fact checkers, like Kessler, have a reflexive bias toward declaring Trump comments as untrue.

Here’s a selection of Trump statements that Kessler’s team said were “untruths” that just aren’t.

Date Trump comment Washington Post explanation MarketWatch explanation
4/27/19 “We have cut 30,000 pages of job killing regulations from the Federal Register. That’s an all-time record. It’s never happened before.” This is a nonsense statistic, as counting pages tells you next to nothing about the impact of a regulation. Perhaps “nonsense” but it appears to be accurate.
4/27/19 “In my first 100 days in office, I traveled to this very state to sign an executive order declaring that we will live by two simple rules: buy American and hire American right here in Wisconsin. Trump says his administration believes in “buy American, hire American.” But Trump has a long history of outsourcing a variety of his own products. He did sign the order, and the fact Trump’s personal track record doesn’t live up to that is irrelevant. If anything, it *supports* his order, since in theory it would force reluctant businesspeople like himself to buy and hire American.
4/24/19 “These newly employed citizens are joining 5.5 million more workers who have found jobs since the election.” Trump often inflates the number of jobs created under his presidency by counting from Election Day, rather than when he took the oath of office. There have been about 4.9 million jobs created since January 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job growth under Trump in the first two years was little different than Obama’s last two years. Trump literally said, “since the election.”
4/18/19 “And with Bernie’s, you know, they want to take the wealth that all of the people have made, 401(k)s you have 401(k)s, we all have 401(k)s and they’re at record levels, they’ve done better than they’ve ever done, they want to just dissipate it.” This is not Bernie Sanders’s plan. The senator has proposed an expansion of Social Security, not an end to 401(k) plans. Sanders repeatedly talks about desire for corporate taxes to rise. If successful, of course that would hurt 401(k) values. That Sanders doesn’t favor repeal of the tax wrapper isn’t what Trump is getting at.
4/17/19 “Since we passed our historic tax cuts and reforms just over one year ago, wages are rising fast, and they’re rising most quickly for the lowest-income Americans.” Wages grew at an annual rate of 3.2% in December, but wage growth was consistently higher before 2009. Still, Goldman Sachs found that for the first during an economic recovery that began in mid-2009 that the bottom half of earners are benefiting more than the top half. Whether that can be attributed to the tax cut is unclear. Not only are wages growing the fastest since the recession, they are fastest for lower-income workers. The cause-and-effect of tax cuts and wage growth is unclear but not definitely wrong.
4/12/19 “By the end of this year, the United States will have 92 5G deployments in markets nationwide. The next nearest country, South Korea, will have 48. So we have 92, compared to 48. And we’re going to accelerate that pace greatly.” The U.S. is on track to have the most deployments, but according to a report from CTIA, China and others are “ahead in making critical mid-band spectrum available for 5G” and are already conducting “large-scale 5G trails across the country” because of their infrastructure advantage. The Washington Post’s own analysis says the Trump comment was true!
4/6/19 “When I spoke to you as a candidate three years ago, America’s economy was stagnant.” This is wrong. Many of the positive economic trends Trump regularly references started under the Obama administration. Average GDP growth rate last nine quarters has been 2.8%. Average growth rate the prior nine quarters was 2%.
4/27/19 “Remember, President Obama said manufacturing jobs are gone. You need a wand, a magic wand. We found the magic wand because they’re coming and they’re coming fast.” Trump is misquoting Obama. The former president said in a June 2016 townhall, that “you’re actually seeing some manufacturers coming back to the United States” but that alone won’t help workers whose jobs had been previously outsourced and so “what we have to do is to make sure that folks are trained for the jobs that are coming in now.” The “magic wand” referred to recreating jobs of the past through negotiating “a better deal.” Manufacturing jobs growth has been stronger during Trump administration than Obama’s, even with recent tailing off.
4/27/19 “The unemployment rates for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans have all reached their lowest levels in the history of our country.” “The current African American unemployment statistic has been in existence for less than 50 years. It reached a low of 5.9% in May 2018, but rose to 6.7% in March. An older set of government data suggests black unemployment went much lower in the 1950s. The Asian-American statistic has been around for less than 20 years. And while it reached a low of 2.0% rate in May 2018, it rose to 3.0% in March, the most recent month available. Hispanic unemployment has also rebounded. Lately, Trump has been using the word “reached,” perhaps to indicate the lows are in the past.” The lowest levels in recorded history, yes. His inclusion of the word “reached” makes it accurate. Moreover, the Washington Post is essentially dinging him for comparisons to economic performance in his own administration.
4/24/19 “People that graduate without a high school diploma — it’s a big group — lowest in the history of our country.” This dataset has only be recorded since 1992, so Trump has no basis to claim the “history of our country.” The unemployment rate for high school dropouts reached a low of 5.0% in July 2018, but by the time Trump made this statement it had risen to 5.9%, a figure last reached in 2000. Lowest in recorded history, and still better now than before the Trump administration.
4/15/19 “So we have low-income and distressed communities, and they’re getting a tremendous incentive to have a lot of money going to those communities. And it’s having a very, very big effect. It’s been great.” The impact of the Opportunity Zones is not yet clear, according to the Tax Foundation. This is in part because key data collection requirements that would be needed to assess the progress were stripped from the final version of the bill. It is difficult to tell at this stage. The White House says counties with a large presence of zones had annualized wage growth of 8% in Q2 and Q3 2018, and it says property values in zones have climbed 20%, citing Zillow data. So it’s a defendable claim even if there does need to be more examination.
3/28/19 “The economy is roaring.” The economy appears to be slowing. The growth rate for the gross domestic product was 4.2% in the second quarter of 2018, 3.4% in the third quarter and 2.2% in the fourth quarter. “Roaring” is subjective but not false with low unemployment, high GDP.

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