Fact-checking President Trump's first address to Congress

President Donald Trump talks about immigration as he addresses Congress.

USA TODAY - In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump stuck closely to his prepared remarks, but ran afoul of the facts in some cases.

Trump said the U.S. has spent $6 trillion in the Middle East and “with this $6 trillion we could have rebuilt our country.” The amount spent so far is $1.7 trillion, according to the Defense Department.

He cherry-picked the findings of a recent report, saying it found immigration costs U.S. taxpayers “billions of dollars a year.” The report said immigration “has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth.”

Trump said “94 million Americans are out of the labor force,” a figure that includes the retired, college students and stay-at-home parents. The vast majority — 88.5 million — said they didn’t want a job.

Trump said he would “promote clean air and clean water,” a vague claim that came hours after he had signed an executive order to roll back a 2015 “Clean Water Rule.”

And the president repeated claims we’ve fact-checked before on border security, welfare, job creation since he was elected, health insurance and crime. For instance, he said the U.S. left “our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross.” But the border patrol budget and number of agents have both doubled since 2001.

The false and misleading claims in Trump’s Feb. 28 address to Congress touched on familiar topics to fact-checkers, including the Middle East, the labor force, immigration and more.

$6 Trillion War?

Trump claimed that the U.S. has spent $6 trillion in the Middle East and “with this $6 trillion we could have rebuilt our country” two or three times.

Trump: "America has spent approximately $6 trillion in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this $6 trillion we could have rebuilt our country — twice. And maybe even three times if we had people who had the ability to negotiate."

But Trump is using a long-term cost estimate; the actual amount spent so far is $1.7 trillion.

In a report released this month, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Servicesaid that the Department of Defense estimates that the U.S. has spent $1.7 trillion on “war-related activities” from 2001 through Sept. 30, 2016. That includes military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.

Trump may be referring to a long-term estimate by a Boston University political science professor, Neta Crawford. She puts the long-term cost of the war on terrorism at between $4.8 trillion and $7.9 trillion when including future costs for such things as veterans’ medical and disability costs, debt service on borrowed money, and war-related spending in the Department of Homeland Security.

Trump is right about the cost of war being high, but the $6 trillion he cites has not been spent yet — so he’s not correct in saying “with this $6 trillion we could have rebuilt our country.”

Cost of U.S. Immigration System

Trump talked not only about cracking down on illegal immigration, but also about changing the current system for legal immigration. He claimed the current system hurts U.S. workers and taxpayers, citing a report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Trump: "Protecting our workers also means reforming our system of legal immigration. The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers, and puts great pressure on taxpayers.

"Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others have a merit-based immigration system. It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon. According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs America’s taxpayers many billions of dollars a year."

Trump distorts the findings of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in a report released in September.

The long-term impact of the legal immigration system on the overall wages and employment of native-born American workers is “very small,” the report said. “To the extent that negative impacts occur, they are most likely to be found for prior immigrants or native-born workers who have not completed high school—who are often the closest substitutes for immigrant workers with low skills,” according to a press release on the report.

As for taxpayers, the impact of the legal immigration system on government budgets is “mixed,” the report found. State and local governments “bear the burden of providing education benefits to children,” but the federal government benefits from “the resulting educated taxpayers” who work and pay taxes.

The report found that for 2011-2013 immigration there was a net annual cost of $57.4 billion for first-generation adults and their dependents; but second generations create a benefit of $30.5 billion a year, and third-plus generations create an annual benefit of $223.8 billion.

Overall, the report found that “immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth” and “has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.”

“The panel’s comprehensive examination revealed many important benefits of immigration — including on economic growth, innovation, and entrepreneurship — with little to no negative effects on the overall wages or employment of native-born workers in the long term,” said Francine D. Blau, a professor of economics at Cornell University who chaired the panel that wrote the report.

 

Labor Force and Employment

As evidence of the poor economic “circumstances we inherited,” the president said “94 million Americans are out of the labor force.”

That’s true as far as it goes — but it’s not evidence of a bad economy. Trump failed to mention that the vast majority of those who aren’t working or looking for work are retired, disabled, attending school or home caring for family members.

Of the 94.3 million who were counted as out of the labor force last year, 88.5 million said they didn’t want a job, according to annual figures from the Current Population Survey. Barely half a million — 553,000 — said they wanted a job but weren’t looking because they were discouraged about finding one.

Trump also said that “more than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working.” Perhaps so, if you count stay-at-home parents, the disabled and those in school. But the fact is, as Trump took office in January, the unemployment rate among those 25 to 54 years old stood at only 4.1%.

So in that age group only 1 in 25 who wanted work had looked and couldn’t find it.

Clean Water?

Trump said his administration would work with members of both parties to (among other things) “promote clean air and clean water.” That’s a vague claim, but it’s worth noting that only hours earlier, the president had signed an executive order aimed at eventually rolling back a 2015 Obama administration “Clean Water Rule.” And reports were circulating that Trump’s budget would propose laying off 20% of the Environmental Protection Agency’s workforce.

That rule gives the federal government broad authority to limit pollution in small streams and wetlands that drain into major bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River, but it had come under fire from developers, farmers and other landowners who saw their property rights threatened.

Trump called it “this very destructive and horrible rule” as he signed the order to roll it back.

Meanwhile, Trump administration officials were pushing for a 24% cut in the EPA’s budget, according to reports in Politico and E&E News, citing unnamed sources.

 

Familiar Claims

Trump repeated several other claims we’ve written about before.

Borders: Trump said that “we’ve defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross.” That’s nonsense. The border patrol budget more than doubled from $1.15 billion in fiscal 2001 to $3.64 billion in fiscal 2016. The number of border patrol agents also increased over 100% from 9,821 in fiscal 2001 to 19,828 in fiscal 2016, when those agents made nearly 416,000 border apprehensions nationwide.

Refugee vetting: Trump said that “my administration has been working on improved vetting procedures” because “it is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.” As we have explained before, all refugees seeking to enter the U.S. must pass a more rigorous screening than even those entering on a tourist or student visa. And those from Syria, which is one of the seven nations singled out in Trump’s travel ban, are subjected to special measures including iris scans and an “enhanced review” by the Department of Homeland Security. It remains to be seen how Trump will change the vetting process, but the current process, for refugees at least, can take up to two years.

Welfare: Trump envisioned “millions lifted from welfare to work” by the time the United States celebrates its 250th anniversary, in nine years. But the welfare rolls have already dropped by millions — from 10.9 million average monthly recipients in fiscal 1997 to 2.8 million in fiscal 2016. The drop was precipitated by legislation signed by President Clinton in 1996 instituting work requirements and time limits to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. This is at least the thirdtime Trump has made a claim about moving people from welfare to work since he was sworn in.

Jobs: Trump boasted that “since my election, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart 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.” But as we have reportedrepeatedly, many of the investments announced by those companies were in the works before the election or were largely market driven. Executives of those companies praised Trump’s plan to cut corporate taxes and reduce regulation, but several of them said the recently announced investments would have been made no matter who was elected president, and were part of a years-long investment strategy. We won’t know how Trump is doing on jobs until the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with its monthly figures for February, and it may take many more months or even years, to fully evaluate Trump’s impact on jobs. We can say this, though: The creation of “tens of thousands” of jobs by these companies would represent a small part of the overall economy, which has shown a years-long trend of growth. The economy added nearly 2.2 million jobs in the 12 months before Trump took office. It has gained jobs for 76 straight months – the longest streak on record.

Health insurance: Trump said that “Obamacare premiums nationwide have increased by double and triple digits,” giving the average 116% increase in Arizona as an example. But that state was the only one to have a “triple digit” average increase in premiums on the ACA exchange, for individuals who buy their own insurance. As we’ve written before, the average nationwide change was a 25% increase from 2016 to 2017 among the 38 HealthCare.gov states. Ten of those states had single-digit increases or a decrease in the average second lowest-cost silver plan. And it’s worth noting that 84% of the 10.4 million Americans with marketplace coverage in the first half of 2016 received tax credits that limit the amount those individuals have to pay toward premiums.

Crime: Trump got his talking point right when he said, “The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century.” It’s a line he has repeatedly misstated. But while the murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate did go up by 10.8% from 2014 to 2015, the long-term trend has been a decrease in murders. The 2015 rate, 4.9 per 100,000 people, is less than half the peak rate of 10.2 in 1980, according to FBI data.

For a full list of sources, see FactCheck.org.

Copyright 2017 USA TODAY


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