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2015 Lie of the Year: the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan December 21, 2015
Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu December 21, 2015

It’s the trope on Trump: He’s authentic, a straight-talker, less scripted than traditional politicians. That’s because Donald Trump doesn’t let facts slow him down. Bending the truth or being unhampered by accuracy is a strategy he has followed for years.

"People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts," Trump wrote in his 1987 best-seller The Art of the Deal. "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion."

That philosophy guided Trump in luxury real estate and reality television. This year he brought it to the world of presidential politics.

Trump has "perfected the outrageous untruth as a campaign tool," said Michael LaBossiere, a philosophy professor at Florida A&M University who studies theories of knowledge. "He makes a clearly false or even absurdly false claim, which draws the attention of the media. He then rides that wave until it comes time to call up another one."

PolitiFact has been documenting Trump’s statements on our Truth-O-Meter, where we’ve rated 76 percent of them Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire, out of 77 statements checked. No other politician has as many statements rated so far down on the dial.

In considering our annual Lie of the Year, we found our only real contenders were Trump’s -- his various statements also led our Readers’ Poll. But it was hard to single one out from the others. So we have rolled them into one big trophy.

To the candidate who says he’s all about winning, PolitiFact designates the many campaign misstatements of Donald Trump as our 2015 Lie of the Year.

When it comes to inaccurate statements, the Donald was on fire:

  • • "I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down," he said at a Nov. 21 rally in Birmingham, Ala. "And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering." Pants on Fire. There is no video of thousands of people in Jersey City cheering. Weeks later, Trump continues to stand by his claim but has not been able to point to evidence to back it up. Public safety officials on the ground in New Jersey say it never happened.

  • • "The Mexican government ... they send the bad ones over." Pants on Fire. There’s no evidence to show the Mexican government encourages criminals to cross the border. Most illegal immigration comes from people seeking work. Recent estimates show illegal immigration from Mexico dropped off dramatically during the recession and has remained low.

  • • "Whites killed by whites — 16%. Whites killed by blacks — 81%," said an image he shared on Twitter. Pants on Fire. Most people are killed by someone they know, and someone of the same race. The correct number for whites killed by whites was 82 percent in 2014, while the number of whites killed by blacks was 15 percent.

When Bill O’Reilly of Fox News challenged Trump’s tweet of inaccurate murder rates, Trump suggested being accurate wasn’t so important: "Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic? I get millions and millions of people ... @RealDonaldTrump, by the way."

Trump hasn’t apologized or backtracked on his statements. Instead, when challenged, he offers flimsy explanations and suggests he shouldn’t be held accountable -- or simply insists he’s right.

"People maybe call me out, but they turn out to be wrong, also," he said in an interview Sunday with George Stephanopoulos. "And many of the things I've said -- and I think just about all of them -- they may have been controversial at one point, George, but they're not controversial in the end, because people start to say, you know, Trump's actually right."

From the get-go

Our first fact-check of Trump was in 2011, when he was toying with a 2012 White House bid and giving support to those who said President Barack Obama might not have been born in the United States. Trump claimed that people who went to school with Obama "never saw him." We rated that Pants on Fire, because many journalists had found and interviewed Obama’s college friends.

We fact-checked Trump 13 more times before his 2016 bid, awarding him a couple more Pants on Fire and False ratings.

When Trump declared his candidacy on June 16, 2015, PolitiFact looked at five statements from his announcement speech. All of them were inaccurate.

Since then, Trump’s misstatements have had range and diversity.

He talked about foreign policy: "If you're from Syria and you're a Christian, you cannot come into this country, and they're the ones that are being decimated. If you are Islamic ... it's hard to believe, you can come in so easily," Trump said in a speech in Las Vegas on July 11. "In fact, it's one of our main groups of people that are coming in."

This is wrong on its face -- Syrian Christians have been admitted as refugees in recent months. There’s nothing in U.S. law or regulation that discriminates against Christian refugees. We rated the claim False.

He tangled with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly at the first Republican debate on Aug. 6, when she challenged him with how he talks about women. "You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals,’ " Kelly said. "Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice it would be a ‘pretty picture’ to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president? And how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the 'war on women'?"

Trump dismissed her question, and later said its premise was wrong. "Well, some of the things that she said, I didn't say, okay?" Trump said when asked about it by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. "And she went through a whole list. And this is a hell of a first question, by the way."

Actually, Trump said exactly what Kelly mentioned, and it’s clearly documented. We rated his denial False.

A few weeks later, he got his facts wrong on economic policy. "Look, we’re the most highly taxed nation in the world — that’s why taxes have to go down, business has to come back, jobs have to be back," he said in an Aug. 24 interview on Fox News. But depending on the measurement you use on taxation, the United States is either in the middle of the pack or on the lighter end when compared with other advanced industrialized nations. We rated his claim False.

The debate over Trump-speak

Initially, Trump’s bombast was ridiculed as the stuff of entertainment. But as his status as a GOP presidential frontrunner took greater hold, the criticism has become more serious.

"Some of Trump’s untrue claims fall into the harmful category," said LaBossiere of Florida A&M University. "His claim about thousands of people celebrating on 9/11 feeds into fear, racism and religious intolerance."

Russell Moore, a prominent conservative evangelical leader with the Southern Baptist Convention, has called Trump’s proposals reckless, demagogic and divisive. Moore wrote in a New York Times column that Trump’s rhetoric "preys on turning economic insecurity into ugly ‘us versus them’ identity politics."

A growing percentage of the American electorate is nonwhite, and Republicans are fighting to capture part of that vote. Trump’s comments don’t help those efforts, said Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that aims to promote conservative values among Latino voters.

"He’s doing miserably with Latino voters because his campaign narrative isn’t inclusive. You’re seeing Latino voters distancing themselves from his candidacy," Garza said, calling Trump’s rhetoric on immigration "unproductive."

Trump’s recent proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States has tipped party leaders and GOP candidates toward harsher criticism.

At a debate last week in Las Vegas, Jeb Bush went after Trump directly: "So Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate. And he'd be a chaos president. He would not be the commander-in-chief we need to keep our country safe."

Trump’s response was to mock Bush for being behind in the polls: "Jeb doesn't really believe I'm unhinged. He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign. It's been a total disaster."

Republican strategist Rick Wilson said the party is right to worry about Trump’s rhetoric, because it’s "highly negative, deeply pessimistic, and profoundly nasty." Trump’s many misstatements reduce Republican credibility across the board, he said.

Some groups are beginning to spend money attacking Trump. A super PAC supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican rival, has run a series of attack ads against Trump. The anti-tax advocacy group Club for Growth spent $1 million in the fall running 30-second spots in Iowa slamming Trump’s support for liberal policies.

In what has become his standard response, Trump punched back, mocking Kasich’s small crowds and calling the Club for Growth "pathetic" on Twitter. For the record, out of the one True and five Mostly True ratings Trump has logged, three were attacks on rival Republican candidates who challenged him. (Another two came before Trump announced he was running for president.)

Though his 9/11 claim and crime statistic retweet were widely reported on, many of Trump’s other misstatements got lost in the fray. Here are three others you probably haven’t heard of:

• June 16: "The last quarter, it was just announced, our gross domestic product … was below zero. Who ever heard of this? It’s never below zero." Pants on Fire. The gross domestic product was not "zero," and the growth in the gross domestic product has been below zero 42 times over 68 years.

• Sept. 28: The unemployment rate may be as high as "42 percent." Pants on Fire. The highest alternative unemployment-rate measure we could come up with that had any credibility was 14.8 percent.

• Nov. 17: The federal government is sending Syrian refugees to states with governors who are "Republicans, not to the Democrats." Pants on Fire. Refugees are in fact sent to states with Democratic governors.

Trump’s poll position

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sees a couple of forces that have been at play for years when it comes to Trump: the desensitization to inflammatory rhetoric, the assault on science and expertise, and the increasing reliance on partisan media.

"Trump came into an environment that was ripe for bombastic, inflammatory, outrageous statements without having to suffer the consequences," Ornstein said.

Amos Kiewe, a professor of communications at Syracuse University, has written books about the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He said Trump relies on bluster to make points. "In a roundabout-way, it reminds me of rule No. 7 of persuasion," Kiewe said. "If the facts are on your side, then hammer the fact; if the opinions are on your side then, hammer the opinions; and if neither the facts nor the opinions are on your side, then hammer the table."

As of Monday, Trump was in first place among Republican-leaning voters with 34 percent support, according to Real Clear Politics’ national polling average. Experts speculate that this is because Trump’s supporters, like their candidate, don’t mind the hyperbole.

While that lead is outwardly impressive in 2015, it remains to be seen what will happen in 2016, when voters actually cast their ballots.

Ornstein noted that even if 30 to 40 percent of Republican-leaning voters support Trump, that’s still a fraction of the overall electorate. And outside his party, Trump’s misstatements may come back to haunt him.

"Clearly a lot of voters still care about the truth. What we don’t know at this point is what share that is. But I have to remain a skeptic that (Trump) can win the general election," Ornstein said. "In the general election, the loose connection that he, or many other candidates, have to the truth becomes a problem."

Trump seems aware of this, as he writes in The Art of the Deal:

"You can't con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on."

Members of the media interested in discussing the 2015 Lie of the Year can email [email protected].

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2015 Lie of the Year: the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump