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Fact-checking the first night of the 2016 Republican National Convention

A delegate holds a sign that reads "Make America Safe Again" prior to the start of the evening session on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty) A delegate holds a sign that reads "Make America Safe Again" prior to the start of the evening session on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty)

A delegate holds a sign that reads "Make America Safe Again" prior to the start of the evening session on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty)

Allison Graves
By Allison Graves July 19, 2016
By Neelesh Moorthy July 19, 2016

The Republican National Convention kicked off Monday in Cleveland with a theme of "Make America Safe Again," with a litany of speakers criticizing Hillary Clinton as a dishonest politician who, along with President Barack Obama, endangered Americans.

Exhibit A was the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

In an emotional speech, the mother of Sean Smith, one of the four victims, blamed Clinton for her son’s death and praised Donald Trump for being "everything Hillary Clinton is not."

"For all of this loss, for all of this grief, for all of the cynicism the tragedy in Benghazi has wrought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton," Smith said. "I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son."

Beyond Benghazi, speakers from Congress, reality television and law enforcement stressed the need for better border security and supporting the police amid national protests.

Let’s dive into the fact-checks.

Did Clinton lie about Benghazi?

Clinton blamed terrorism for the attack in an email to her own daughter Chelsea Clinton, Smith said, but "when I saw Hillary Clinton at Sean’s coffin ceremony, just days later, she looked me squarely in the eye and told me a video was responsible. Since then, I have repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton to explain to me the real reason why my son is dead. I’m still waiting."

Her comments get right at the heart of the deep partisan divide over Benghazi and Clinton’s role. But the lack of hard evidence makes it impossible to know what really happened between Clinton and these families.

The allegation that Clinton lied to victims’ families refers to events right after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Three days after the attacks, President Barack Obama, Clinton and others met with the families of the four victims, gathering at Joint Base Andrews to receive the victims’ remains. Rubio alleges that at this meeting, Clinton told the families a story about the attacks that she knew at the time to be false.

No one recorded these brief meetings behind closed doors. Family members and Clinton disagree on what was said. Especially given the emotional setting, memories — both Clinton’s and the families’ — might be fuzzy.

We can’t put Smith’s claims on the Truth-O-Meter. But here, we explain the case for and against the allegations against Clinton and let readers come to their own conclusion.

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Responding to the attack

Mark Geist, one of six security officers who responded to the Benghazi attacks, said they did so despite "stand-down" orders from higher-ups.

"There were more than 30 American lives that were saved that night," he said. "And it’s because Americans never give up. We refuse to lose."

We looked at the final Republican-issued report on Benghazi, and found Geist’s claim made several simplifications.

Technically, when a military force is told to "stand-down," it means the force is no longer on alert or operational. This, however, is not what happened, according to the report.

The report cites a CIA base chief who was "adamant" he never told the team to stand down and that no one was preventing the team from deploying. Although the term "stand down" could technically have been used, in reality the team was being asked to wait for intelligence and better equipment. That’s not the same thing as being told not to intervene.

Geist’s statement is misleading because it conflates waiting with "standing down." We rated this claim Mostly False.

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Combating illegal immigration

Exhibit B in the Republicans’ case against Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office: her plan for immigration.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani characterized her proposed policy as "open borders."

"You know Donald Trump will secure our borders," he said. "His opponent has had her chance to do this and she has failed. Hillary Clinton is for open borders."

Clinton does want to make it easier for many undocumented immigrants to remain in the country, but she has also called for strong protections at the border. Some experts said Clinton’s policies, as such, do not amount to "open borders."

However, other experts argued "open borders" doesn't necessarily mean no enforcement at all, but rather making it far easier for undocumented immigrants to stay here. Clinton’s plan does reduce deportations, and goes farther than Obama did in making it easier for immigrants to remain.

Clinton’s current strategies mirror an immigration bill she supported in 2013, which passed the Senate, but not the House. This bill included pathway to citizenship, but only contingent on certain border security measures being satisfied first.

We rated Giuliani’s claim False, because Clinton’s policies do not support the type of free-for-all "open borders" suggests.

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., pointed to a high number of illegal immigrants he claimed enter America each year.

"There are about 350,000 people who succeed in crossing our borders illegally each year," Sessions said.

The most common way federal officials track illegal entry is border apprehensions. In fiscal year 2015, the border patrol had 337,117 apprehensions nationwide, a decline from the prior year and a significant drop from peaks in 2000.

The key point is that border apprehensions have been on the decline. Even then, the statistic measures the number of individuals stopped at the border, which is the opposite of what Sessions is talking about.

We rated his claim False.

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Sessions also made an economic argument for reduced immigration, saying it hurts national employment.

"We have the lowest percentage of Americans actually holding a job in 40 years," he said.

Although Sessions’ phrasing refers to an economic measure (an employment-to-population ratio) that contradicts his claim, a similar economic measure (the labor force participation rate) supports his point. This measure takes the number of people either working or trying to work and divides it by the total civilian noninstitutional population ages 16 and up.

As of June 2016, this number is 62.7 percent. The last time it was that low was in February 1978, which is a bit over 38 years — close to the 40 years Sessions mentioned.

Based on this metric, Sessions has a point. It’s important to note the retirement of the Baby Boom generation plays a significant role in the decline, and that measuring the effects of immigration on the statistic is complicated.

We rated this statement Mostly True.

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Talking trade

Sessions went on to attack Clinton for her support of trade deals over the last two decades, which he said have been bad for Americans.

"She has been a champion of globalist trade agreements," Sessions said. "They are now pushing the disastrous 5,000-page ‘Obamatrade’ — the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement."

Sessions painted Clinton’s support for trade with an overly broad brush, and he fails to note her most recent position on the TPP is against.

From 1993 to 2016, Clinton supported eight deals, opposed two, flip-flopped from opposing to supporting three, and flip-flopped the other way on two others. So her record is not as uniform as Sessions said. As first lady, Clinton did support the North American Free Trade Agreement. But she switched when she ran for president in 2008, calling her support for NAFTA a mistake.

Further, she flipped her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership from when she promoted it as secretary of state. She said last fall, during her primary fight against Sen. Bernie Sanders, that her final decision is to oppose the deal.

We rate Sessions’ statement Mostly False.

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Did Trump pick Cleveland?

As speakers took turns on stage at the Quicken Loans Arena, Trump phoned into Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News. Trump said he was glad the convention was happening in Gov. John Kasich's home state, even if his former GOP presidential rival doesn't share the enthusiasm for Trump's bid.

"I wanted it to be in Ohio," Trump told O’Reilly. "I recommended Ohio. And people fought very hard that it be in Ohio. It's a tremendous economic development event, and you look at the way it's going so far, it's very impressive. I wanted it be here, the Republicans wanted it to be here."

The timing of Trump’s statement was a little odd considering the RNC announced Cleveland on July 8, 2014. Trump wasn’t a candidate at this time, and reports weren’t expecting him to run either. It’s possible that he put in a good word for either Cleveland or Cincinnati (both are in Ohio), but there’s no record of him saying anything about either one.

Steve Duprey, a member of the site selection committee, told us he doesn’t recall Trump’s name coming up in any meeting. In the absence of evidence showing he spoke up, we rate Trump’s claim False.

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Looking at the economy

Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy veered from the safety theme to the make an economic point about rising debt under Obama and Clinton’s watch.

"Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have left us with $19 trillion in debt," he said.

The U.S. debt number is correct, but we noted several problems with this claim. About half of that debt was from before Obama took office. Given that Obama took over during a recession, the debt was bound to go up no matter what he did, experts said.

Attributing debt to Clinton is also problematic, because the secretary of state has a very limited role in deciding issues of fiscal policy.

We rated this claim Mostly False.

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Obama’s faith revisited

Another convention speaker — actor Antonio Sabato Jr. — questioned Obama’s religion, saying the president is "absolutely" a Muslim.

"We had a Muslim president for seven and half years," he said in an interview with ABC News after his speech.

We’ve looked into claims about Obama’s religion on multiple occasions, and have debunked several claims that Obama is a Muslim. There’s no more truth to Sabato’s claim than the inaccurate ones in previous years.

There is an extensive history of Obama’s Christian past, including his conversion as a community organizer in Chicago.

We rated this Pants on Fire!

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Police not ‘standing down’ in Cleveland

A week before delegates, protesters and journalists flooded Cleveland, a blogger aired out an alarming "exclusive" on social media.

"Although the radical left has days of protests planned and has a history of protests, the Cleveland police has issued a stand down order to officers, I can exclusively report," wrote Mike Cernovich.

He compared it to an earlier incident in San Jose, Calif., in June, where police were accused of not protecting Trump supporters.

One problem, though: Cleveland police representatives emphatically denied such a "stand down" order. There have already been arrests — and photos of the arrests — made outside the convention.

We rated this claim Pants on Fire!

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Violent Neighborhoods and Obama

When a speaker prefaces a statement by saying "here are some facts," it's hard to resist fact-checking whatever comes next. That’s how Colorado Senate candidate Darryl Glenn introduced an attack on the Obama presidency.

"Neighborhoods have become more violent under your watch," Glenn said.

Nationally, crime has declined through most of Obama’s presidency, as it has under presidents of both parties since the early 1990s. It's true that some places have recently bucked this trend, but this is a recent development. If we take "your watch" to mean Obama’s time as president, then violent crime has continued to fall across the board.

We rated this claim Mostly False, since some supporting evidence fails to support his overall suggestion.


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Crooked (?) Hillary

Like many RNC speakers, Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania attacked Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness. Marino suggested that his take was shared by most Americans.

"Secretary Clinton has so much baggage that the luggage industry could name a line of suitcases after her. She's not trusted -- virtually at all," Marion said.

This certainly fits a certain narrative about Clinton, but is it backed up by public opinion polling?

Maybe—for Republicans, at least. A poll from late June showed only 6% of Republicans found Clinton trustworthy. But her numbers are better over-all—a poll from March showed close to a third of Americans finding her trustworthy and honest.

These numbers are low, and apparently worrying to the Clinton campaign. But they’re not "virtually" zero, we ranked Marino’s claim Mostly False.

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Fact-checking the first night of the 2016 Republican National Convention