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Fact-checking Donald Trump's Feb. 16 press conference

Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll February 16, 2017

"It's all fake news," President Donald Trump declared about media coverage of the first few weeks of his presidency, facing reporters in a sprawling news conference Feb. 16.

Well, PolitiFact’s here to tell you what’s real and what’s not.

The appearance was originally billed as the announcement of Trump’s new Labor Department secretary nominee Alexander Acosta. But focus quickly turned to the recent outpouring of leaks to the news media — from his phone calls with foreign leaders to federal investigations into whether his campaign coordinated with Russian operatives.

"I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos. Chaos," Trump said from the East Room of the White House. "Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can't get my Cabinet approved."

Trump insisted he has nothing to do with Russia, calling it a "ruse" and that "nobody I know of talked to Russia during the campaign."

Trump returned to a number of themes from his campaign (and two days before he returns to Melbourne, Fla., for a campaign-style event) and repeated a slew of new and old falsehoods. He also touted progress on campaign promises (see our Trump-O-Meter), from a hiring freeze on federal workers to cutting regulations to ethics requirements of former White House staffers.

Here’s the rundown of the roughly hour-and-a-half event.

Electoral College victory not biggest since Reagan

Trump opened his remarks talking about his accomplishments, starting with the election itself.

"We got 306 because people came out and voted like they've never seen before so that's the way it goes," Trump said. "I guess it was the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan."

This is incorrect. Trump received a smaller share of the Electoral College votes (56.88 percent)  than former presidents George H. W. Bush (79.18 percent), Bill Clinton (68.77 percent in 1992, and 70.45 percent in 1996) and Barack Obama (67.84 percent in 2008 and 61.71 percent in 2012).

So that’s five elections since Reagan and in which the winner got a larger percentage of the Electoral College votes than Trump.

Overall, Trump ranks in the bottom third in terms of the size of his Electoral College win. We rated his repeated claim that he won in a "massive landslide" False.

9th Circuit not most overturned

Trump criticized the recent decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that stops his administration from enforcing its immigration and travel ban executive order while lawyers debate its legality in court.

He said the 9th Circuit "has been overturned at a record number. I have heard 80 percent. I find that hard to believe, that is just a number I heard, that they are overturned 80 percent of the time."

Trump’s figure isn’t too far off. Between 2010-15, of all the cases the Supreme Court heard that came from the 9th Circuit, 79 percent were overturned.

However, this is not a "a record." The reversal rate for the 6th Circuit was 87 percent during those six years, and the reversal rate was 85 percent for the 11th Circuit.

What’s more, the Supreme Court generally reverses more cases than it affirms, 70 percent on average, because the cases that it chooses to take on are often disputed among the lower courts, complex and problematic.

Mostly False: Media has "a lower approval rate than Congress."  

Assailing media coverage of his administration, Trump told the assembled reporters, "You have a lower approval rate than Congress, I think that's right, I don't know."

Congress actually ranks below the news media, according to surveys from three different research groups spanning several years. In two polls, mistrust in the media broke 40 percent, which is hardly anything to brag about. But in those studies, mistrust in Congress was over 50 percent.

Trump had a point that the media has a trust issue, but he was incorrect to rank them lower than Congress. This claim is Mostly False.

Evidence mixed on inheriting 'a mess'

Trump said his presidency is focused on cleaning up problems. "To be honest, I inherited a mess. It's a mess. At home and abroad, a mess."

Was it really a "mess"? As fact-checkers, our research on the economy, at least, has shown a lot of improvement in recent years. So whether Trump inherited a mess is hardly clear cut. We went through the evidence on the economy and foreign policy in a separate extended report

Mostly True: Trump says stock market record high shows optimism

Trump, saying he will create jobs as president, cited the stock market highs as a sign of a promising business environment.

"The stock market has hit record numbers, as you know. And there has been a tremendous surge of optimism in the business world," he said.

The three major stock indexes, Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq, all closed at record highs for five consecutive days. While investors are optimistic about Trump’s plans to cut taxes and eliminate regulations, experts said factors other than Trump’s presidency play influential roles in the stock market. This claim is Mostly True.

Mostly False: Hillary Clinton gave Russia 20 percent of the United States’ uranium

Trump said he will be in a better position to work with Russia than Hillary Clinton would have been, based on her record as secretary of state.

"We had Hillary Clinton try and do a reset," he said. "We had Hillary Clinton give Russia 20 percent of the uranium in our country. You know what uranium is, right?"

Trump made this claim during the election, and we rated it Mostly False.

This is a reference to the fact that Russia’s nuclear power agency bought a controlling interest in a Toronto-based company. That company has mines, mills and tracts of land in Wyoming, Utah and other U.S. states that amount to about 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity (not produced uranium). Clinton was secretary of state at the time, but she didn’t have the power to approve or reject the deal.

Trump denies campaign’s contact with Russia

Trump fielded many questions about whether his campaign advisers had contact with Russian intelligence officers during the election, stemming from revelations in a recent New York Times article. Trump denied the report, calling it "fake news." Because the New York Times article relied on anonymous sources, we cannot independently verify their findings.

Trump noted, though, that his former adviser, Paul Manafort "represented the Ukraine or Ukraine government or somebody, but everybody — people knew that. Everybody knew that."

This is accurate. Manafort has long and deep ties to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. He worked for Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s prime minister, and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Besides Manafort, Trump’s former campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page advised Russian gas giant Gazprom. And ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn attended an RT gala with Putin.   

Trump denies business dealings in Russia

Trump said, "I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don't have any deals in Russia."

It’s true that Trump has yet to build a hotel or tower in Russia, but he has eyed the Moscow skyline for decades.

We don’t know for sure about the extent of Trump’s business dealings in Russia. But his son, Donald Trump Jr., said in a 2008 real estate conference that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets."

We do know that Trump agreed to host the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013, a $20 million deal facilitated by a Russian real estate mogul and billionaire Aras Agalarov. (Trump also cameoed in Agalarov’s son’s dance-pop music video). He also made millions selling a 17-bedroom Florida mansion to a Russian billionaire.

Trump’s flip-flop on leaks

During the presidential campaign, Trump couldn’t get enough of the private emails of senior Democrats released by WikiLeaks. But now Trump is assailing leaks from the intelligence community to the media about his campaign advisers’ contacts with Russian officials.

"The press should be ashamed of themselves" for running stories based on leaks, he said at the press conference.

So Trump praised the release of private information during the campaign but criticized it after he became president. On our Flip-O-Meter, we rated Trump’s change in position about leaks a Full Flop.

Trump defended his position by saying WikiLeaks didn’t give out classified information, unlike some of the leaks currently coming out of the intelligence agencies.

"Now, when WikiLeaks, which I had nothing to do with, comes out and happens to give — they're not giving classified information," he said. "They're giving stuff — what was said at an office about Hillary cheating on the debates."

During the general election, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails that Russian actors stole from Democratic political operatives. Those emails do not contain classified information, as far as we know.

However, WikiLeaks has certainly released classified information in the past. For example, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) made many thousands of classified and sensitive government files public through WikiLeaks.

On Clinton’s access to debate questions

Speaking of the Clinton campaign emails released by WikiLeaks, Trump complained, "Nobody mentions that Hillary received the questions to the debates."

The debates in question were primary debates, not general election debates. The WikiLeaks-released emails showed that the Clinton campaign found out about two primary debate questions in advance: A March 6, 2016 debate question about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and a March 13, 2016 town hall question regarding the death penalty. Clinton’s opponent then was Democrat Bernie Sanders.

This discovery was widely reported in the media when the emails were released. It cost Democratic strategist Donna Brazile her analyst position at CNN.

Russia didn’t hack the Republicans

Trump touted the fact that while the Democratic National Committee was hacked during the election, "they tried to hack us and they failed."

The gist of Trump’s claim is correct. We rated a similar claim Mostly True.

While Russians were able to get into the email accounts of some Republican individuals and state-level Republican organizations, they did not break into the Republican National Committee’s current system. Any information the hackers accessed was outdated and wasn’t released. It’s not completely clear why hackers did not break into the current RNC. We don’t know whether they tried and failed or didn’t try at all.

On his relationship with Putin

Trump tried to distance himself personally from the Russian government.

"I have nothing to do with Russia," he said. "Haven't made a phone call to Russia in years. Don't speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn't. I just have nobody to speak to. I spoke to Putin twice. He called me on the election. I told you this. And he called me on the inauguration, a few days ago."

Just a couple years ago, Trump touted his close relationship with Putin. "I do have a relationship (with him), and I can tell you that he's very interested in what we're doing here today," he said in a 2013 MSNBC interview, for example.

We rated this reversal a Full Flop.

Picking a positive poll

Trump touted results from a recent Rasmussen poll, saying "it has our approval rating at 55 percent and going up."

The 55 percent approval rating figure is accurate, according to the Rasmussen poll, as reported by Real Clear Politics. However, 10 other polls have Trump’s approval rating falling between 39 percent and 48 percent.

One difference between the Rasmussen poll and other presidential approval polls is that it surveyed only "likely voters." Often, head-to-head polls late in a campaign will track likely voters, using a battery of questions to determine who is likely to cast a vote. But they are rare in presidential approval polls.

Trump recently tweeted that "any negative polls are fake news."

Progress on the Trump-O-Meter

We’re tracking more than 100 of Trump’s campaign pledges on our Trump-O-Meter. In the press conference, he listed several actions he’s taken since his Jan. 20 inauguration to meet these promises.

For example, he said, "We've withdrawn from the job-killing disaster known as Trans Pacific Partnership." We rated this a Promise Kept.

And he said "We've begun preparing to repeal and replace Obamacare." That promise is In the Works.

Also In the Works is his "promised wall on the southern border."

He talked about other promises that he’s made progress on as well; read more about the other promises on the Trump-O-Meter.

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Fact-checking Donald Trump's Feb. 16 press conference