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Fact-checking Donald Trump's address to Congress

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 1, 2017
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman March 1, 2017

Updated March 1, 2017, at 10:32 a.m.

President Donald Trump promised to revive the economy and strengthen the military in his first address to a joint session of Congress.

Beyond his soaring rhetoric were some exaggerations and misleading statements about the health of the Affordable Care Act, the cost of illegal immigration and the state of the economy. 

Here’s our rundown of the president’s remarks, along with notes on their overall accuracy and additional points of context.

Obamacare premium increases

Trump zeroed in on repealing the Affordable Care Act, saying the federal health care law has been a "disaster" that has caused premiums to skyrocket.

"Obamacare premiums nationwide have increased by double and triple digits," Trump said, citing  a 116 percent increase in Arizona as an example.

We rate his statement Half True. Many people purchasing health care through federal and state insurance marketplaces did see double-digit premium increases, but Trump’s talking point doesn’t accurately reflect the situation overall.

Several states did not see such dramatic premium changes, and experts say that health care costs broadly are increasing at a lower rate than before the health care law took effect. Most people get their health care through the employer, which hasn’t seen the same premium spikes. And for people on the health care exchanges, federal subsidies are offsetting premium increases for many.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Not in every state
"Obamacare premiums nationwide have increased by double and triple digits."
address to Congress
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Big bump for defense? 

Trump said his budget "calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history." That's a bit of a stretch.

Looking at money for the Pentagon’s base budget, Trump is calling for about a 10 percent hike in spending. But in the past 30 years, there have been 10 years when the base defense budget has gone up by more than what Trump has requested. In some years, the increase was more than double Trump’s.

The term "one of the largest" has some leeway, but the defense analysts we reached confirmed that while the proposal is a significant increase, it is not remarkable. Calling it "one of the largest increases" is an exaggeration, and it rates Mostly False

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Largest is a stretch
Says his budget "calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history."
address to Congress
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A murder spike

Trump said that the murder rate in 2015 "experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century." That’s basically correct, though it leaves out some important context.

FBI data shows a clear spike in homicides between 2014 and 2015 -- a 10.8 percent increase. This does rank as the biggest year-to-year jump in murders since 1970-71, when the number rose by 11.1 percent. In addition, the preliminary statistics for 2016, which are not an apples-to-apples comparison to the full-year numbers, suggest that homicides rose once again from 2015.

Criminologists consider this a worrisome trend, but they caution that it comes after a quarter century of declines in the murder rate. The number of murders declined by 42 percent between 1993 and 2014, even as the U.S. population rose by 25 percent over the same period. So despite the recent increase, homicide levels remain far below their high levels of the early 1990s.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Still lower than 1990s
Says that the murder rate in 2015 "experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century."
address to Congress
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Deporting the ‘bad ones’

Trump alluded to his promise to remove criminal undocumented immigrants.

"As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens.  Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight and as I have promised."

Trump signed an executive order Jan. 25 directing the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the removal of immigrants in the country illegally.

The order set wide parameters on the categories of people who would become a priority, ranging from individuals engaged in terrorist activities to people charged with crimes but not yet convicted.

On Feb. 13, Homeland Security announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had arrested 680 people in raids across the U.S. in the previous week approximately three-quarter of whom had prior criminal convictions.

A DHS press released stated that they were "convicted of crimes including, but not limited to, homicide, aggravated sexual abuse, sexual assault of a minor, lewd and lascivious acts with a child, indecent liberties with a minor, drug trafficking, battery, assault, DUI and weapons charges."

The agency didn’t provide details about the 25 percent who had no prior convictions.

Losing labor

Trump said that 94 million Americans are out of the labor force. That number is gleaned from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but it's misleading.

The 94 million figure includes any American age 16 and over who isn’t institutionalized and who isn’t either working or actively looking for work. In other words, the figure includes a lot of people who wouldn’t be expected to be working, or who are engaged in other worthy pursuits.

For instance, the figure includes retirees, high school students over 16, undergraduate and graduate students, stay-at-home parents, disabled people, adults who are engaged in full-time education or training, and even trust-fund kids and those wealthy enough to be living off investments. Put it all together and this is not a trivial group of people.

We have previously estimated that only about a quarter of the approximately 90 million people officially listed as being out of the labor force are either out of work, looking for a job, or eager to get back in the job hunt if labor-market conditions were to improve. The other three-quarters have a good reason for being out of the labor force, which means that Trump’s figure is misleadingly high.

Spinning (again) on planes

Trump again touted savings for the F-35 airplanes.

"We've saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing down the price of the fantastic and it is a fantastic new F-35 jet fighter, and will be saving billions more dollars on contracts all across our government," he said.

The Department of Defense announced a $728 million reduction on Feb. 3 for the aircraft. But Trump ignores that the government and Lockheed Martin were working toward reducing the costs for years — long before Trump’s tweets in December criticizing the price tag.

Trade deficit point doesn't factor in services

Trump pointed to the U.S. trade deficit as an example of the "mess" he inherited from Obama.

"Our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800 billion dollars," he said.

Trump’s figure is slightly high, and it needs some additional context.

The country’s overall trade deficit in 2016 was about $502 billion, just a hair higher than it was in 2015. But this number is calculated from two separate figures: the trade balance in goods, which includes all manufactured products, oil and agriculture products, and the trade balance in services, which is more intangible economic activity.

For years, the U.S. has run a big deficit in the trade of goods, but a smaller surplus in the trade of services. On balance, that makes the overall trade deficit -- the $502 billion figure cited above -- smaller than it would be if it counted goods alone.

Trump did specifically mention goods, and for 2016, that figure was a deficit of $750 billion. It’s worth noting the deficit in goods was higher from 2005 to 2008.

Illegal immigration costs vary 

By enforcing immigration laws, Trump said the country "will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone."

Estimating the costs of illegal immigration is extremely difficult and produces dramatically different figures depending on the source.

A 2013 report from Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that generally favors tighter controls on immigration, estimated the total cost at the federal, state and local levels for undocumented immigrants to be $113 billion. But FAIR’s data is largely based on broad estimates and assumptions. Another report by a conservative think tank pegged the amount at about $85 billion a year. Reports by pro-immigration or neutral groups have come in significantly lower, and other reports have been inconclusive.

$6 trillion spent in the Middle East?

Trump again decried the country’s spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"America has spent approximately $6 trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling," he said, returning to a familiar talking point.

Trump is citing the high-end estimate of credible analyses of spending associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet he is confusing money that’s been spent with money that researchers say will be spent.

Through this fiscal year, the United States has spent about $3.8 trillion, with another estimated $1 trillion in expected care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into the middle of the century. If you add in the accumulated interest on the money borrowed to pay for those wars, the total reaches $7.9 trillion by 2053.

Corporate tax rates

Trump vowed in his speech to deliver on tax reform for companies and for the middle class, echoing some of this campaign tax promises.

"Right now," he said, "American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world."

The United States has a higher corporate tax rate than most of its industrial peers. America ranks third highest for general top marginal corporate income tax rates with a 39.1 percent tax on corporate profits, exceeded by Chad and the United Arab Emirates.

That said, it’s worth remembering that the official tax rates are one thing, while the tax rates corporations actually pay can be substantially less. In practice, U.S. companies pay less because they can claim deductions and exclusions.

Is Obamacare "collapsing"?

Trump said, "Obamacare is collapsing – and we must act decisively to protect all Americans."

There are ominous signs for the Affordable Care Act, but health care policy experts have said that "collapsing" is too strong a word for what has been happening.

On the one hand, there’s no question that the number of health insurers participating in the law’s online exchanges has been declining. Data released by the Department of Health and Human Services showed that at least 29 states have fewer plan issuers in 2017 than they did in 2016. Nationally, the number of insurers exiting a state outpaced the number of insurers newly entering a state by a factor of more than 5-to-1.

There’s also no question that average Obamacare premiums rose significantly when the 2017 rates were announced last fall — 25 percent in 2017, after more modest increases for the previous three years.

At the same time, overall premium increases were actually faster under President George W. Bush than under President Barack Obama. Family premiums for employer-sponsored insurance increased by a cumulative 99 percent under the eight years of Bush, while under eight years of Obama, they rose by a more modest 59 percent.

Some health policy experts say the biggest risk for causing an actual collapse of Obamacare would be to repeal the Affordable Care Act without also enacting a workable replacement.

The worst recovery?

In one of his bigger shots against his predecessor, Trump said, "We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years."

This is something of an odd phrasing, since the term that’s typically used is "economic" recovery. ("Financial" recovery suggests a focus purely on how the financial-services sector bounced back, meaning Wall Street and banks.) In a strict sense, the recovery from the 2001 recession was weaker than the one after the Great Recession. In the earlier recession, employment didn’t crawl out of negative territory for about 28 months. By comparison, in the recovery following the 2007 recession, it took only 21 months.

But GDP growth after the Great Recession has been slower than in other recent recoveries. For a few quarters, the recovery from the Great Recession did better than the one that followed the 1980 recession, but after that, the 1980 recovery consistently outpaced it.

More broadly, the economy Trump inherited from Obama was generally strong, though not without its shortcomings. Obama handed Trump the reins of an economy with a 4.7 percent unemployment rate; 75 consecutive months of job growth; rising stock prices, home values, corporate profits and consumer confidence; low inflation; and a record spike in middle-class incomes.

However, income inequality remains persistently high. Food stamp use and poverty rates have not returned to their pre-recession levels. Gross domestic product growth — the engine of long-term economic prosperity — remains sluggish, and job gains have been relatively modest in scale compared to some previous recoveries. And even those who credit Obama’s actions worry about a declining labor-force participation rate, which hasn’t been this low since the 1970s.

Calling out NATO partners

During the campaign, Trump voiced ambivalence about the alliance’s future if other countries wouldn’t pitch in more. He's correct that most members aren't meeting benchmarks for support.

In his Tuesday speech, he said NATO partners "must meet their financial obligations." We have found that only a handful of NATO’s 28 members have fulfilled the pledge to spend at least 2 percent of their economy on defense — Great Britain, the United States, Greece and Estonia.

Chicago's shootings

Trump has assailed hot spots for homicide and shootings, and none more often than Chicago. His numbers here were correct.

"In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone –- and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher," he said.

According to data released by the Chicago Police Department shortly after the close of 2016, the city had 762 murders, 3,550 shooting incidents, and 4,331 shooting victims in 2016.

Promises, promises

Trump portrayed the earliest days of his administration as a productive sprint that shouldn’t come as a surprise — he’s just doing what he said he’d do as a candidate.

PolitiFact is tracking his progress on 102 campaign promises on the Trump-O-Meter.

Among the promises Trump mentioned in his speech: issuing a lifetime ban on the executive branch lobbying for a foreign government (Promise Kept); enacting a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials from lobbying (Compromise); nominating someone from his list of judges to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court (Promise Kept); and asking the defense secretary within 30 days of taking office to deliver a plan to demolish ISIS (In the Works).

Trump held up the central promise of his campaign to build a wall on the Mexican border as integral to restoring "the rule of law to our borders."

This pledge is In the Works. Homeland Security secretary John Kelly issued a memo Feb. 20 directing U.S. Customs and Border Protection to move forward on Trump's executive order to build a wall along the 2,000-mile southern border.

It's hard to determine how much it would cost, with estimates ranging from $5 billion to $25 billion. Trump has said that Mexico can afford to pay for the wall because of the trade deficit but experts have said that the trade deficit has nothing to do with whether the Mexican government could afford to write the United States a check.

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Fact-checking Donald Trump's address to Congress