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The week in fact-checking: Riding in planes, Michael Flynn
Passengers wait at a ticket counter at Salt Lake City International Airport on May 11, 2020. (AP) Passengers wait at a ticket counter at Salt Lake City International Airport on May 11, 2020. (AP)

Passengers wait at a ticket counter at Salt Lake City International Airport on May 11, 2020. (AP)

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan May 15, 2020

"The Week in Fact-checking" compiles short summaries of our best work; the links will take you to our full reports. Want this report early and via email? Sign up here

This week: COVID on a plane … Pelosi wrongly blames GOP for Illinois budget problems … Obama not first to criticize his successor … Is an HPV vaccine more deadly than COVID? Nope … Michael Flynn’s reversal of fortune … No, the Supreme Court didn’t say stay-at-home orders are illegal

What’s the risk of getting COVID-19 from air travel? 

During an appearance on the Sunday news show "Face the Nation," Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said it was safe for Americans to fly during the coronavirus epidemic.

"I don’t think the risk on an airplane is any greater risk than anywhere else, and in fact, you just look at the layered approach that we use. It’s as safe as an environment as you’re going to find," said Kelly. 

Is it as safe as any other environment? We rated his claim Mostly False

All in all, Kelly has some valid points about the safety of airplanes right now. But he also overplayed his hand.

Our key findings: 

• Airplanes have highly effective ventilation systems. That makes them safer than other enclosed modes of transportation, like subways or buses.

• But studies show that infectious disease transmission can occur on airplanes, particularly if you are seated next to someone who is carrying an illness.

• It’s difficult to maintain social distancing on an airplane — think of someone walking by on the way to the bathroom — especially compared with being at home.

Read our full fact-check for more details

Victoria Knight, Kaiser Health News

Fact-checks of the week

Nancy Pelosi wrong on Illinois budget troubles: The Democratic speaker of the House said that Illinois "got into fiscal problems because of a Republican governor who was governor there" before current Gov. J.B. Pritzker. That rates Mostly False. Illinois’ financial situation did worsen during Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's term. The state operated without a spending plan for an unprecedented two years, but he wasn’t solely to blame. What’s more, the state was already teetering on the brink when he took office because of decisions made by leaders from both parties dating back decades.

Obama not the only former president with something to say: Former President Barack Obama called the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 "an absolute chaotic disaster." That aggravated current President Donald Trump, so Trump retweeted a message saying Obama is the first ex-president to speak ill of his successor. That claim rates False. From Hoover to Truman, Ford to Carter and beyond, ex-presidents have criticized the person who followed them into office. Read our brief history of the presidential predecessor dis. 

What’s more dangerous: COVID-19 or HPV vaccine? Iowa state Rep. Jeff Shipley had this warning on Twitter for young people: "Someone should tell them they have a greater chance of being killed by the HPV vaccine than COVID-19." That claim rates Pants on Fire. Shipley admitted he made it up. Numbers show no deaths in Iowa from the HPV vaccine, while COVID-19 deaths among young people are well-documented. 

What’s going on with Michael Flynn? 

After a three-year-plus legal saga involving Russia and the 2016 election, the Justice Department said it was recommending that the judge dismiss the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. 

The filing said that a key interview of Flynn did not have "a legitimate investigative basis" and therefore the department does not consider Flynn’s statements from the interview to be "material even if untrue." 

Flynn had held conversations with senior Russian officials about lifting sanctions on Russia, then he denied to federal law enforcement that those conversations had taken place. 

Trump praised the developments in the Flynn case, telling reporters in the Oval Office that Flynn "was an innocent man. He is a great gentleman."

But the Justice Department’s decision to reverse course on a prosecution that had already produced a guilty plea stunned legal experts.

"It is very unusual to dismiss a case after a defendant has pled guilty," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. "I can only imagine that being justified if there is evidence that the guilty plea was coerced or the defense attorney failed in some epic way to properly inform their client, and neither of those things are at issue here. The elements of the crime were proven and agreed to by a defendant with good lawyers and no signs of coercion."

Our story summarized other opinions from legal experts, who said the move by Trump’s Justice Department was highly unusual and seemed politically motivated.

It will now be up to the judge, Emmet Sullivan, to decide whether to grant the government’s request that the case be dismissed in a way that it cannot be revived in the future. On May 12, Sullivan said he intended to consider third-party opinions on the case before making a decision.

Louis Jacobson

Pants on Fire

Do you smell smoke? 

Here's your Pants on Fire fact-check of the week: 

Under an 1866 Supreme Court ruling, stay-at-home orders are illegal and can be disregarded with impunity.

Actually, no Supreme Court ruling says that.

See what else we've rated Pants on Fire this week. 

In case you missed it

If you were on social media last week, there’s a good chance you’ve seen someone share "Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19," a 26-minute video about the coronavirus pandemic. We debunked eight separate claims from the video, which is full of inaccurate conspiracy theories. Read our story to see the 8 things "Plandemic" gets wrong

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The week in fact-checking: Riding in planes, Michael Flynn