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Donald Trump
stated on June 30, 2019 in remarks to South Korean business leaders:
"We hadn’t had a (car) plant built in years — in decades, actually. And now we have many plants being built all throughout the United States."
true barely-true
Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg July 9, 2019

Donald Trump exaggerates turnaround on US car plants, ignores closures

On his trip to South Korea, President Donald Trump spent some time with business executives and highlighted signs of a robust American economy.

"We have companies moving in, car companies moving in," Trump said June 30. "In particular, car companies. We hadn’t had a plant built in years — in decades, actually. And now we have many plants being built all throughout the United States."

We decided to look at what’s been going on with car plants, and if it’s been decades since a new one was started. The full story is that the turnaround is less clear cut than he said, especially when plant closures are folded in.

A car plant timeline 

The White House press office pointed to a list of recent automaker investments. The list included a totally new Toyota-Mazda assembly plant in Huntsville, Ala., (due to open in 2021) as well as expansions at existing facilities, such as General Motors retooling a Michigan plant to make electric vehicles, and Hyundai adding space at its Alabama facility to streamline engine production.

The Trump campaign had a similar list. Between the two of them, we counted eight expansion/retooling projects and two new assembly plants since 2017.

Trump’s statement could have referred to new plants that make cars, or expansions to existing plants, some of which make cars and others that make engines and other major components that go into cars. The distinction matters, because the patterns over the past 10 years are different. 

Investments in existing plants have been fairly steady since the 2009 recession. In 2010, General Motors announced $145 million to re-open a Detroit-area plant. In 2014, Ford put $500 million into an Ohio engine facility. In 2016, General Motors unveiled nearly $790 million for its Spring Hill, Tenn., engine plant.

Investments in new assembly plants sets a higher bar.

We found two lists of car assembly plant activity — one from researcher James Rubenstein at Miami University in Ohio and the other from the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan. We consolidated the two data sets, which include when plants open and when carmakers announced their plans.

In terms of openings, the numbers in this table show a gap between 2010 and 2018. 

"The absence of new assembly plants during most of the 2010s is attributable to two factors: Recovery from the severe 2008-09 recession and a focus on expanding production in Mexico," Rubenstein said.

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Between 2013 and 2016, automakers opened six new assembly plants in Mexico. During that time, the focus in the United States was on existing plants. New plants are dramatic investments, but carmakers invested billions after the recession to retool and reopen closed production lines. In 2015, Ford announced it was putting $1.3 billion into its Kentucky Truck Plant. Between 2013 and 2015, General Motors earmarked nearly $2 billion for its assembly plants in Flint and Hamtramck, Mich. 

Looking at the more recent period, as the table shows, one new plant was announced two years before Trump took office. The two announced on his watch, by Toyota-Mazda and Fiat Chrysler, are expected to open a couple of years from now. 

Trump had a point when he said it had been awhile since a new plant opened, but he went too far when he said it had been "decades." It had been since 2010.

Trump might like to take credit for any new activity, but Bernard Swiecki with the Center for Automotive Research told us that broad global factors guide the carmakers.

"With the huge capital outlay required for each plant, automakers time their investments carefully to have capacity available during the high volume points of the market," Swiecki said.

Or, as Rubenstein put it, "Carmakers operate in a longer time horizon than do politicians."

But plant openings tell only half the story. Closures are important, too.

General Motors stopped production at its Lordstown, Ohio, plant in 2019, and announced that its plant in Hamtramck, Mich., is slated to stay open only until January 2020.

The net gain on Trump’s watch could be one new assembly plant. 

Our ruling

Trump said the United States hadn’t seen a new car "plant built in years — in decades, actually. And now we have many plants being built all throughout the United States." It’s unclear if Trump included plants that make engines and other components, but that type of investment has been fairly steady over the years, which runs counter to his point about new plants coming after decades of no activity.

In terms of assembly plants, his comment is a stretch. Nine years ago a new assembly plant opened in Tennessee. In 2015, Volvo announced it would build a plant in South Carolina and opened it in 2019. So it hasn’t been "decades."

Two other plants are underway. On the flip side, however, one GM plant closed during Trump’s presidency, and another is slated for closure. 

Overall, Trump painted a picture of a turnaround that the facts don’t support. We rate his claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

White House, Remarks by President Trump to Korean Business Leaders, June 30, 2019

Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Estimated Impact of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on the U.S. Automotive Sector, April 18, 2019

Center for Automotive Research, Book of Deals 2018, 2018

Volkswagen of America, Chattanooga Facts, accessed July 3, 2019

Birmingham Business Journal, Kia to build $1.2 billion auto plant in West Point, Ga., March 13, 2006

KIA, Kia Motors First U.S. Manufacturing Plant Starts Production In West Point, Ga, Nov. 16, 2009

Honda, Our story, accessed July 3, 2019

Auto Blog, Official: Toyota to build Highlanders in Mississippi, Feb. 27, 2007

Toyota, Toyota Announces Start of Hiring at Blue Springs, Miss., Plant, Aug. 23, 2010

PR Newswire, Mercedes-Benz Vans opens new Sprinter plant in North Charleston, Sept. 5, 2018

ABC 12, Fiat Chrysler bringing 6,400 jobs, $4.5 billion investment to Detroit area, May 21, 2019

Detroit News, GM's Detroit-Hamtramck production extended to January 2020, Feb. 22, 2019

Macomb Daily, GM to shutter Warren transmission and Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plants, cut 14,700 jobs, Nov. 26, 2018

Detroit News, GM's potential Lordstown sale draws scrutiny, May 13, 2019

Center for Automotive Research, Contribution of General Motors’ Manufacturing Plants to the Economies of Ten States and the United States in 2013 and 2014, April 2015

General Motors, GM Invests $356 Million in Flint, Saginaw and Grand Rapids Engine/Component Operations, Dec. 15, 2015

General Motors, GM Invests Additional $788.7 Million in Spring Hill Manufacturing, April 27, 2016

General Motors, Flint Assembly, accessed July 8, 2019

General Motors, Hamtramck Assembly, accessed July 8, 2019

Ford Motor Company. Ford invests $1.6 Billion in U.S. Plants, creates 650 hourly jobs in Michigan and Ohio, April 26, 2016

Ford Motor Company, All-new Ford F-series super duty brings $1.3 Billion investment, 2,000 new jobs to Kentucky truck plant, Dec. 1, 2015

Toyota, Toyota Solidifies Its Substantial and Growing Investment in U.S., March 14, 2019

Reuters, Ford investing $500 million to make new engine at Ohio plant, March 28, 2014, Trump’s Repeated Falsehood on Auto Plants, June 21, 2019

Interview, Bernard Swiecki, director – Automotive Communities, Center for Automotive Research, July 3, 2019

Email interview, James Rubenstein, professor of geography, Miami University, July 3, 2019

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Donald Trump exaggerates turnaround on US car plants, ignores closures

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