Fact-checking the first Trump-Biden debate of the 2020 election

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images; Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
  • President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off Tuesday night in the first presidential debate of the 2020 US general election.
  • In all, the event featured a constant stream of false claims, misinformation, and conspiracy theories, mostly from the president as he shouted over Biden and the Fox News host Chris Wallace, who attempted to moderate the debate.
  • Scroll down for a fact-check of the event.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden’s highly anticipated first debate rapidly descended into bickering and hard-to-follow barrages of false claims, misinformation, and conspiracy theories, mostly from Trump.

CNN’s Dana Bash described Tuesday night’s event as a “s—show.” Her colleague Jake Tapper largely agreed, calling it “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.”

“That was the worst debate I have ever seen,” he said, adding: “Primarily because of President Trump.”

Here’s are some of the biggest whoppers from both presidential candidates and how they stack up with reality:

The Supreme Court

What they said: While discussing Trump’s push to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, Biden attacked Trump for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Trump then accused Biden of working to “extinguish 180 million people with their private healthcare that they’re very happy with.”

“That’s simply not true,” Biden said.

“Well, you’re going socialist,” Trump said, adding, “That’s not what you said and that’s not what your party said. Your party wants to go socialist medicine and socialist healthcare, and they’re going to dominate you, Joe, you know that.”

“I am the Democratic Party right now,” Biden shot back. “The platform of the Democratic Party is what I, in fact, approved of.”

Fact-check: It’s not true that Biden’s healthcare plan would kick 180 million people off their insurance. Biden has proposed a “public option,” which would allow people to voluntarily join a government-run healthcare program similar to Medicare. But if they want to keep their current insurance, under Biden’s plan, they would be able to.

Trump and other Republican lawmakers have repeatedly claimed that Biden and other establishment Democrats caved to progressive lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Last week, one White House representative described Biden as “a prisoner of the radical, extreme, socialist left.”

In fact, Biden often comes under attack from his progressive rivals for his centrist record and long history of collaborating with Republicans. Though he adopted some positions endorsed by progressives, he has not embraced the benchmark policy proposal they have advocated: Medicare for All.

Biden opposes government-run universal healthcare and has instead pushed to expand the Affordable Care Act, the law also known as Obamacare. The former vice president also pushed back on the “socialist” label, saying during the debate that he “defeated the socialist,” referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who challenged Biden in the Democratic primary and describes himself as a democratic socialist.


What they said: Trump claimed Biden opposed his decision to ban certain types of travel from China early on during the US coronavirus outbreak. He said of travel from China, “We closed it down.” Trump also said the US was “weeks away” from a COVID-19 vaccine.

Fact-check: Biden’s campaign said in April that he supported Trump’s decision to restrict travel. Trump also did not impose a complete ban on travel from China, and thousands of people travelled to the US from China after the restrictions were announced. The restrictions were also implemented after the virus had already gained a foothold in the US.

Regarding a coronavirus vaccine, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s director, Robert Redfield, recently told Congress: “If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”

What they said: Trump told Biden he didn’t “do very well” in handling the swine flu, known as H1N1. “You were a disaster,” Trump said.

Fact-check: Biden wasn’t president when the H1N1 pandemic struck the US in 2009, and he wasn’t spearheading the federal response to it; President Barack Obama was. H1N1 also killed far fewer Americans — 14,000 — than COVID-19 has.

What they said: Biden tore into Trump for saying the virus outbreak would be gone by this past Easter or the early summer. He also attacked the president for suggesting during a coronavirus task-force briefing that “maybe you could inject some bleach in your arm and that would take care of it.”

“That was said sarcastically, and you know it,” Trump shot back.

Fact-check: Here’s what the president said during the April task-force briefing, according to a transcript and video recording of his remarks:

“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said, that hasn’t been checked but you’re going to test it. And then I said, supposing it brought the light inside the body, which you can either do either through the skin or some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too, sounds interesting. And I then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute, and is there a way you can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds interesting to me, so we’ll see. But the whole concept of the light, the way it goes in one minute, that’s pretty powerful.”

What they said: Biden said the US had “5% — 4% — of the world’s population, 20% of the deaths.”

Fact-check: This is true based on the known numbers. According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, 1,005,394 people around the world have died from COVID-19. The US consists of 205,996 of those deaths.

The economy

What they said: Biden claimed Trump would “be the first president in history to leave office with fewer jobs than when he came in.”

Fact-check: President George W. Bush “inherited 4.2% unemployment in January 2001,” a rate that had “grown to 7.8% when he left office eight years later,” Vox reported. When Trump took office, he inherited a 4.2% unemployment rate from Obama. The current unemployment rate is 8.4%.

CNN also reported that job losses during Trump’s first term were the worst of any president in recorded American history, though President Herbert Hoover also left office with fewer jobs than when he took office.

What they said: The debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump about a recent bombshell New York Times investigation that found Trump paid just $US750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017. Trump replied that he paid “millions of dollars” in income taxes, and Biden called on Trump to “show us your tax returns.” Trump said he would when the IRS was done auditing them.

Fact-check: The president has indeed paid millions in taxes, but not in federal income taxes, as The Times reported. There is also no rule prohibiting individuals from disclosing their tax returns when they’re under audit.

What they said: Biden claimed the US had a higher deficit with China “than we did before.”

Fact-check: This is a misleading claim, according to The New York Times, which reported that the trade deficit with China “fell sharply” between 2018 and 2019 as Trump’s trade war took a significant toll on commerce between the US and China.

Race and violence in American cities

What they said: Biden claimed Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides after neo-Nazis engaged in violence with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017.

Fact-check: This is true. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” Trump said at a press conference after the rally. “On many sides.”

“You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” he said a few days later. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists celebrated the president’s remarks as an affirmation of their views.

What they said: Trump claimed Biden called Black Americans “superpredators” in connection to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

Fact-check: This is untrue. Hillary Clinton made the remark in 1996, not Biden.

What they said: Asked whether he would condemn white supremacists and violent far-right groups involved in stoking violence in the George Floyd protests, Trump said almost all the violence he’d seen “is from the left wing, not the right wing.” He also recycled the Republican talking point that the loose-knit antifa movement was to blame for the violence.

Biden replied that Trump’s own FBI director, Chris Wray, said antifa “is an idea, not an organisation, not militia.”

“Well, then, you know what, he’s wrong,” Trump interjected.

Fact-check: Federal prosecutors have charged multiple far-right activists involved in groups like the Boogaloo Bois with provoking violence connected to the protests. Last month, prosecutors indicted a 17-year-old Trump supporter, Kyle Rittenhouse, on homicide charges after he was accused of killing two people at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Law enforcement and US intelligence agencies have also issued multiple warnings that far-right extremists may seek to infiltrate protests to sow discord. In June, two intelligence assessments said “boogaloo” extremists might soon “target” Washington, DC. Earlier that month, three self-proclaimed members of the movement were arrested on charges of domestic terrorism.

Biden’s claim that Wray classified antifa as an ideology, not an organisation, is true. “It’s not a group or an organisation. It’s a movement or an ideology,” Wray said. He added, however, that antifa activists and far-right extremists were a serious concern for the bureau and that the FBI had launched “any number of properly predicated investigations into what we would describe as violent anarchist extremists.”

What they said: Trump claimed Sheriff Mike Reese of Portland, Oregon, supported him.

Fact-check: This is untrue, according to Reese,who tweeted: “In tonight’s presidential debate the President said the ‘Portland Sheriff’ supports him. As the Multnomah County Sheriff I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him.”

What they said: Biden said at one point that Trump’s former White House adviser, Kellyanne Conway, said: “Riots and chaos and violence help his cause. That’s what this is all about.”

“I don’t know who said that,” Trump replied. “I do,” Biden said. When Trump asked who, Biden replied that it was Conway.

“I don’t think she said that,” Trump said.

Fact-check: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Conway said during an August 27 appearance on “Fox & Friends.”

Trump’s and Biden’s records

What they said: Trump claimed no other president had done as much as he had in 3 1/2 years. He added that he did it in spite of the “impeachment hoax — and you saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton, where it was a whole big con job.”

Fact-check: It is not true that Trump has been more successful than any other president. He’s had some significant achievements, like appointing nearly 300 judges to the federal bench, launching the Space Force, implementing Republican tax cuts, taking steps to reform the criminal-justice system, and ordering the killing of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But he’s also presided over a pandemic that’s killed more than 200,000 Americans, decimated the US economy, and gutted small businesses. He acknowledged on tape that he knew how bad the COVID-19 outbreak could be and that he “downplayed” it from the start, despite multiple warnings from US intelligence and public-health agencies.

His administration implemented the controversial and widely criticised “zero tolerance” policy that separated migrant families at the southern US border. Under Trump’s leadership, the US has become isolated on the world stage and adversaries like Russia, Iran, and Turkey have gained significant ground, often at the cost of US allies.

As Fiona Hill, the former senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council, recently put it: “We are increasingly seen as an object of pity, including by our allies, because they are so shocked by what’s happening internally, how we’re [eating] ourselves alive with our divisions.”

Trump’s reference to Clinton was connected to a statement his top spy chief, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, released in which he publicized Russian disinformation about Clinton.

Specifically, Ratcliffe declassified dubious information from a “Russian intelligence analysis” in 2016 alleging that Clinton “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal” against Trump “by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”

The letter said the US intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.” Ratcliffe’s decision to release disparaging information about Clinton from Russian intelligence sources also mirrored Moscow’s ongoing disinformation campaign against the former secretary of state.

What they said: Trump attacked Biden’s son Hunter over his work for the board of the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma Holdings and his business activities in China. The president accused Joe Biden of trying to have the Ukrainian prosecutor general ousted when he was vice president to shut down an investigation into Burisma and protect Hunter Biden. Trump also alleged that the younger Biden received “$US3.5 million from Moscow.”

Fact-check: It is true that Biden, when he was vice president, pushed hard for the Ukrainian government to fire Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor general at the time. Biden, however, was acting in his official capacity as part of the Obama administration when pushing for Shokin’s firing because the prosecutor did not make a concerted effort to fight corruption. The US’s Western allies and institutions, including the World Bank, supported the move. Also, by the time Biden started pushing for Shokin’s dismissal, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to Bloomberg.

Trump’s claim that Hunter Biden received $US3.5 million from Moscow refers to uncorroborated allegations from a Republican Senate report last week that said an investment firm linked to Hunter Biden took in $US3.5 million from Yelena Baturina, the widow of the late Mayor Yury Luzhkov of Moscow.

Biden’s lawyer, George Mesires, told Politico in a statement that the Senate report held no merit because Hunter Biden did not have any “interest in” and was not the “cofounder” of the investment firm, Rosemont Seneca Thornton, “so the claim that he was paid $US3.5 million is false.”

What they said: Trump claimed Biden called US military service members “stupid bastards,” and that he “said it on tape.”

“I did not say that,” Biden said, adding that Trump should “play it,” referring to a tape of his comments.

Fact check: It’s true that Biden called US troops “stupid bastards” in 2016, but his campaign said he made the comment “in jest” after expressing his appreciation for their service. The pro-Trump website Breitbart News also said the former vice president made the remark “jokingly.”

Election integrity

What they said: Trump repeated his frequent claim that Democrats, Hillary Clinton, and the Obama administration “came after me trying to do a coup” and “spying on my campaign.” He continued: “They were a disaster, they were a disgrace to our country, and we’ve caught them. We’ve caught them all.”

Fact-check: Trump was referring to the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election. The bureau launched the inquiry in July 2016 after a Trump campaign foreign-policy aide, George Papadopoulos, drunkenly boasted to an Australian diplomat about Russia having dirt on the Clinton presidential campaign in the form of “thousands of emails.”

The Justice Department inspector general determined after an internal investigation that the FBI had an “authorised purpose” to launch the investigation and that it was not motivated by political bias. He faulted the bureau for violating protocol when applying for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to monitor the communications of the Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. But he did not uncover evidence that the FBI improperly or illegally “spied” on the Trump campaign, as the president has repeatedly alleged.

What they said: “I’m encouraging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said. “I am urging them to do it. In Philadelphia they went in to watch … they were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. There are bad things happening in Philadelphia, bad things.”

Fact-check: This is untrue. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported: “There were several reasons — none is corruption — why elections staff did not allow members of the public to arbitrarily enter their offices. The Trump campaign has no poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia at the moment. There are no actual polling places open in the city right now. And elections officials are following coronavirus safety regulations, such as those limiting the number of people indoors.”

Trump’s call for his supporters to “watch very carefully” also could be interpreted as an intimidation tactic.

What they said: Trump said that increased mail-in voting would result in a “fraudulent election” and that Democrats were calling for more voting by mail to “cheat” in the election.

Fact-check: This is one of the most commonly floated conspiracy theories from the president and his allies. While voter and election fraud does happen, it’s vanishingly rare. A database of voter- and election-fraud cases maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that documented cases of fraud with mail ballots had been more common than cases of in-person voter impersonation, ballot-petition fraud, and registration fraud but that overall rates of fraud are infinitesimally low.

Grace Panetta contributed reporting.