Seven Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate Wednesday night in California, while the front-runner in the party primary, former President Donald Trump, skipped the debate and instead gave a speech in Michigan amid a strike by autoworkers.
The candidates on the debate stage made false or misleading claims about a variety of subjects including the border wall, Florida’s education curriculum, the economy and the war in Ukraine.
CNN is fact-checking both events.
Christie vs. Pence on the border wall
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that Trump “said he was going to build a wall across the whole border” but actually “built 52 miles of wall.” Later in the debate, former Vice President Mike Pence used a much different figure, saying that “we built hundreds of miles of border wall.”
Facts First: This needs context. Both candidates’ claims are defensible; Christie, though, didn’t explain that he was talking only about barriers that were erected in spots on the southern border where there had not been any barriers before. If you count all of the barriers built on the southern border under Trump, as Trump and Pence do, then the total is much higher – more than 450 miles.
Here are the facts.
When Christie says only 52 miles of wall were built under Trump, he is referring solely to one category of wall construction – “primary” wall that was built in parts of the border where no barriers previously existed.
When Pence puts the figure in the “hundreds of miles,” he is referring to all wall construction during the Trump-Pence administration. The total number is 458 miles, according to a federal report obtained by CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez: 52 miles of “primary” wall built where no barriers previously existed, plus 33 miles of “secondary” wall that was built in spots where no barriers previously existed, plus another 373 miles of primary and secondary wall that was built to replace previous barriers the federal government says had become “dilapidated and/or outdated.”
While some Trump critics have scoffed at this replacement wall, the Trump-era construction was generally much more formidable than the older barriers it replaced, which were often designed to deter vehicles rather than people on foot. Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff tweeted in 2020: “As someone who has spent a lot of time lately in the shadow of the border wall, I need to puncture this notion that ‘replacement’ sections are ‘not new.’ There is really no comparison between vehicle barriers made from old rail ties and 30-foot bollards.”
Ideally, Trump, Pence and their critics would all be clearer about what they are talking about: Trump and Pence that they are including replacement barriers, critics that they are excluding those barriers.
From CNN’s Daniel Dale
DeSantis on Florida’s Black history curriculum
Moderator Ilia Calderón asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to address the descendants of enslaved people regarding his state’s new standards on how to teach Black history in schools.
Calderón: “Florida’s new Black history curriculum says, ‘slaves developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.’ You have said slaves developed skills in spite of slavery, not because of it. But many are still hurt. For descendants of slaves, this is personal. What is your message to them?”
DeSantis: “First of all, that’s a hoax that was perpetuated by Kamala Harris. We are not going to be doing that. Second of all, that was written by descendants of slaves, these are great Black history scholars, so we need to stop playing these games,” DeSantis said.
Facts First: DeSantis’ claim is false. Florida’s new standards for teaching Black history do include the clause that Calderón read out.
In July, the Florida Board of Education approved a new set of standards for how Black history should be taught in the state’s public schools. The standards for middle schoolers include a benchmark that says, “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
When asked about the benchmark in July, DeSantis told CNN he “wasn’t involved.” Instead, just as he did in his response tonight, he deferred to those who wrote the education standards.
“You should talk to them about it. I didn’t do it. I wasn’t involved in it,” DeSantis said at the time.
Pressed further at the time, he said: “I think that they’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into, into doing things later in life. But the reality is, all of that is rooted in whatever is factual. They listed everything out. And if you have any questions about it, just ask the Department of Education.”
DeSantis has argued that it is unfair to depict the standards as broadly pro-slavery, saying that they are clear and detailed about the evils of slavery.
The new standards have been criticized by civil rights advocates and Black lawmakers. Vice President Kamala Harris also criticized the new standards, saying in a speech in July “they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery.”
From CNN’s Chandelis Duster
Haley on DeSantis’ fracking record
Haley and DeSantis went back and forth on fracking, with the former South Carolina governor claiming DeSantis “banned fracking” on his second day in office.
“Ron DeSantis is against fracking. He’s against drilling. He always talks about what happens on day one. You better watch out because what happens on day two is when you are in trouble. Day two in Florida, you banned fracking. You banned off-shore drilling,” Haley said.
“That is not true,” DeSantis retorted, suggesting the ban on off-shore drilling came from a state constitutional amendment.
Facts First: Haley is largely right. DeSantis did not unilaterally ban fracking before the constitutional amendment passed, but an executive order signed just days after he took office as governor of Florida calls for the state to “adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.”
And aside from the semantics, Haley’s broader argument about DeSantis’ position on off-shore drilling and fracking is supported by his comments and actions. During DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign, he was asked if he supported a ban on fracking and he emphatically said yes. In January 2020, he also oversaw the purchase of 20,000 acres of Everglades wetlands by the state of Florida to permanently protect them from oil drilling, which wasn’t prompted by the constitutional amendment in any way.
From CNN’s Tara Subramaniam
Pence on immigration
Mike Pence, speaking of the Trump-Pence administration, claimed that “we reduced illegal immigration and asylum abuse by 90%.”
Facts First: This is misleading. The total number of Border Patrol apprehensions, which is widely used as a proxy for illegal immigration, was actually higher during Trump and Pence’s four years in office than it was in the final four years of the Obama administration, largely because of a major spike in early 2019. So where did Pence get the supposed 90% reduction? He didn’t explain – and didn’t explain what he meant by “asylum abuse” – but other fact-checkers, such as those at PolitiFact and The Washington Post, have found that you can find a roughly 90% drop in apprehensions if you compare the month with the highest Trump-era number of apprehensions, May 2019, to the month with the lowest Trump-era number, April 2020 – in other words, by cherry-picking the most advantageous start and end dates.
The Trump-Pence re-election campaign did similar cherry-picking in a television ad in 2019, claiming Trump had cut illegal immigration in half. Small print in the ad made clear that the campaign, too, had started the clock in May 2019 rather than from the beginning of the administration.
CNN asked Pence’s campaign two days before the September debate to explain the math behind this claim. The campaign did not respond.
From CNN’s Daniel Dale
Pence on Bidenomics
Former Vice President Mike Pence slammed President Joe Biden’s economic policies.
“Bidenomics has failed. Wages are not keeping up with inflation,” said Pence, referring to the president’s economic plan.
Facts First: While there are several ways to measure inflation and wages, at least two indicators show that Pence’s specific claim about wages is no longer true – though it was accurate for much of Biden’s presidency.
In June, for the first time in 26 months, US workers’ real average weekly earnings grew on an annual basis – by 0.7%, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, which looks at inflation-adjusted earnings. That growth slowed but remained positive in August, at 0.3%, the most recent data available, meaning that wages continued to outpace inflation.
Likewise, the bureau’s Employment Cost Index showed that inflation-adjusted wages and salaries for private industry workers increased 1.7% for the 12 months ending June 2023, the most recent data available.
The quarterly index tracks changes in employers’ labor costs for wages and salaries but is not subject to the same distortions as other measures, such as average hourly earnings, because it keeps the composition of the workforce constant.
From CNN’s Tami Luhby
Scott on Hispanic chief of staff
Sen. Tim Scott claimed that his chief of staff is the “only Hispanic female chief of staff in the Senate.”
Facts First: This is false. A number of senators have hired a Hispanic woman to be their chief of staff over the years, and at least three Hispanic women hold that title in the current Senate.
In addition to Scott’s chief of staff, Neri Martinez, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich announced in 2019 that he had hired Rebecca Avitia to lead his staff. And New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker hired Veronica Duron in 2021 to oversee his office.
From CNN’s Devan Cole
Scott on tax cuts for families
Asked about how he would address high child care costs in the US, Scott said he would lower Americans’ taxes. He pointed to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the 2017 Republican tax package that he said he helped write.
“We actually lowered a single mother’s taxes by 70% on the federal level and for dual-income households by 60%,” he said. “Then we went a step further. We doubled the child tax credit and made it refundable. By doing that, more parents had more resources to make the decisions on how to take care of their family.”
Facts First: Scott greatly exaggerated the tax cuts for single mothers and married couples, and his comments on the child tax credit changes need context.
Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the average federal tax reduction for single parents was $1,010, a change of less than 14%, according to Elaine Maag, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Families in certain income brackets saw larger declines in their tax levies. For instance, those earning between $30,000 and $40,000 annually saw their taxes drop by an average of almost 57%.
For married couples, the average tax cut was $3,350, or 9.2%, Maag said. Those with incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 received an average tax cut of 58%, while those earning between $20,000 and $30,000 saw their taxes decline by an average of 56%.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act did double the child tax credit to $2,000 – temporarily. But it has been partially refundable since 2001. The 2017 tax package temporarily increased the refundability, allowing more low-income families to receive a larger credit.
The Democrats’ American Rescue Plan Act, which passed Congress in 2021, made the child tax credit fully refundable for one year.
From CNN’s Tami Luhby
Christie on Biden’s response to a Russian invasion in Ukraine
During a discussion about the Russian war in Ukraine, Christie falsely claimed Biden said, “a small invasion wouldn’t be so bad.”
Facts First: This is misleading. Shortly before the war, Biden caught some flak for drawing a distinction between a full-scale invasion and a “minor incursion.” But he never said it would be acceptable or “not so bad.”
In January 2022, Biden said: “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do. But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine.”
CNN reported at the time that Ukrainian officials were aghast by Biden’s suggestion that the US might respond less aggressively to a “minor incursion” by Russian forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even rebuked Biden, saying, “there are no minor incursions.”
But Christie’s retelling of the diplomatic dustup wasn’t quite accurate. Biden never said that a “small invasion” (or a “minor incursion”) “wouldn’t be so bad.”
Moments later during Biden’s same press conference in 2022, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin would “pay a serious and dear price” if there are “Russian forces crossing the border, killing Ukrainian fighters.” Biden continued to clean up his comments in the subsequent days, amid the prelude to the Russian invasion.
From CNN’s Marshall Cohen
Pence on energy independence
Pence claimed that “one of the signature accomplishments of our administration was in just a few short years, we achieved energy independence.”
“We became a net exporter of energy for the first time in 75 years,” he added. “But on day one, Joe Biden declared a war on energy.”
Facts First: This is misleading on a few counts. During brief periods prior to Trump’s presidency, the US exported more oil, gas and petroleum products than it imported. While 2019 did mark the first full year the country did so, that trend has continued through the Biden administration in 2021 and 2022. And by at least one measure, “energy independence” is actually at a record high under Biden.
It’s misleading for Pence to suggest Biden “declared a war on energy” as US energy production continues to boom under his administration, contrary to frequent Republican claims.
Domestic crude production in the first six months of 2023, the most recent data that is currently available, was the highest on record for the first six months of a year, and US crude oil production in 2022 was the second-highest on record, behind only Trump-era 2019.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that “energy independence” is a political phrase, not a literal phrase, and it’s one that energy industry experts call ridiculous.
Under Trump, the US still relied on imports of foreign oil and gas even though it met some of the common political definitions of “energy independence” – and the US continues to meet those definitions of “energy independence” under Biden.
According to the EIA, net US energy exports increased from 3.48 quadrillion British thermal unit (Btus) – or “quads” – in 2019 to 3.62 quads in 2021, Biden’s first year in office. In 2022, US net energy exports set a new record at 5.94 quads, and the US produced 3.3% more energy than it consumed.
From CNN’s Tara Subramaniam
Trump’s baseless claim
During his speech, Trump accused President Joe Biden of “personally taking money from foreign nations, hand over fist. Look at the money he got from China. Look at what’s coming out. China.”
Facts First: There is no public evidence that Joe Biden himself made any money from foreign deals in China or elsewhere. That being said, Hunter Biden, the president’s son, did earn millions of dollars from business deals in China, Ukraine, and other countries, including while his father was vice president, raising conflict-of-interest issues.
This has been one of the most persistent unproven claims from Trump and the congressional Republicans pushing for Joe Biden’s impeachment.
Trump may have been reacting to new disclosures from House Republicans, who said Tuesday that they received documentation of wire transfers where Hunter Biden listed his father’s address in Wilmington, Delaware, when receiving payments from Chinese nationals.
However, the files don’t prove that Joe Biden received any money – and Hunter Biden has lived at times at his father’s home, and listed the address on his driver’s license, according to previous CNN reporting.
From CNN’s Marshall Cohen
Trump on Biden, Michigan and wheat
Trump scoffed at Biden’s Tuesday visit to a United Auto Workers picket line in Michigan and claiming during his speech on Wednesday that Biden “had absolutely no idea what he was saying” and “didn’t know where he was.” Trump mockingly claimed that Biden said, “They grow wheat in Michigan.” Trump then added, “That’s Iowa.”
Facts First: Trump’s claim is false in two ways. Biden did not make any comments on Tuesday about Michigan growing wheat – and Michigan actually does grow wheat, significantly more than Iowa. Iowa was a leader in wheat farming in the 19th century.
This is not the first time Trump has made a false claim about Biden while professing to be describing Biden’s own confusion. In an interview on NBC earlier in September, he falsely claimed that Biden had claimed “he flew airplanes,” though Biden did not.
From CNN’s Daniel Dale