President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden shared the stage on Sept. 29 to engage in the first presidential debate of 2020. Tensions ran high as Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked the incumbent and his Democratic challenger about their stances on climate change, healthcare, the economy, ongoing racial injustice in the US, and more. Every debate comes with its share of necessary fact-checking in case of inaccuracies, but it played an especially important role in this face-off as unsubstantiated claims ran rampant.
While both candidates made inaccurate statements during the course of the 90-minute-plus debate, Trump far outpaced Biden when it came to factual errors and lies. If you're not tuned into every one of Trump's press conferences or interviews, the claims made in the debate can appear overwhelming. But, sadly, for noted fact-checkers like CNN's Daniel Dale, the event was actually "relatively easy" to cover because the president has "made the vast majority of these false claims before." That said, if it's not your full-time job to decipher politicians' truths from lies, we've broken down a few of the major inaccuracies below:
Coronavirus pandemic response and vaccine
- In regard to the economic shutdown, Trump lamented having to close "the greatest economy in the history of the country." There are no facts to back this up, and when measured against prior economic eras, this administration falls short. This claim is false.
- Trump claimed "young children" and "younger people" aren't contracting coronavirus. This is false. Children are less likely to exhibit symptoms, but they are not immune. Teenagers are twice as likely as kids to contract the virus, and the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that high schools and universities could be locations responsible for spread.
- Trump suggested we're "weeks away from a vaccine" to address COVID-19. This is (another) direct contradiction to his own CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, leading us to believe his claim is false. Redfield said a vaccine wouldn't be available until the middle of next year when he testified to senators earlier this month. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a top scientist on the administration's vaccine development program, shares the same belief, and said it's "extremely unlikely" we'll see a vaccine by October or November.
Racial injustice protests
- In addition to his decision not to definitively condemn white supremacy, Trump also falsely claimed that violence in America is "not a right wing" problem and instead shifted the blame to Antifa and the left. However, Trump's FBI director, Christopher Wray, acknowledged that "racially motivated violent extremism" linked with white supremacy groups makes up most of the bureau's domestic terrorism cases.
- Trump also alleged that Portland's sheriff pledged his support to the president amid the city's protests. This is false. During the debate, Sheriff Mike Reese of Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, tweeted, "I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him."
- We saw a spike in search traffic surrounding "solicited ballots" after Trump's comments in the debate. "A solicited ballot, solicited, is OK. You solicit, you're asking, they send it back. I did that. If you have an unsolicited, they're sending millions of ballots all over the country. There's fraud." This is a misleading claim. By "unsolicited ballots," Trump is referring to the nine states where already registered voters are being automatically sent ballots — five of these states allowed voting by mail pre-pandemic.
- Trump also claimed "poll watchers" in Philadelphia were thrown out and refused the ability to watch voting. This is not true. In actuality, the Trump supporters were not allowed to enter the satellite election offices because they were there illegally. For one thing, there are no poll watchers registered in Philadelphia, and for another, poll watchers are only allowed to observe at polling locations — not election offices.
- Trump dismissed the assessment that the ongoing California wildfires could be influenced by climate change, and instead argued that "forest management" is the key to stopping these dangerous blazes. This is incorrect. Top scientists acknowledge that record-breaking temperatures, terrible air quality, and dry conditions are a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and create a recipe for these unforgiving fires.
- Trump argued that he paid "millions of dollars" in federal income taxes, which is false as revealed by documents acquired by The New York Times. He actually paid $750 in income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, as opposed to the seven figures he claimed.