Fact checking claims from the Democratic debate

Democratic hopefuls take aim at Elizabeth Warren in Ohio debate
Sen. Elizabeth Warren repeatedly came under attack during Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. (The Boston Globe)

WASHINGTON — Twelve Democrats seeking the presidency tussled Tuesday night in a wide-ranging debate featuring the largest number of qualifying candidates on the same stage.

Here’s a look at how some of their claims from Westerville, Ohio, stack up with the facts:

Former vice president Joe Biden: ‘‘I would not have withdrawn the troops, and I would not have withdrawn the additional 1,000 troops that are in Iraq, which are in retreat now, being fired on by Assad’s people.’’

THE FACTS: The former vice president is wrong. There is no evidence that any of the approximately 1,000 American troops preparing to evacuate from Syria have been fired on by Syrian government forces led by President Bashar Assad. A small group of US troops came under Turkish artillery fire near the town of Kobani last week, without anyone being injured, but there is no indication that Syrian troops have shot at withdrawing Americans.

Also, Biden was addressing the situation in Syria, not Iraq.


Biden: “I’m the only one on this stage that has gotten anything really big done.”

THE FACTS: This is mostly false. Whether a politician’s accomplishments are “big” is a subjective judgment. But other leading Democratic candidates have had substantial policy successes.

Warren, then a bankruptcy law expert, envisioned and spearheaded the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 to address the excesses of the financial services industry after the financial crisis that began in 2008. Senator Bernie Sanders, then the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, helped author legislation with Senator John McCain that created the Veterans Choice program in 2014. Senator Kamala Harris, as California’s attorney general, won her state a sizable share of a settlement with big banks over home foreclosure abuses in 2012.

Senator Bernie Sanders: “I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They’re going to go up significantly for the wealthy, and for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out of pocket expenses.”


THE FACTS: This lacks evidence. Sanders’ health care plan would substantially increase the amount that the federal government spends. Estimates of its precise cost vary, but according to an estimate from the conservative Mercatus Center, which Sanders has mentioned approvingly, federal spending would need to increase by about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, triple what the government spends on the military. But, under Medicare for All, Americans who currently pay health insurance premiums or pay directly when they go to the doctor or pharmacy would be relieved of those costs. For most American families, that would be a substantial savings.

But that does not mean that “virtually everybody” would end up paying less overall. Sanders has suggested various possible tax increases that could pay for this expansion, including a payroll tax that would affect workers across the economic spectrum. He has not provided enough details about the mix and magnitude of taxes for economists to measure what sorts of families would be better or worse off under Medicare for All. An Urban Institute analysis of Sanders’ 2016 health care proposal, which included more tax details, found that the proposed taxes would pay for only about half of the cost of the plan.

Senator Elizabeth Warren: ‘‘The data show that we've had a lot of problems with losing jobs, but the principal reason has been bad trade policy. The principal reason has been a bunch of corporations, giant multinational corporations who've been calling the shots on trade.’’


THE FACTS: Economists mostly blame those job losses on automation and robots, not trade deals.

So the Massachusetts senator is off.

Let’s start by acknowledging that the US economy has been adding jobs, just that the nature of those jobs has changed as factory work and other occupations have become less prevalent.

Trade with China has contributed to shuttered factories and the loss of roughly 2 million jobs, according to research published in 2014.

But the primary culprit that accounted for 88 percent of factory job losses between 2000 and 2010 was automation, according to researchers at Ball State University.

There is also a bigger threat from automation for workers outside factories. These are secretaries, bookkeepers and a wide array of professions. Automation can displace these workers and put downward pressure on their wages, forcing them to find other jobs.

Warren: Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Medicare buy-in option is ‘‘Medicare for all who can afford it.’’

THE FACTS: Warren ignored the fact that Buttigieg would provide subsidies to help people pay premiums for the plan.

She was jabbing at Buttigieg’s proposal to create an optional health insurance plan based on Medicare. Individual Americans could join it, even those covered by employer plans.

Buttigieg calls it ‘‘Medicare for all who want it.’’


The South Bend mayor’s plan tracks with former Vice President Joe Biden’s health care proposal . Biden would also provide subsidies for those who pick his ‘‘public option.’’

Details are unclear on who would get financial assistance, and how much that would be. But Buttigieg and Biden have said they want to provide help to a broader cross section of Americans than are currently helped by the Affordable Care Act.

Warren: ‘‘Mueller had shown to a fare-thee-well that this president obstructed justice.’’

THE FACTS: That’s not exactly what special counsel Robert Mueller showed.

It’s true that prosecutors examined more than 10 episodes for evidence of obstruction of justice, and that they did illustrate efforts by President Donald Trump to stymie the Russia investigation or take control of it.

But ultimately, Mueller did not reach a conclusion as to whether the president obstructed justice or broke any other law. He cited Justice Department policy against the indictment of a sitting president, and said that since he could not bring charges against Trump, it was unfair to accuse him of a crime. There was no definitive finding that he obstructed justice.

Pete Buttigieg: ‘‘We are at the cusp of building a new American majority to actually do things that congressmen and senators have been talking about for my entire life — on guns, we are this close to an assault weapons ban, that would be huge.’’

THE FACTS: No, the US is not close to enacting an assault-weapons ban. Congress is not on the verge of passing one. Prospects for such a ban are bound to remain slim until the next election at least.


Legislation under discussion in the Senate would expand background checks for gun sales, a politically popular idea even with gun owners. But even that bill has stalled because of opposition from the National Rifle Association and on-again, off-again support from Trump. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress say they will continue to push for the background checks bill, but movement appears unlikely during an impeachment inquiry and general dysfunction in Congress. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he won’t move forward on gun legislation without Trump’s strong support.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was citing the chance for an assault-weapons ban as a reason for not supporting the more radical proposal by Democratic presidential rival Beto O'Rourke to force gun owners to give up AR-15’s and other assault-style weapons. But the ban is not coming together as he stated.

Buttigieg: So-called red flag laws could help prevent suicides, “which are not being talked about nearly enough as a huge part of the gun violence epidemic in this country.”

THE FACTS: This is true. Buttigieg is correct that the majority of gun deaths in the United States are deaths due to suicide, a major and growing public health problem that is rarely emphasized in the political discussion of guns.

Research on so-called red flag laws, which allow a judge to temporarily confiscate firearms from people found to be a risk to themselves or others, has found that they have been successful in reducing suicide deaths. There is less evidence about whether they are an effective strategy for reducing homicides or mass shootings, although some anecdotal accounts suggest they may have prevented some acts of violence.

Kamala Harris: ‘‘Five million assault weapons are on the streets of America today.’’

THE FACTS: The California senator’s statistic on the number of AR- and AK-style firearms is not accurate. Even the gun industry estimates there are now 16 million ‘‘assault weapons’’ in circulation in the United States today. In 1994, President Bill Clinton enacted an assault weapons ban, at a time when there were an estimated 1.5 million of them in circulation. Current owners were allowed to keep them, however, and once the ban expired a decade later, sales resumed and boomed.

Julian Castro, former US housing secretary: ‘‘Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania actually in the latest jobs data have lost jobs, not gained them.’’

THE FACTS: Nope. Figures from the Labor Department show that the former Housing and Urban Development secretary is wrong.

Ohio added jobs in August. So did Michigan. Same with Pennsylvania. So Castro’s statement is off. However, these states still have economic struggles. Pennsylvania has lost factory jobs since the end of 2018. So has Michigan. And Ohio has shed 100 factory jobs so far this year.

Material from the New York Times was used in this report. Associated Press writers Cal Woodward, Josh Boak, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Eric Tucker and Amanda Seitz contributed to this report.