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AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s premature win on trade, Syria fiction

October 14, 2019
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President Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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President Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP) — It was a week of caustic rhetoric by President Donald Trump over Syria and the impeachment inquiry, and truth often took a beating.

Seeking to justify pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, Trump spread false information about the total defeat of the Islamic State and misrepresented the scope of the original U.S. mission, saying it was only supposed to last “30 days.”

He stepped up political attacks on his Democratic investigators, contradicting himself in the process.

First he accused a Democratic lawmaker of concocting a dramatic account of a Trump phone call with Ukraine’s president without having seen a rough White House transcript of what was actually said in the conversation. Then he accused the same lawmaker of concocting his account only after reviewing the rough transcript and deciding it wasn’t interesting enough.

On the economy, the president declared a premature victory for farmers over the weekend, incorrectly suggesting that China’s pledge to buy up to $50 billion in U.S. farm products was a signed, done deal.

Here’s a review, also covering statements about Hunter Biden, judges and the auto industry:

TRADE

TRUMP: “The deal I just made with China is, by far, the greatest and biggest deal ever made for our Great Patriot Farmers in the history of our Country.” — tweet Saturday.

TRUMP: “Start thinking about getting bigger tractors!” — tweet Saturday.

THE FACTS: Not so fast. No final trade agreement has been reached.

It’s true that U.S. and China declared a temporary truce in their 15-month trade war. As part of a cease-fire deal announced Friday, China agreed to buy up to $50 billion in U.S. farm products, while the Trump administration said it would suspend a tariff increase on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports that was set to take effect Tuesday.

However, negotiators reached their tentative agreement only in principle. No documents have been signed. A final deal could still fall through, though Trump told reporters Friday he didn’t think that would happen.

Many of the details remained to be worked out. Some of the thorniest issues — such as U.S. allegations that China forces foreign companies to hand over trade secrets — were dealt with only partially, or not at all, and will require further talks.

“The president is acting as if a lot of Chinese concessions have been nailed down, and they just haven’t,” said Derek Scissors, a China specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The administration still has in place tariffs on more than $360 billion worth of Chinese imports. Beijing has lashed back by taxing about $120 billion in U.S. goods, focusing on soybeans and other agricultural products.

Meanwhile, the threat of escalation still hangs over the two countries. Trump has yet to drop plans to impose tariffs that are set to take effect Dec. 15 on an additional $160 billion in Chinese products — a move that would extend the sanctions to just about everything China ships to the United States.

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SYRIA and TURKEY

TRUMP: “We were supposed to be there for 30 days and we’ve been there for 10 years.” — remarks Saturday at the Values Voter summit.

TRUMP: “The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago.” — tweet on Oct. 7.

THE FACTS: Previous administrations had never indicated a specific timeline for U.S. involvement in Syria , let alone set a limit of 30 days.

The first American ground troops entered Syria in late 2015, initially 50 and eventually growing to about 2,000, to recruit, organize and advise thousands of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters and push IS out of most of its strongholds. At the time, the Obama administration did not set a timeframe, indicating that the fight against the Islamic State would take time.

At an Oct. 30, 2015, press conference , White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made clear when asked how long troops would stay that “this is not a short-term proposition in terms of our counter-ISIL strategy.”

He added: “I don’t have a specific date to give you when they will come out.”

Earlier last week, Brett McGurk, a former senior diplomat who was the special envoy for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, tweeted in response to Trump’s claim of an initial 30-day plan: “None of this is true.”

Trump on Sunday took steps toward a likely full withdrawal from Syria of roughly 1,000 U.S. troops that remain, ordering troops to withdraw from the country’s north to avoid a bloody conflict between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.

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TRUMP, on removing U.S. troops from Syria: “I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars, where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA. The two most unhappy countries at this move are Russia & China, because they love seeing us bogged...down.” — tweets on Oct. 7.

THE FACTS: That’s a dubious reading of Russia , in particular.

Both Russia and Iran stand to gain from a U.S. troop withdrawal and will probably bide their time until they can move in and retake the area. With their help, Syrian President Bashar Assad has recaptured most of the Syrian territory except for the north and east.

Iran and Russia are both key allies of Assad’s government with troops on the ground in Syria. While they may publicly oppose a Turkish incursion into Syria , they probably don’t mind an operation that diminishes the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.

Some of Turkey’s incursions into Syria appeared to have been coordinated with Russia and Iran.

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TRUMP: “We defeated 100% of the ISIS caliphate.” — interview Saturday on Fox News.

TRUMP: “When I arrived in Washington, ISIS was running rampant in the area. We quickly defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate.” — tweet on Oct. 7.

THE FACTS: His claim of a 100% defeat is misleading because the Islamic State group still poses a threat .

IS was defeated in Iraq in 2017, then lost the last of its land holdings in Syria in March, marking the end of the extremists’ self-declared caliphate.

Still, extremist sleeper cells have continued to launch attacks in Iraq and Syria and are believed to be responsible for targeted killings against local officials and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

IS controlled large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, where they declared a caliphate in 2014 along with large parts of neighboring Iraq.

U.N. experts warned in August that IS leaders are aiming to consolidate and create conditions for an “eventual resurgence in its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands.”

On Sunday, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, said “it’s absolutely a given” that IS will return if U.S. troops leave. “We may want a war over. We may even declare it over,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” but “if we don’t keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge.”

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TRUMP: “So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States, in fact they make the structural steel frame for our F-35 Fighter Jet.” — tweet Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Actually, Turkey won’t be providing the steel for U.S. F-35 fighter jets much longer.

The Trump administration removed Turkey from the F-35 program in July because the Turks refused to cancel the purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system that is incompatible with NATO forces. At the time, the White House said the S-400 would compromise the F-35 program and aid Russian intelligence.

As part of that process, the U.S. said it will stop using any Turkish supplies and parts by March.

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TRUMP: “We quickly defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate, ...including capturing thousands of ISIS fighters, mostly from Europe. But Europe did not want them back, they said you keep them USA!” — tweet on Oct. 7.

TRUMP: “Most of them came from Europe.” — Minneapolis rally on Thursday.

THE FACTS: Not true. The foreign fighters captured and being held by the U.S.-allied Kurds are not mostly from Europe, which Trump has argued could easily reclaim them.

Of the more than 12,000 IS fighters in custody in Kurdish areas, only 2,500 are from outside the region of the conflict, some from Europe, some from other parts of the world. But most of captured fighters — about 10,000 — are natives of Syria or Iraq.

Trump has said it will now be up to countries in the region to decide what to do with captured fighters.

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UKRAINE

TRUMP, on Hunter Biden, whose father is former Vice President Joe Biden, a Trump political rival: “Guy walks in, no experience, no nothing, walks out with $1.5 billion. Gee, flies in on Air Force 2 with his father, the vice president. ... So China gives his son $1.5 billion. How would you like to have Joe Biden take over negotiations right now with China? I don’t think so.” — Minneapolis rally Thursday.

THE FACTS: There’s no evidence Hunter Biden pocketed $1.5 billion from China. More generally, accusations of criminal wrongdoing by father or son are unsubstantiated.

In 2014, an investment fund started by Hunter Biden and other investors joined with foreign and Chinese private equity firms in an effort to raise $1.5 billion to invest outside China. That’s far from giving Hunter Biden such a sum, as Trump describes it.

Hunter Biden’s lawyer, George Mesires, wrote in an internet post Sunday that his client was an unpaid director of the fund at the time “based on his interest in seeking ways to bring Chinese capital to international markets.”

“To date, Hunter has not received any compensation for being on BHR’s board of directors,” Mesires said, referring to the fund. “He has not received any return on his investment.”

Trump’s attempt to press Ukraine to investigate the Bidens is at the center of the impeachment inquiry into the president’s activities in office; Trump also has called for China to investigate them. Joe Biden is contending for the 2020 Democratic nomination to run against Trump.

Hunter Biden said Sunday that he will step down from the Chinese board at the end of the month as part of a pledge not to work on behalf of any foreign-owned companies should his father win the presidency.

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IMPEACHMENT

TRUMP: “We released a perfect conversation. ...I will say this: Adam Schiff took that conversation before he saw it and fabricated a conversation. To me, that’s criminal. What he did is criminal.” — remarks Friday to reporters.

TRUMP: “Congressman Adam Schiff, who when seeing the REAL Ukraine phone call Transcript decided he’d better make up one of his own.” — tweet Sunday.

THE FACTS: Which is it? Did Schiff characterize the phone call before or after the White House memo describing the conversation came out? As far as the timeline goes, Trump was right the second time. But Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said nothing criminal.

Trump is referring to remarks the California Democrat made at a Sept. 26 committee hearing, when Schiff mocked the president’s pleas to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden. The White House memo of that July 25 call was released one day before.

During the hearing, Schiff offered an exaggerated performance of that rough transcript. He said his remarks reflected the “essence” of what he believed Trump was conveying to Zelenskiy, “shorn of its rambling character” and were meant as parody.

There’s no question of criminality in what Schiff said. Lawmakers are given wide protections from liability for comments made in the course of Congress under the “speech or debate” clause in the Constitution, which seeks to foster political debate.

Trump routinely mocks critics and invents dialogue that he attributes to them; Schiff did similar in his remarks.

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TRUMP: “Adam should be Impeached!” — tweet Tuesday.

TRUMP, on Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:: “Nancy Pelosi knew of all of the many Shifty Adam Schiff lies and massive frauds perpetrated upon Congress and the American people, in the form of a fraudulent speech ...This makes Nervous Nancy every bit as guilty as Liddle’ Adam Schiff for High Crimes and Misdemeanors ... I guess that means that they, along with all of those that evilly ‘Colluded’ with them, must all be immediately Impeached!” — tweet on Oct. 6.

THE FACTS: There’s no danger that either Schiff or Pelosi, who last month launched impeachment proceedings against Trump, will be impeached themselves. That’s because House members cannot be impeached under the Constitution.

The House does have the power to expel one of its members by a two-thirds vote, but there are little grounds for it based on what Trump alleges. Schiff said his remarks during a committee hearing were a parody, reflecting the “essence” of what he believed Trump was conveying to Zelenskiy.

The House has expelled only five of its own, based on charges of members supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War or bribery and corruption.

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JUDGES

TRUMP, criticizing Barack Obama’s struggle to win confirmation of federal judges as president, contends “they were unable to fill 142 important Federal Judgeships (a record by far), handing them all to me to choose.” — tweet Wednesday.

TRUMP: “I said, ‘By the way, how many federal judgeships do I have?’ They said, ‘Sir you have 142.’ ...I said, ‘You got to be kidding.’ ...And President Obama was not very good in getting it done.” — Values Voter summit on Saturday.

THE FACTS: First, his number is false. So is his insinuation that Obama couldn’t fill judicial vacancies due to complacency.

It’s true that Trump has a stronger record than Obama so far in picking federal judges. But it was due to unprecedented lack of action by the Republican-controlled Senate on Democrat Obama’s judicial nominees in his last two years in office. That left Trump more vacancies to fill.

Of the 71 people whom Obama nominated to the district courts and courts of appeals in 2015 and 2016, only 20 were voted on and confirmed, said Russell Wheeler, an expert on judicial nominees at the Brookings Institution. Trump entered office in January 2017 with under 110 vacancies on the federal bench — not 142 as he asserts — about double the number Obama had in 2009.

Trump has since been aided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has pushed through Trump’s nominations of appeals court judges in particular.

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ECONOMY

TRUMP: “If our opponent had won that election, you know what would have happened? Right now, China would be the No. 1 economy anywhere in the world. And right now, I can tell you, they’re not even close.” — Minneapolis rally.

TRUMP: “So I think China might have caught us if my opponent had gotten in. By now, they would have caught us. And now it’s going to be a long time before they catch us, if they ever catch us. I don’t think anybody is going to catch us.” — remarks Oct. 7 on trade .

THE FACTS: No matter who got elected in 2016 — Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton — there is no way China’s economy would have caught up with America’s by now.

Even if the U.S. economy hadn’t grown at all since 2016, China’s gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic output — would have had to have surged a fantastical 79% in three years to have pulled even with America’s. That comes to growth of more than 21% a year — something even China’s super-charged economy has never approached.

Moreover, despite Trump’s suggestion that China can’t ever catch up, the Chinese economy continues to slowly narrow the gap because every year it grows much faster than America’s. In 2019, for example, the International Monetary Fund expects Chinese GDP to increase 6.2%, more than double the 2.6% growth it expects for the United States.

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RONNA MCDANIEL, Republican National Committee chair: “New data is out on median income growth: Under Barack Obama, incomes rose $11 a month. Under @realDonaldTrump, incomes are rising at $161 a month. That’s huge!” — tweet on Oct. 7, retweeted by Trump.

THE FACTS: This comparison is misleading.

McDaniel’s statement relies on an op-ed by conservative commentator Stephen Moore that obscures the track records of both presidents and the economic conditions that their administrations inherited.

For the first two full years of Trump’s presidency, the Census Bureau shows that median household income has been growing by a monthly average of $58, to $63,179 in 2018. That’s almost one-third of what was claimed in McDaniel’s tweet.

Under Obama, incomes rose at a monthly average of only $31. But that average includes Obama’s first term, when the economy was dealing with the ravages from the Great Recession that began before he became president. Trump took office at a moment when the economy was relatively healthy.

Obama’s track record improved sharply after 2012, as the recovery took hold. Median incomes during that period rose at a monthly average of $122. That is more than double the income growth during Trump’s first two years.

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TRUMP: “As you know, in addition to what we’re talking about today, they’re building — Japan — many car plants in the United States, which they weren’t doing for a long time. And they’re building in Michigan, Ohio, lots of different states. And we just appreciate it very much. Been a tremendous investment.” — remarks Oct. 7 on trade.

THE FACTS: Not true. Japanese automakers are not building “many” car plants in the U.S. No Japanese automakers are building assembly plants in Michigan, and Honda is making only a small investment at an existing facility in Anna, Ohio, near Dayton. Honda has announced it will build a hybrid SUV at a factory in Greensburg, Indiana, but that investment is $4.2 million and will add 34 new jobs.

The only major assembly plant being built now by Japanese automakers in the U.S. is the Toyota-Mazda factory in Alabama, which is expected to employ 4,000 people and will start producing vehicles in 2021.

Normally, parts-making companies set up operations in or near the main assembly plant, and that’s happening in Huntsville. Six companies are investing about $491 million in the area, creating an expected 1,765 jobs, according to Toyota.

Earlier this year, Japanese truck maker Hino opened a new assembly plant in Mineral Wells, West Virginia, investing $100 million and creating 250 jobs. It replaced an older facility that also was in West Virginia.

Trump is also wrong to suggest recent construction from Japanese car companies in the U.S. is somehow new. Japanese automakers have been building in the U.S. since the 1970s and have expanded manufacturing over the years. The companies have announced millions in investments to retool existing plants to make new models.

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Associated Press writers Paul Wiseman, Josh Boak, Robert Burns, Christopher Rugaber and Stephen Braun in Washington, Tom Krisher in Detroit and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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