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AP FACT CHECK: Trump garbles Syria story, poverty record

December 24, 2018
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FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump gestures as he walks to Marine One after speaking to media at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is garbling his story about what’s going on with the Islamic State group. Has it been defeated or is it still a fighting force? He had it both ways over the course of several days.

In a tumultuous week capped with the launch of a partial government shutdown, Trump also spread misinformation about poverty, the Russia investigation and immigration as he lost his defense secretary and his envoy to the anti-IS coalition after announcing U.S. troops will be pulled from Syria.

A look at some claims and the reality:

SYRIA

TRUMP: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” — tweet Wednesday.

THE FACTS: The militants are a diminished but deadly force, and U.S. partners warn that a premature American withdrawal will allow them to storm back. Trump seemed to contradict his own assertion when he tweeted the next day that the U.S. withdrawal means Russia, Syria and Iran “will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.”

Then on Saturday he said the group is “largely defeated” and other countries “should be able to easily take care of whatever remains.”

IS militants still hold a string of villages and towns along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, where they have resisted weeks of attacks by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces to drive them out.

The pocket is home to about 15,000 people, among them 2,000 IS fighters, according to U.S. military estimates.

But that figure could be as high as 8,000 militants, if fighters hiding out in the deserts south of the Euphrates River are also counted, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through networks of local informants.

Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman said they include seasoned militants who have fought global wars of jihad since the 1990s.

The SDF, a Kurdish-led force that is America’s only military partner in Syria, said Thursday: “The war against Islamic State has not ended and the group has not been defeated.” The group is at the front lines of the battle against IS along the Euphrates River.

It said a U.S. withdrawal would leave Syrians “between the claws of enemy forces.”

At their height in 2014, IS militants controlled approximately one-third of territory in Syria and Iraq, including major cities in both countries. The group flourished in the political vacuum of Syria’s civil war, in which President Bashar Assad has violently put down a 2011 uprising against his family’s 40-year rule.

The pocket along the Euphrates represents just one percent of the territory it once held. But recent attacks in Iraq show the group is still capable of mounting deadly assaults even without holding urban areas.

Trump’s own advisers have described the battle against IS as a long-term commitment that depends on stabilizing Syria after nearly eight years of civil war.

Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition to defeat IS in Syria and Iraq, said earlier this month, “Nobody is declaring mission accomplished” and it would be “reckless” to do so. After Trump announced the withdrawal of troops, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, then McGurk, resigned. Trump said he did not know his envoy.

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TRUMP: “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.” — tweet Thursday.

THE FACTS: Actually, Moscow welcomed the development, which gives both Russia and Iran more of a chance to spread influence in Syria. A lawmaker in Damascus put it bluntly, saying a U.S. withdrawal would be “recognition that Syria has won” the war.

The U.S. military presence has been contentious for Assad and Russian and Iranian allies. In an otherwise negative appraisal of relations with the U.S., Russian President Vladimir Putin said Trump “has done the right thing” in deciding to pull troops out of Syria. He has long argued that the U.S. presence in Syria is illegitimate because it wasn’t vetted by the U.N. Security Council or approved by Assad’s government.

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ECONOMY

KEVIN HASSETT, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers: “Survey data suggests that the capital spending plans over the next year are very strong, or over the next six months.” — phone call with reporters on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of passage of the administration’s tax cuts.

THE FACTS: Actually, most economists note that surveys and more-reliable economic data point to a slowdown in capital spending growth next year. This is a critical point because Hassett is arguing that administration’s tax cuts will continue to spur investment in large machinery, computers and other long-lasting equipment. Such investment not only lifts short-term economic growth but also can make the economy more efficient, which accelerates growth over time. Capital investment did increase markedly in the first half of this year, probably in part because Trump’s tax cuts sharply reduced corporate taxes.

But the most recent data suggests investment will slow, not accelerate, next year. U.S. factory orders for large capital goods have fallen in three of the past four months. Surveys by regional Federal Reserve banks show that companies are planning to spend less on capital equipment next year. That’s one reason many economists forecast economic growth will slow in 2019 from a pace of about 3 percent this year.

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POVERTY

TRUMP: “Last year alone, we lifted 1 million Americans out of poverty, which is a record.” — remarks Dec. 12.

THE FACTS: It’s not a record and barely a decline.

The Census Bureau did report that the number of Americans living in poverty last year was 39.7 million, a decline of 918,000 from 2016. But the bureau said the 39.7 million is not a meaningfully different number statistically from 2016, when the figure stood at 40.6 million. In other words, the drop could be accounted for by variations in sampling the population rather than by an actual decline in the number of poor people.

Last year’s drop of 918,000 is also dwarfed by bigger decreases in the number of poor people of 2.5 million in 2016 and 3.5 million in 2015.

The biggest recorded decline came in 1966, when nearly 4.7 million Americans were found to have been lifted above the poverty line. The agency considers declines of that size to represent a “a true difference that exists in the population as a whole,” rather than just a sampling variation.

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RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, on Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser: “We’re arguing that he was certainly ambushed and that the FBI, that we know, had clear political bias.” — interview Tuesday with Fox News.

SANDERS: “The FBI broke standard protocol in the way that they came in and ambushed Gen. Flynn and in the way that they questioned him.” — news briefing Tuesday.

THE FACTS: She’s suggesting impropriety in the FBI’s questioning of Flynn that Flynn himself rejected in court.

Sanders was echoing an argument by Flynn’s lawyers in court filings that Flynn may have been tricked into lying by FBI agents. His lawyers had pulled from FBI documents in pointing out that unlike other defendants in the Russia investigation, Flynn wasn’t warned in advance that it was a crime to lie to the FBI. Trump himself has argued that Flynn was unfairly targeted by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and suggested that Flynn did not actually lie, despite having fired him nearly two years ago for just that reason.

But at his sentencing hearing Tuesday, Flynn told Judge Emmet Sullivan that he knew it was a crime when he lied to the FBI in January 2017. Flynn declined to accept the judge’s offer to withdraw his guilty plea. Neither he nor his lawyers disputed that he had lied to agents.

Sullivan asked Flynn and his lawyers several times whether they believed Flynn was entrapped or if Flynn wanted to challenge the circumstances of his conversation with the FBI that led to charges.

“No, your honor,” Flynn said.

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BORDER WALL

TRUMP: “Mexico is paying (indirectly) for the Wall through the new USMCA, the replacement for NAFTA! Far more money coming to the U.S. Because of the tremendous dangers at the Border, including large scale criminal and drug inflow, the United States Military will build the Wall!” — tweet Wednesday.

THE FACTS: He’s making a flimsy assertion intended to cover up the fact that Mexico refused to pay for a U.S. border wall, as Trump promised it would do during the 2016 campaign.

Trump is arguing that new terms of trade with Mexico will increase economic growth in the U.S. and produce more tax revenue. As part of that, he hopes for a lower trade deficit with Mexico. But those outcomes are not assured.

The deal negotiated with Mexico and Canada is an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement he railed against, not a transformative pact. The three countries will continue trading in an environment of mainly low or no tariffs, with improvements here and there for all three partners. There is no credible way for Trump to forecast additional growth covering costs that are being charged to U.S. taxpayers if the wall is built. Trade balances depend on too many factors — consumer tastes, exchange rates, overall economic performance, and the choices of thousands of companies among them — and some are well outside any government’s control.

Trump specifically promised in the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall. That is not the same as trying to reduce the U.S. trade deficit, which is about the exchange of goods and services among private entities rather than payments between governments.

He wants $25 billion from Congress for wall construction over five years. If Trump gets the money, it will not be because lawmakers expect a refund to the treasury in future years from extra growth produced by a trade deal.

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TRUMP: “Illegal immigration costs the United States more than 200 Billion Dollars a year. How was this allowed to happen?” — tweet Tuesday.

THE FACTS: He’s exaggerating the costs of illegal immigration.

“I’m not sure where the president got his numbers,” said Dave Ray, a spokesman for the nonprofit group FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower immigration numbers.

Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security has said where Trump’s estimate of $200 billion to $250 billion comes from.

The Heritage Foundation, for instance, estimated in 2013 that households headed by immigrants living in the U.S. illegally impose a net fiscal burden of around $54.5 billion per year.

Trump himself has contradicted the figure. During his 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that illegal immigration cost the country more than $113 billion a year — less than half the number he tweeted Tuesday.

That estimate appeared based on a paper by FAIR, which released an updated report in 2017 that claimed taxpayers “shell out approximately $134.9 billion to cover the costs incurred by the presence of more than 12.5 million illegal aliens, and about 4.2 million citizen children of illegal aliens” at the federal, state and local levels, with “a tax burden of approximately $8,075 per illegal alien family member and a total of $115,894,597,664.”

The $116 million figure included services such as health care and education, as well as spending on agencies including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, minus the $19 billon the group concluded those who are living in the country illegally pay in taxes. But it also included costs associated with the children of those immigrants in its tally, even when they are U.S. citizens. The estimate was criticized for making broad generalizations and other major methodological flaws.

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Cal Woodward in Washington and Philip Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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