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AP FACT CHECK: Trump wrong on judges, ‘plummeting’ poverty

September 24, 2018
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Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the midterm elections draw near, President Donald Trump’s tendency to declare his campaign promises fulfilled when they aren’t has come into starker relief.

He insists poverty in the U.S. is “plummeting,” even though the number of poor people has barely declined under his watch and income inequality is climbing.

Jousting with Democrats in advance of the November midterms, Trump also declares a premature victory from his tariffs by pointing to a manufacturing renaissance that has yet to be and boasts of promises kept on “full” funding for improvements at the Department of Veterans Affairs. In fact, long-term financing for a key VA health care program remains uncertain.

On judges, Trump’s comments about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser betrayed a misunderstanding of how FBI investigations work. And his claim to be in the league of George Washington when it comes to placing judges on the federal bench is refuted by the record.

A look at some of the rhetoric over the past week from Trump and members of Congress:

POVERTY

TRUMP: “Poverty is plummeting.” — rally Thursday in Las Vegas.

THE FACTS: He’s overstating it.

The poverty rate dropped only modestly under Trump’s watch, to 12.3 percent in 2017 from 12.7 percent in 2016. At the same time, nearly 40 million Americans remained poor by the Census Bureau’s count, statistically unchanged from 2016.

Wealthier Americans, meanwhile, pulled farther ahead last year. Even steady growth over the previous eight years hasn’t been enough to counter long-running trends to greater economic inequality. Income growth was strongest for the richest 5 percent of households, rising 3 percent to $237,034. For the poorest one-fifth of the population, incomes rose just 0.5 percent.

As a result, the wealthiest 5 percent received 3.9 times the income earned by the median U.S. household. That’s the highest on record, dating back to 1967.

It’s true that in the last three years, the poverty rate has dropped steadily by 2.5 percentage points, from a recent peak of 14.8 percent in 2014. The biggest chunk of that drop occurred from 2014 to 2016, during the Obama administration.

The Census Bureau also considers the impact of various government assistance programs on reducing the ranks of the poor. The agency found that the food stamp program, formally known as SNAP, lifted 3.4 million people out of poverty. Rental subsidies did the same for 2.9 million. Trump and House Republican leaders have proposed cuts in those programs.

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VETERANS

TRUMP: “Just today I signed a new bill fully funding Veterans Choice for our great veterans.” — rally Friday in Springfield, Missouri.

TRUMP: “Promises Kept for our GREAT Veterans!” — tweet Friday.

TRUMP: “We are delivering the resources needed to fully implement crucial VA reforms ... to deliver for our great veterans.” — remarks Friday in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

THE FACTS: He isn’t telling the full story. The private-sector health-care program lacks a long-term source of government funding that could put it or other domestic programs subject to budget caps at risk of major shortfalls next year.

Trump signed legislation in June to expand the Veterans Choice program as an alternative to medical care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The new program will give veterans wider access to private-sector physicians outside the VA if they must endure lengthy wait times or the treatment wasn’t what they had expected. The government-paid program is projected to face escalating costs, including a $1 billion shortfall next summer.

A bipartisan group of senators had sought to address long-term funding by adding new money to cover the private care program, but the White House opposed that as “anathema to responsible spending.” It maintained that added costs should be paid for by cutting other domestic programs, including possibly some at VA.

Congress included in the VA spending bill a one-year money fix for the expanded Choice program, putting aside discussion until next year on how to pay its estimated added costs of $8 billion next fall and $9 billion in 2020. Trump signed that bill last week.

The Choice program has already involved high levels of spending, leading to two unexpected budget shortfalls during Trump’s first year in office.

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KAVANAUGH

TRUMP, on Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party in the 1980s: “The radical left lawyers want the FBI to get involved NOW. Why didn’t someone call the FBI 36 years ago?” — tweet Friday.

THE FACTS: The FBI would not have been the number to call. The behavior alleged by Ford is not a federal crime but one that might have been investigated by local authorities if reported. She said he pinned her on a bed and tried taking off her clothes during a high school party in Maryland in the 1980s; Kavanaugh denies the allegations.

Democrats want the FBI to get involved now because the bureau conducts background checks on presidential nominees. The FBI background check of Kavanaugh was completed before the allegations emerged. Democrats and various advocates, not just “radical left lawyers,” want the FBI to reopen its investigation in light of the accusation. The FBI can only do so if the White House requests that step.

Trump is trying to cast suspicion on Ford’s credibility by questioning why the then-teenager “or her loving parents” did not go to the police “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says,” as he put it in another tweet. It has long been the norm for sexual assaults to go unreported to authorities.

A Justice Department report estimated that from 1992 to 2000, slightly more than one-third of rapes or attempted rapes were reported to police, only 26 percent of sexual assaults and less than 10 percent on college campuses.

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TRUMP, on Democratic calls for the FBI to reopen its background investigation: “Well, it would seem that the FBI really doesn’t do that. They’ve investigated about six times before, and it seems that they don’t do that.” — remarks Wednesday.

DEMOCRATIC SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN of California: “Fact check: The FBI can investigate Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations as part of its background investigation - that is their job. To say otherwise is FALSE. It investigated Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. It should investigate this too.” — tweet Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Neither Trump nor Feinstein is entirely correct.

Only the White House can order the FBI to look into the claim as part of Kavanaugh’s background investigation because Ford is not accusing Kavanaugh of a federal crime.

The FBI could interview Ford, Kavanaugh and others about the allegation if Trump asked the bureau to reopen its background investigation. But Trump said the FBI has already done its work.

Each side’s take on the propriety of a reopened FBI probe has political calculations. Republicans are seeking to wrap up Kavanaugh’s confirmation quickly while they are still in control of the Senate, and Democrats view it as more advantageous to delay a vote until after the November elections, when they hope to gain a majority.

As for Feinstein’s point that the FBI investigated Hill’s accusations against Thomas, that’s true but it was because Republican President George H.W. Bush asked the bureau to do so. On Sunday, Democrats renewed their request for Trump to direct a FBI investigation of Ford’s claims.

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ECONOMY

TRUMP: “I don’t think we’ve ever had an economy like this.” — remarks Wednesday on White House’s South Lawn.

THE FACTS: The president is correct as far as that statement goes, but not entirely in the favorable ways he suggests.

It is true that the U.S. economy is relatively healthy with solid hiring gains and a strong stock market. Growth got an adrenaline boost this year because of the deficit-financed tax cuts that Trump signed into law last year. But economic growth has hardly ascended to a new peak. The 4.2 percent annual growth in the second quarter was bested twice, as recently as 2014 under President Barack Obama.

Instead, what makes the U.S. economy unique under Trump are major trends that aren’t very positive:

—Never has the U.S. economy been involved in a trade conflict equal to the magnitude of its current showdown with China. The tariffs imposed by the Trump administration and China’s retaliations have opened up a battle between the world’s two largest economies that could last for weeks or decades, according to trade experts.

—Never has the federal deficit been set to climb so high during a period of economic stability. When Trump cut taxes last year, he piled on roughly $1.5 trillion of debt over the next decade. Additional spending in his budget only added to the imbalance. Publicly held government debt will be equal in size to the entire U.S. gross domestic product in 2028, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That’s the most since 1946, when the United States was coming out of World War II and the Great Depression.

—Income inequality has worsened. Someone in the top 5 percent of earners makes 3.86 times more than the median U.S. household with an income of $61,372, according to the Census Bureau. That is the highest gap ever tracked by Census data going back 50 years. In 1967, the top 5 percent earned 2.66 times the median.

These forces have helped lead the economy into seemingly unprecedented territory under Trump.

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FEDERAL JUDGES

TRUMP: “We’ll have more judges put on than any other president other than one. Do you know who the one is? George Washington. Percentage wise.” ″You know I have 145 (judges nominated), plus hopefully two Supreme Court judges. And that’s assuming nobody leaves the bench which they will over the next period of time.” ″I often say, ‘Who has highest percentage of federal judges.’ They say, ‘You do.’ I’ll say, ‘No, no. I got killed.’ They said, ‘George Washington’ ... because he appointed a hundred percent of the judges.” — interview released Wednesday with Hill TV.

THE FACTS: Not so fast. His claim of appointing more judges than any other president except for perhaps Washington is highly questionable, according to an analysis of judicial appointment data conducted for The Associated Press.

So far Trump has appointed 68 judges who have been confirmed to the federal courts. That translates to about 8 percent of the total federal judgeships at the 20-month mark in his presidency. That lags at least four previous presidents in terms of both raw numbers and percentages, said Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and expert on judicial appointments.

Wheeler, a former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center, crunched historical data from the center and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He found that Trump trails Republican presidents George W. Bush (77) and Ronald Reagan (78), as well as Democrats Bill Clinton (85) and John F. Kennedy (109) at comparable points in their presidencies.

Wheeler also put together a ranking based on the number of appointees in 20 months as a percentage of “authorized judgeships,” or the total seats created by Congress. Trump lagged at least 17 other presidents, including Washington, who as the first president appointed 100 percent of the federal judges. At the 20-month mark, for instance, Kennedy appointees occupied roughly 27 percent of the judicial seats then authorized by Congress, far higher than Trump’s 8 percent.

Trump appears to be including in his cited figure those he has nominated to the federal bench, but who have not yet been confirmed.

Even when accounting for that, Trump’s total of confirmed judges and current nominees represents 16 percent of the total judgeships. Kennedy and Grover Cleveland reached higher percentages based on their confirmed judges alone.

“It’s hard to comprehend what President Trump exactly meant by his statement,” Wheeler told the AP. “He does have a strong record so far in appointments to the U.S. Court of Appeals — 20 months in, Trump appointees occupy 15 percent of authorized circuit judgeships — but on that score he still trails Kennedy and Eisenhower, and Grover Cleveland, for that matter.”

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TARIFFS

TRUMP: “Tariffs have put the U.S. in a very strong bargaining position, with Billions of Dollars, and Jobs, flowing into our Country - and yet cost increases have thus far been almost unnoticeable. If countries will not make fair deals with us, they will be ‘Tariffed!’” — tweet Sept. 17.

THE FACTS: In trade talks with China, Canada and Mexico, it’s not entirely clear how much of an advantage the United States has gained from the tariffs. The import taxes imposed on steel and aluminum have been pressure points. So are the tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, with the president suggesting he’s prepared to tax an additional $467 billion of imports from China. But Americans have to see a final deal with Canada or China to assess whether these taxes are delivering a better bargain.

Still, have tariffs brought in billions of dollars and jobs without increasing inflation?

Yes, the tariffs have brought in slightly more revenue. It’s hard to know if they’ve helped create jobs. And the companies closest to the tariffs say that, yes, inflation is a risk.

In theory, the tariffs should add money to federal coffers. The 25 percent tax the Trump administration slapped on $50 billion of Chinese imports should raise $12.5 billion if the flow of goods continues without interruption.

And even though many tariffs haven’t been in place long enough to determine whether they’re helping draw in significantly more revenue, the Treasury Department said there has been a $5.4 billion jump in the collection of customs and duties so far this fiscal year. Some of this increase is due to more imports. But customs and duties account for just 1.2 percent of federal revenues, so any increase from tariffs does little to address the ballooning budget deficit.

The U.S. economy was adding jobs before the tariffs were announced, and it has been adding jobs since. It’s hard to know at this stage how the tariffs have influenced the pace of job creation, since any analysis would need to consider the whole of the nine-year expansion and the stimulus from Trump’s deficit-funded tax cut.

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TRUMP: “Our Steel Industry is the talk of the World. It has been given new life, and is thriving. Billions of Dollars is being spent on new plants all around the country!” — tweet Sept. 17.

THE FACTS: Trump has certainly helped steelmakers, but so far it’s not the dramatic turnaround that he portrays.

Analysts at Citibank said this month that steel companies have approved more than $3 billion in investment following the tariffs. Some steel mills have restarted closed mills and added new capacity.

Manufacturers focused on primary metals have added 7,100 workers in the past 12 months for a total of 381,700 jobs, according to the Labor Department. But that total still lags the 402,600 jobs with primary metal manufacturers at the end of 2014. A stronger dollar and lower oil prices hurt the demand for steel products, causing production and employment to fall. And Trump is a long way from the more than 450,000 jobs in this sector at the start of 2008.

More importantly, steel is a modest component of U.S. job growth. Primary metals represented just 0.3 percent of the 2.33 million job gains in the past year.

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Associated Press writers Josh Boak and Christopher Rugaber contributed to this report.

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