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AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s political spin on migrant deaths

December 31, 2018
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Catarina Alonzo Perez, mother of the second Guatemalan child this month to die while in U.S. custody, stands in her kitchen in Yalambojoch, Guatemala, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018. Felipe was healthy when they left, according to the family. The last time he spoke with his mother was a day before they were taken into detention by border agents. Felipe told his mother that he was fine. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump twisted circumstances behind the deaths of two migrant Guatemalan children to insulate his administration from any blame, contending without justification that they were in dire health before they reached the border.

The children cleared initial U.S. health screenings and one of them was in the U.S. for five days before suddenly showing signs of illness.

His weekend tweets on the deaths in U.S. custody of a 7-year-old girl and an 8-year old boy were his first public words on the subject and conveyed no empathy for the children or their families. Instead he said the children’s fate shows why the U.S. needs a wall at the Mexican border.

On Monday, Trump assailed Democrats who called his proposed border wall immoral, tweeting “it is far more immoral for people to be dying!”

Trump addressed the matter during a week in which he also misrepresented what he’s done for military pay in a speech to troops in Iraq and told a faulty story about the Iran nuclear deal.

A look at some of his statements and the reality behind them:

MEXICAN BORDER

TRUMP: “The two ... children in question were very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol. The father of the young girl said it was not their fault, he hadn’t given her water in days. Border Patrol needs the Wall and it will all end.” — tweets Saturday.

THE FACTS: This account is not supported by timelines released by Customs and Border Protection or other sources.

As well, Trump is wrong in saying the father of the girl who died has absolved U.S. officials of responsibility. Through family lawyers, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz said he made sure his daughter Jakelin had food and water as they traveled through Mexico. The Border Protection timeline on her case says: “The initial screening revealed no evidence of health issues.” And nothing was mentioned about the girl being dehydrated.

The record so far neither establishes that U.S. officials were to blame for the children’s deaths nor clears them of blame, despite Trump’s pronouncement. All the facts are not known, but he rendered what is known inaccurately.

Circumstances are laid out in the Customs and Border Protection accounts of the capture, treatment and deaths of Jakelin Caal, 7, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo , 8, who both came to the border with their fathers:

When Jakelin Caal and her father were caught the evening of Dec. 6, her father described her as in good health and no illness was observed by agents. It’s possible father and daughter did not acknowledge an illness. The next morning, she vomited on a bus waiting to take them to a Border Patrol station, then stopped breathing. Twice revived by Border Patrol personnel, she was then flown by helicopter to an El Paso, Texas, trauma center, went into cardiac arrest and was revived once more. She died Dec. 8 at 12:35 a.m.

Trump’s assertion that both children were very ill before their apprehension is even more flagrantly untethered from the record in the case of Alonzo.

Catarina Alonzo, the boy’s mother, told The Associated Press her son was well and eating chicken after arriving at the U.S. border when she spoke with him by phone.

According to a Border Protection timeline, Felipe and his father, Agustin Gomez, were caught Dec. 18 near El Paso. Agents recorded giving them 23 “welfare checks” — checking on the well-being of father and son — over the next four days. No concern about the boy’s health is noted in the timeline. But on Dec. 24, a day after being transferred to a New Mexico center, the boy was taken to a hospital with a cough and high fever, released after more than five hours with flu medicine, then taken back late that evening. He lost consciousness on the way and doctors could not revive him.

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BORDER WALL

TRUMP: “I am in the Oval Office & just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.” — tweet Dec. 24.

TRUMP: “Yesterday, I gave out 115 miles’ worth of wall, 115 miles in Texas. It’s going to be built, hopefully rapidly. I’m going there at the end of January for the start of construction.” — remarks to reporters Tuesday.

THE FACTS: He appears to be representing work financed months ago, as new construction. A president cannot simply give out a construction contract. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers award contracts for border wall construction after Congress approves the money and months have gone into planning.

In March, Congress approved money for 33 miles (53 kilometers) of construction in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal border crossings. The government said in November that construction in the Rio Grande Valley would begin in February. Targeted areas include the nonprofit National Butterfly Center, a state park and privately owned ranches and farmland. Trump’s statement that he plans to visit the site in late January suggests he may be referring to this previously announced construction.

It’s a mystery how he comes up with 115 miles (185 km), and neither the White House nor the Homeland Security Department explained that when asked.

Homeland Security has said the money approved by Congress in March will pay for 84 miles (135 km) altogether along the southern border, including the Texas stretch. If the Trump administration got the entire $5 billion it’s requested from Congress, the administration says that would be enough to build 215 miles (346 km) of barrier.

What’s not a mystery is that Trump has repeatedly exaggerated what’s been accomplished on his campaign promise to build a wall sealing the border with Mexico.

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MILITARY PAY

TRUMP: “You just got one of the biggest pay raises you ever received. Unless you don’t want it. Does anybody here? Is anybody here willing to give up the big pay raise you just got? I don’t see too many hands. Ah, OK. Don’t give it up. It’s great. You know what? Nobody deserves it more. You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years. More than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one.” — remarks prompting cheers from troops Wednesday at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq.

THE FACTS: He’s wrong about there being no pay increase for service members in more than 10 years and about their raise being especially large. U.S. military members have gotten a pay raise every year for decades. As well, several in the last 10 years have been larger than service members are getting now — 2.4 percent this year and 2.6 percent in 2019. Raises in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for example, were all 3.4 percent or more.

Trump has repeatedly told service members that they’re getting the biggest or only pay raise that they have received in 10 years or more. In May, for example, he told graduates of the United States Naval Academy: “We just got you a big pay raise. First time in 10 years.”

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TRUMP: “You had plenty of people, they came up, they said, you know we could make it smaller. We could make it 3 percent, we could make it 2 percent, we could make it 4 percent. I said, ‘no, make it 10 percent — make it more than 10 percent.’” — remarks Wednesday at al-Asad base.

THE FACTS: Whatever he might have said at the time, the 2.6 percent for 2019 obviously falls far short of the 10 percent or more that he implied was achieved.

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IRAN

TRUMP: “For all of the sympathizers out there of Brett McGurk remember, he was the Obama appointee who was responsible for loading up airplanes with 1.8 Billion Dollars in CASH & sending it to Iran as part of the horrific Iran Nuclear Deal (now terminated) approved by Little Bob Corker.” — tweet Monday.

THE FACTS: There are three or more things wrong with this short tweet as he takes a slap at a retiring Republican senator who criticized him, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and a U.S. official who resigned in protest against Trump’s plan to pull troops from Syria, Brett McGurk.

First, Corker was no architect of the 2015 deal between world powers and Iran. He was a leading critic of it in Congress.

He argued at the time that President Barack Obama should have made the pact a treaty subject to approval by the Senate. When Obama didn’t do that, Corker helped fellow senators write legislation that subjected the accord to periodic congressional review. The legislation would have blocked the deal if that effort got enough votes. It didn’t. Obama brought the deal into effect, not Congress.

Corker has sharply criticized Trump, calling him “utterly untruthful” and responsible for “the debasing of our nation.”

Second, branding McGurk an “Obama appointee” is misleading. The veteran diplomat bridges administrations. Republican President George W. Bush appointed him as a senior aide for Iraq and Afghanistan. During the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal by the Obama administration, McGurk led secret side talks with Tehran on the release of Americans imprisoned there. He is Trump’s envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, but quitting in protest of the troop withdrawal.

As for cash flown to Iran, that’s true, though Trump is off on the amount and leaves out important context: The money was a debt owed to Tehran, which bought military equipment from the U.S. that it never received because relations ruptured when the shah was overthrown in 1979. A cargo plane took $400 million, representing the principal, to the Iranians. The remaining $1.3 billion, representing interest accrued over nearly 40 years, was transferred separately.

The diplomatic break meant that a variety of debts between the two countries went uncollected and became the subject of international arbitration. As part of that process, Iran paid settlements of more than $2.5 billion to U.S. citizens and businesses over the years.

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Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant in Houston and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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Border Protection information on Jakelin Caal: https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/speeches-and-statements/statement-us-customs-and-border-protection-death-seven-year-old

Border Protection information on Felipe Gomez Alonzo: https://www.dhs.gov/news/2018/12/25/cbp-shares-additional-information-about-recent-passing-guatemalan-child

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