Fact check: Republicans at CPAC make false claims about Biden, Zelensky, the FBI and children | 31left
The Conservative Political Action Conference is underway in Maryland. And the members of Congress, former government officials and conservative personalities who spoke at the conference on Thursday and Friday made false claims about a variety of topics.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio uttered two false claims about President Joe Biden. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia repeated a debunked claim about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama used two inaccurate statistics as he lamented the state of the country. Former Trump White House official Steve Bannon repeated his regular lie about the 2020 election having been stolen from Trump, this time baselesly blaming Fox for Trump’s defeat.
Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida incorrectly said a former Obama administration official had encouraged people to harass Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina inaccurately claimed Biden had laughed at a grieving mother and inaccurately insinuated that the FBI tipped off the media to its search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence. Two other speakers, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka, inflated the number of deaths from fentanyl.
And that’s not all. Here is a fact check of 13 false claims from the conference, which continues on Saturday.
Marjorie Taylor Greene said the Republican Party has a duty to protect children. Listing supposed threats to children, she said, “Now whether it’s like Zelensky saying he wants our sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine…” Later in her speech, she said, “I will look at a camera and directly tell Zelensky: you’d better leave your hands off of our sons and daughters, because they’re not dying over there.”
Facts First: Greene’s claim is false. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t say he wants American sons and daughters to fight or die for Ukraine. The false claim, which was debunked by CNN and others earlier in the week, is based on a viral video that clipped Zelensky’s comments out of context.
19-second video of Zelensky goes viral. See what was edited out
In reality, Zelensky predicted at a press conference in late February that if Ukraine loses the war against Russia because it does not receive sufficient support from elsewhere, Russia will proceed to enter North Atlantic Treaty Organization member countries in the Baltics (a region made up of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) that the US will be obligated to send troops to defend. Under the treaty that governs NATO, an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. Ukraine is not a NATO member, and Zelensky didn’t say Americans should fight there.
Greene is one of the people who shared the out-of-context video on Twitter this week. You can read a full fact-check, with Zelensky’s complete quote, here.
Right-wing commentator and former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon criticized right-wing cable channel Fox at length for, he argued, being insufficiently supportive of Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. Among other things, Bannon claimed that, on the night of the election in November 2020, “Fox News illegitimately called it for the opposition and not Donald J. Trump, of which our nation has never recovered.” Later, he said Trump is running again after “having it stolen, in broad daylight, of which they [Fox] participate in.”
Facts First: This is nonsense. On election night in 2020, Fox accurately projected that Biden had won the state of Arizona. This projection did not change the outcome of the election; all of the votes are counted regardless of what media outlets have projected, and the counting showed that Biden won Arizona, and the election, fair and square. The 2020 election was not “stolen” from Trump.
Bannon has a harsh message for Fox News at CPAC
Fox, like other major media outlets, did not project that Biden had won the presidency until four days later. Fox personalities went on to repeatedly promote lies that the election was stolen from Trump – even as they privately dismissed and mocked these false claims, according to court filings from a voting technology company that is suing Fox for defamation.
Rep. Jim Jordan claimed that Biden, “on day one,” made “three key changes” to immigration policy. Jordan said one of those changes was this: “We’re not going to deport anyone who come.” He proceeded to argue that people knowing “we’re not going to get deported” was a reason they decided to migrate to the US under Biden.
Facts First: Jordan inaccurately described the 100-day deportation pause that Biden attempted to impose immediately after he took office on January 20, 2021. The policy did not say the US wouldn’t deport “anyone who comes.” It explicitly did not apply to anyone who arrived in the country after the end of October 2020, meaning people who arrived under the Biden administration or in the last months of the Trump administration could still be deported.
Biden did say during the 2020 Democratic primary that “no one, no one will be deported at all” in his first 100 days as president. But Jordan claimed that this was the policy Biden actually implemented on his first day in office; Biden’s actual first-day policy was considerably narrower.
Biden’s attempted 100-day pause also did not apply to people who engaged in or were suspected of terrorism or espionage, were seen to pose a national security risk, had waived their right to remain in the US, or whom the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement determined the law required to be removed.
The pause was supposed to be in effect while the Department of Homeland Security conducted a review of immigration enforcement practices, but it was blocked by a federal judge shortly after it was announced.
Rep. Ralph Norman strongly suggested the FBI had tipped off the media to its August search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and resort in Florida for government documents in the former president’s possession – while concealing its subsequent document searches of properties connected to Biden.
Norman said: “When I saw the raid at Mar-a-Lago – you know, the cameras, the FBI – and compare that to when they found Biden’s, all of the documents he had, where was the media, where was the FBI? They kept it quiet early on, didn’t let it out. The job of the next president is going to be getting rid of the insiders that are undermining this government, and you’ve gotta clean house.”
Facts First: Norman’s narrative is false. The FBI did not tip off the media to its search of Mar-a-Lago; CNN reported the next day that the search “happened so quietly, so secretly, that it wasn’t caught on camera at all.” Rather, media outlets belatedly sent cameras to Mar-a-Lago because Peter Schorsch, publisher of the website Florida Politics, learned of the search from non-FBI sources and tweeted about it either after it was over or as it was just concluding, and because Trump himself made a public statement less than 20 minutes later confirming that a search had occurred. Schorsch told CNN on Thursday: “I can, unequivocally, state that the FBI was not one of my two sources which alerted me to the raid.”
Brian Stelter, then CNN’s chief media correspondent, wrote in his article the day after the search: “By the time local TV news cameras showed up outside the club, there was almost nothing to see. Websites used file photos of the Florida resort since there were no dramatic shots of the search.”
It’s true that the public didn’t find out until late January about the FBI’s November search of Biden’s former think tank office in Washington, which was conducted with the consent of Biden’s legal team. But the belated presence of journalists at Mar-a-Lago on the day of the Trump search in August is not evidence of a double standard.
And it’s worth noting that media cameras were on the scene when Biden’s beach home in Delaware was searched by the FBI in February. News outlets had set up a media “pool” to make sure any search there was recorded.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a former college and high school football coach, said, “Going into thousands of kids’ homes and talking to parents every year recruiting, half the kids in this country – I’m not talking about race, I’m just talking about – half the kids in this country have one or no parent. And it’s because of the attack on faith. People are losing faith because, for some reason, because the attack [on] God.”
Facts First: Tuberville’s claim that half of American children don’t have two parents is incorrect. Official figures from the Census Bureau show that, in 2021, about 70% of US children under the age of 18 lived with two parents and about 65% lived with two married parents.
About 22% of children lived with only a mother, about 5% with only a father, and about 3% with no parent. But the Census Bureau has explained that even children who are listed as living with only one parent may have a second parent; children are listed as living with only one parent if, for example, one parent is deployed overseas with the military or if their divorced parents share custody of them.
It is true that the percentage of US children living in households with two parents has been declining for decades. Still, Tuberville’s statistic significantly exaggerated the current situation. His spokesperson told CNN on Thursday that the senator was speaking “anecdotally” from his personal experience meeting with families as a football coach.
Tuberville claimed that today’s children are being “indoctrinated” in schools by “woke” ideology and critical race theory. He then said, “We don’t teach reading, writing and arithmetic anymore. You know, half the kids in this country, when they graduate – think about this: half the kids in this country, when they graduate, can’t read their diploma.”
Facts First: This is false. While many Americans do struggle with reading, there is no basis for the claim that “half” of high school graduates can’t read a basic document like a diploma. “Mr. Tuberville does not know what he’s talking about at all,” said Patricia Edwards, a Michigan State University professor of language and literacy who is a past president of the International Literacy Association and the Literacy Research Association. Edwards said there is “no evidence” to support Tuberville’s claim. She also said that people who can’t read at all are highly unlikely to finish high school and that “sometimes politicians embellish information.”
Tuberville could have accurately said that a significant number of American teenagers and adults have reading trouble, though there is no apparent basis for connecting these struggles with supposed “woke” indoctrination. The organization ProLiteracy pointed CNN to 2017 data that found 23% of Americans age 16 to 65 have “low” literacy skills in English. That’s not “half,” as ProLiteracy pointed out, and it includes people who didn’t graduate from high school and people who are able to read basic text but struggle with more complex literacy tasks.
The Tuberville spokesperson said the senator was speaking informally after having been briefed on other statistics about Americans’ struggles with reading, like a report that half of adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level.
Rep. Jim Jordan claimed of Biden: “The president of the United States stood in front of Independence Hall, called half the country fascists.”
Facts First: This is not true. Biden did not denounce even close to “half the country” in this 2022 speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He made clear that he was speaking about a minority of Republicans.
In the speech, in which he never used the word “fascists,” Biden warned that “MAGA Republicans” like Trump are “extreme,” “do not respect the Constitution” and “do not believe in the rule of law.” But he also emphasized that “not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans.” In other words, he made clear that he was talking about far less than half of Americans.
Trump earned fewer than 75 million votes in 2020 in a country of more than 258 million adults, so even a hypothetical criticism of every single Trump voter would not amount to criticism of “half the country.”
Rep. Scott Perry claimed that “average citizens need to just at some point be willing to acknowledge and accept that every single facet of the federal government is weaponized against every single one of us.” Perry said moments later, “The government doesn’t have the right to tell you that you can’t buy a gas stove but that you must buy an electric vehicle.”
Facts First: This is nonsense. The federal government has not told people that they can’t buy a gas stove or must buy an electric vehicle.
The Biden administration has tried to encourage and incentivize the adoption of electric vehicles, but it has not tried to forbid the manufacture or purchase of traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines. Biden has set a goal of electric vehicles making up half of all new vehicles sold in the US by 2030.
There was a January controversy about a Biden appointee to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, Richard Trumka Jr., saying that gas stoves pose a “hidden hazard,” as they emit air pollutants, and that “any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.” But the commission as a whole has not shown support for a ban, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a January press briefing: “The president does not support banning gas stoves. And the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is independent, is not banning gas stoves.”
Rep. Ralph Norman claimed that Biden had just laughed at a mother who lost two sons to fentanyl.
“I don’t know whether y’all saw, I just saw it this morning: Biden laughing at the mother who had two sons – to die, and he’s basically laughing and saying the fentanyl came from the previous administration. Who cares where it came from? The fact is it’s here,” Norman said.
Facts First: Norman’s claim is false. Biden did not laugh at the mother who lost her sons to fentanyl, the anti-abortion activist Rebecca Kiessling; in a somber tone, he called her “a poor mother who lost two kids to fentanyl.” Rather, he proceeded to laugh about how Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had baselessly blamed the Biden administration for the young men’s deaths even though the tragedy happened in mid-2020, during the Trump administration. You can watch the video of Biden’s remarks here.
Kiessling has demanded an apology from Biden. She is entitled to her criticism of Biden’s remarks and his chuckle – but the video clearly shows Norman was wrong when he claimed Biden was “laughing at the mother.”
Rep. Kat Cammack told a story about the first hearing of the new Republican-led House select subcommittee on the supposed “weaponization” of the federal government. Cammack claimed she had asked a Democratic witness at this February hearing about his “incredibly vitriolic” Twitter feed in which, she claimed, he not only repeatedly criticized Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh but even went “so far as to encourage people to harass this Supreme Court justice.”
Facts First: This story is false. The witness Cammack questioned in this February exchange at the subcommittee, former Obama administration deputy assistant attorney general Elliot Williams, did not encourage people to harass Kavanaugh. In fact, it’s not even true that Cammack accused him at the February hearing of having encouraged people to harass Kavanaugh. Rather, at the hearing, she merely claimed that Williams had tweeted numerous critical tweets about Kavanaugh but had been “unusually quiet” on Twitter after an alleged assassination attempt against the justice. Clearly, not tweeting about the incident is not the same thing as encouraging harassment.
Williams, now a CNN legal analyst (he appeared at the subcommittee hearing in his personal capacity), said in a Thursday email that he had “no idea” what Cammack was looking at on his innocuous Twitter feed. He said: “I used to prosecute violent crimes, and clerked for two federal judges. Any suggestion that I’ve ever encouraged harassment of anyone – and particularly any official of the United States – is insulting and not based in reality.”
Cammack’s spokesperson responded helpfully on Thursday to CNN’s initial queries about the story Cammack told at CPAC, explaining that she was referring to her February exchange with Williams. But the spokesperson stopped responding after CNN asked if Cammack was accurately describing this exchange with Williams and if they had any evidence of Williams actually having encouraged the harassment of Kavanaugh.
Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana boasted about the state of the country “when Republicans were in charge.” Among other claims about Trump’s tenure, he said that “in four years,” Republicans “delivered 3.5% unemployment” and “created 8 million new jobs.”
Facts First: This is inaccurate in two ways. First, the economic numbers for the full “four years” of Trump’s tenure are much worse than these numbers Kennedy cited; Kennedy was actually referring to Trump’s first three years while ignoring the fourth, which was marred by the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, there weren’t “8 million new jobs” created even in Trump’s first three years.
Kennedy could have correctly said there was a 3.5% unemployment rate after three years of the Trump administration, but not after four. The unemployment rate skyrocketed early in Trump’s fourth year, on account of the pandemic, before coming down again, and it was 6.3% when Trump left office in early 2021. (It fell to 3.4% this January under Biden, better than in any month under Trump.)
And while the economy added about 6.7 million jobs under Trump before the pandemic-related crash of March and April 2020, that’s not the “8 million jobs” Kennedy claimed – and the economy ended up shedding millions of jobs in Trump’s fourth year. Over the full four years of Trump’s tenure, the economy netted a loss of about 2.7 million jobs.
Lara Trump, Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law and an adviser to his 2020 campaign, claimed that the last time a CPAC crowd was gathered at this venue in Maryland, in February 2020, “We had the lowest unemployment in American history.” After making other boasts about Donald Trump’s presidency, she said, “But how quickly it all changed.” She added, “Under Joe Biden, America is crumbling.”
Facts First: Lara Trump’s claim about February 2020 having “the lowest unemployment in American history” is false. The unemployment rate was 3.5% at the time – tied for the lowest since 1969, but not the all-time lowest on record, which was 2.5% in 1953. And while Lara Trump didn’t make an explicit claim about unemployment under Biden, it’s not true that things are worse today on this measure; again, the most recent unemployment rate, 3.4% for January 2023, is better than the rate at the time of CPAC’s 2020 conference or at any other time during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Multiple speakers at CPAC decried the high number of fentanyl overdose deaths. But some of the speakers inflated that number while attacking Biden’s immigration policy.
Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump administration official, claimed that “in the last 12 months in America, deaths by fentanyl poisoning totaled 110,000 Americans.” He blamed “Biden’s open border” for these deaths.
Rep. Scott Perry claimed: “Meanwhile over on this side of the border, where there isn’t anybody, they’re running this fentanyl in; it’s killing 100,000 Americans – over 100,000 Americans – a year.”
Facts First: It’s not true that there are more than 100,000 fentanyl deaths per year. That is the total number of deaths from all drug overdoses in the US; there were 106,699 such deaths in 2021. But the number of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, primarily fentanyl, is smaller – 70,601 in 2021.
Fentanyl-related overdoses are clearly a major problem for the country and by far the biggest single contributor to the broader overdose problem. Nonetheless, claims of “110,000” and “over 100,000” fentanyl deaths per year are significant exaggerations. And while the number of overdose deaths and fentanyl-related deaths increased under Biden in 2021, it was also troubling under Trump in 2020 – 91,799 total overdose deaths and 56,516 for synthetic opioids other than methadone.
It’s also worth noting that fentanyl is largely smuggled in by US citizens through legal ports of entry rather than by migrants sneaking past other parts of the border. Contrary to frequent Republican claims, the border is not “open”; border officers have seized thousands of pounds of fentanyl under Biden.