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Fact-Checking the Biden-Trump CNN Debate
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Fact Check

Fact-Checking the Biden-Trump CNN Debate

Both candidates made numerous false or misleading statements.

President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump participate in the CNN presidential debate on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In the first of two scheduled presidential debates, moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper of CNN questioned Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the economy, abortion, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and numerous other topics.

Both candidates made a number of misleading or outright false statements during Thursday’s debate, on topics ranging from inflation and unemployment to veterans and golf. Here is a rundown of some of the most significant distortions.

Biden’s Economic Claims

Since his 2024 campaign began, Biden has regularly misrepresented his economic record. This pattern continued during the debate, with the president repeating several disproven claims about unemployment, deficits, and taxes.

In one instance, Biden asserted that his administration had created 15,000 jobs since taking office, though he meant 15 million. Biden’s claim is technically true: U.S. non-farm employment has risen by approximately 15.6 million since January 2021. However, this number misrepresents the actual trend of employment growth during Biden’s presidency.

Biden’s employment growth numbers benefit from the fact that he took over as president when employment was in a deep but temporary valley. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that the economy lost 21.4 million jobs in March and April of 2020 due to COVID-19 shutdowns, and when Biden took office the country still had almost 9.4 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic. When compared to employment trends before the pandemic, however, only about 6.2 million jobs have been added to the economy on net during Biden’s time in office.

Biden made another misleading claim when he accused Trump of having the highest single-term deficit ever recorded. “He raised the deficit larger than any president has in any one term,” Biden said. In a May 2024 piece, The Dispatch Fact Check reported that, while the national debt increased by $6.14 trillion during Trump’s presidency, it had increased by a further $6.31 trillion during Biden’s time in office. Trump did oversee the highest single-year deficit ever recorded in 2020 as a result of COVID-19 emergency spending, but Biden has since maintained a consistently higher debt-to-GDP ratio than any president before him.

Biden similarly claimed that the unemployment rate was 15 percent when he took office. This claim is false. The unemployment rate did peak at nearly 15 percent in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it had declined to 6.4 percent by the time Biden took office in January 2021. As of May 2024, the unemployment rate stood at 4 percent.

Biden also claimed that billionaires pay significantly less in taxes than average Americans. “[Billionaires are] in a situation where they, in fact, pay 8.2 percent,” Biden said. This is not the first time Biden has made such a claim, but it is false, as The Dispatch Fact Check noted in March:

Biden’s 8.2 percent figure comes from an estimate made in September 2021 by Greg Leiserson, a senior economist in the Council of Economic Affairs, and Danny Yagan, chief economist of the Office of Management and Budget. Leiserson and Yagan measured income by looking at changes in estimated net worth among those listed in the Forbes 400—a ranking of the 400 richest Americans. They then compare these changes to IRS data on total income taxes paid by those on the Forbes list to calculate an effective average federal tax rate.

This calculation, however, includes unrealized capital gains (i.e., the change in the value of an asset such as a stock or bond that has not yet been sold) as part of a person’s income. Capital gains—which are not included in conventional measures of income—are typically taxed only after an asset is sold and are generally subjected to a 20 percent rate for high earners, not standard income tax rates.

Estimates by the Treasury Department and the Tax Policy Center in 2020 and 2021, respectively, which don’t include unrealized capital gains, estimated that the average federal income tax for the highest-income families in America was 23 and 25 percent.

Trump’s Economic Claims

Donald Trump also made numerous misleading or false statements related to the economy.

Early in the debate, Trump remarked that food prices have “doubled and tripled and quadrupled” under Biden. Trump’s claim is directionally true, but overstated. As The Dispatch Fact Check reported earlier this year, food prices have risen 21 percent since Biden took office.

Trump similarly claimed that Biden wants to quadruple Americans’ taxes. This claim is false. Joe Biden’s proposed tax plan, which was introduced in his fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, would raise taxes on some Americans, but not by nearly the amount that Trump claims. The proposed plan would increase the top marginal tax rate only slightly—from 37 to 39.6 percent—on individual income above $400,000. While the plan would nearly double the existing capital gains tax rate from 20 to 39.6 percent in some instances, this much higher rate would only apply to taxable income above $1 million.

Trump made another false claim when Tapper asked about his proposed tariff policy. “You want to impose a 10 percent tariff on all goods coming into the U.S.,” Tapper said. “How will you ensure that that doesn’t drive prices even higher?”

“It’s not going to drive [prices] higher,” Trump responded. “It’s just going to cause countries that have been ripping us off for years, like China—and many others, in all fairness to China—it’s going to just force them to pay us a lot of money, reduce our deficit tremendously, and give us a lot of power for other things.” This claim is false: Domestic consumers almost always pay for import tariffs in the form of higher prices, as The Dispatch Fact Check reported in February:

Tariffs—which are taxes imposed on goods and services imported from other countries—are paid directly by U.S. businesses that purchase from abroad. While the added costs of these tariffs are theoretically distributed among the buyer, seller, and consumer, economic research into U.S. tariffs has found that almost all of this added cost is passed onto domestic producers and consumers.

“For most, if not almost all commodities, when a tariff is placed on imports of the commodity (for example, steel or refrigerators) the price for the commodity paid by consumers goes up, not always by the full amount of the tariff, but usually by most of the amount of the tariff,” Vincent Smith, economist and director of Agricultural Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch Fact Check. “Domestic producers facing import competition then benefit from those higher prices but all consumers in the country bear a cost.” 

American consumers experienced this cost as a result of Trump’s 2018 tariffs. Research from economists at the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute found that the price of washing machines and dryers rose nearly 12 percent after import tariffs were imposed. “It was no accident that once the Trump administration imposed tariffs on imports of kitchen appliances and washers and dryers, the prices of those commodities in stores like Lowes and Home Depot jumped by between $50 and $100 for appliances of modest quality, and more for higher end appliances,” Smith explained.

Roe v. Wade

One of the most contentious points in the debate was a back-and-forth on abortion rights. Trump attacked Biden for his support of Roe v. Wade, claiming that its framework allows for abortion up to the moment of birth. “He’s willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby,” Trump said.

“That is simply not true,” Biden responded. “Roe v. Wade does not provide for that. That’s not the circumstance. Only when the woman’s life is in danger, if she’s going to die—that’s the only circumstance in which that can happen. But we are not for late-term abortion, period—period, period.”

Trump then responded to Biden: “Under Roe v. Wade, you have late-term abortion. You can do whatever you want, depending on the state. You can do whatever you want. We don’t think that’s a good thing. We think it’s a radical thing.”

Trump is largely correct about the provisions of Roe v. Wade, as The Dispatch Fact Check reported last August:

Though Psaki is correct that late-term abortions are very rare, those same CDC statistics she cited still report approximately 5,500 abortions occurring after 21 weeks in 2020. Data regarding the rationale for these late-term abortions is scarce, but many take place because of either physical health concerns for the mother or the discovery of significant fetal abnormalities that limit the long-term viability or quality of life of the child. Many, but not all: Colorado late-term abortion specialist Warren Hern, whom Psaki references in her own segment, told The Atlantic in May that at least half of the women who come to his clinic do not end their pregnancies on these grounds, offering various elective reasons instead.

While Hern likely conducts a higher proportion of elective, late-term abortions than most providers because of his clinic’s unique specialty, late-term procedures for purposes other than the physical health of the mother or fetus do take place in states with little to no abortion restrictions—even if such procedures are relatively rare. There are currently six U.S. states—plus Washington, D.C.—with no gestational limits on abortion.

‘Suckers and Losers’

In an argument about veterans, Biden accused Trump of insulting service members who had been killed in action. “He was standing with his four-star general,” Biden said, referencing a trip Trump took to an American cemetery in France in 2018. “And he told him, he said, ‘I don’t want to go in there because they’re a bunch of losers and suckers’.”

Trump quickly shot back. “First of all, that was a made-up quote, ‘suckers and losers.’ They made it up. It was in a third-rate magazine that’s failing, like many of these magazines,” he responded. “We had 19 people that said I didn’t say it.”

The claim that Trump referred to veterans as “suckers” and “losers”—first reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic in September 2020—is well corroborated, but it cannot be fully verified. According to Goldberg’s reporting, Trump allegedly described American soldiers who were buried in a cemetery in France as “losers,” saying that soldiers killed at Belleau Wood—the site of a major battle during World War I—were “suckers.” The Atlantic article relied on four anonymous sources “with firsthand knowledge of the discussion,” but Trump’s former chief of staff, Ret. Gen. John Kelly, lent further legitimacy to the claims when he corroborated them on-the-record in a 2023 statement to CNN.

As for Trump’s statement that 19 people “said I didn’t say it,” his campaign in 2020 issued a press release with quotes from people who joined Trump on the trip to France, including then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, adviser Stephen Miller, and first lady Melania Trump.

Calling the National Guard

After being asked by Tapper to account for his actions on January 6, Trump claimed that he had tried to bring National Guard support to the Capitol, but that Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rejected the offer. “I offered them 10,000 soldiers or National Guard. And [Pelosi] turned them down,” Trump said.

Trump’s claim is false. According to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, no evidence exists that Trump ever ordered the National Guard to be ready for action on January 6. Chris Miller, Trump’s acting defense secretary at the time, denied under oath that Trump had ever given such an order, and witness testimony gathered by the committee suggested that Trump had only floated the idea. There is also no evidence that Pelosi rejected National Guard troops offered by Trump. The Capitol Police Board, not the speaker of the House, has the authority to call the National Guard.

Did Biden Refer to Black Americans as ‘Superpredators’?

Toward the end of the night, Trump argued that he had a better record with black Americans than Biden, and accused Biden of referring to the black community as “superpredators.” 

“What he has done to the black population is horrible,” Trump said, referring to Biden. “Including the fact that for 10 years he called them superpredators.”

This claim is false. The term “superpredator,” which gained popularity in the mid-1990s as a moniker for the small number of young men who were believed to be responsible for an outsized portion of serious crime, was not targeted specifically at black Americans, and no evidence exists that Biden ever used the term. Biden did use the term “predator” on at least one occasion, but this remark referred specifically to violent criminals. In a 1993 speech in support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Biden argued that more attention should be paid to the thousands of young people being born without supervision, structure, or moral guidance. “We should focus on them now,” he said. “If we don’t, they will—or a portion of them will—become the predators 15 years from now. And madam president, we have predators on our streets.”

Golf Handicaps

By the end of the evening, the debate found its way into less consequential territory. The candidates were asked by Bash to address voters’ concerns that both would be into their 80s by the end of a second term. Trump touted both his physical and mental health, remarking that his golf game is a testament to both. “I just won two club championships, not even senior, two regular club championships,” Trump said, referencing trophies he claims he won at his West Palm Beach golf club in March. “To do that, you have to be quite smart and you have to be able to hit the ball a long way. And I do it. He [Biden] doesn’t do it. He can’t hit a ball 50 yards. He challenged me to a golf match. He can’t hit a ball 50 yards.”

Biden hit back, boasting of his own skills on the golf course. “Look, I’d be happy to have a driving contest with him. I got my handicap, which, when I was vice president, down to a 6,” Biden said. “And by the way, I told you before I’m happy to play golf if you carry your own bag. Think you can do it?”

“That’s the biggest lie, that he’s a 6 handicap, of all,” Trump responded.

According to the United States Golf Association, Biden’s handicap—which represents how many strokes above par a golfer typically plays on a course—was slightly above 6 when he last logged a game in 2018, making Biden a well-above-average golfer. Trump, however, has a self-reported handicap of just 2.8, and became well known, and often criticized, for his frequent golf outings while president.

Trump has been accused of cheating at golf for years and inflating his prowess. But given his frequent play and ownership of numerous golf courses, Trump would almost certainly be favored in an 18-hole matchup against Biden. However, without a close analysis of both candidates’ long games, The Dispatch Fact Check cannot verify who would win in Biden’s proposed driving contest.

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Alex Demas is a fact checker at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in England as a financial journalist and earned his MA in Political Economy at King's College London. When not heroically combating misinformation online, Alex can be found mixing cocktails, watching his beloved soccer team Aston Villa lose a match, or attempting to pet stray cats.