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Fact-checking the fifth Republican presidential debate

CNN aired the fifth GOP debate of the 2024 election cycle from Des Moines on Wednesday night, featuring just two candidates — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. (Front-runner Donald Trump refused to participate.) Following is a list of 18 claims that caught our attention. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates. These claims are examined in the order in which they were uttered.

“When she was governor of South Carolina, she was rated 50th in education, dead last. You know where Florida is under my watch? Number one in the nation.”

— DeSantis

This is correct if the same metric is used. In 2017, the year after Haley left her governorship to join the Trump administration, U.S. News and World Report ranked South Carolina education in 50th place among the states. In its most recent survey, U.S. News ranked Florida in first place. Other rankings don’t put Florida in first place, but South Carolina is usually in the bottom 10.

Trump “said he was going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. He did not deliver that.”

— DeSantis

Overall, Trump built a barrier along 458 miles of the border, including secondary barriers. While much of this was replacement of existing barriers, our colleague Nick Miroff noted on social media in 2020 that “there is really no comparison between vehicle barriers made from old rail ties and 30-foot bollards …. The admin. is installing a massive structure across fragile SW landscapes, at great cost and impact.”

DeSantis is correct that Mexico did not pay for the barrier Trump erected along the southern border; American taxpayers did. The Trump administration directed $16.4 billion in funding to barrier construction there. About $10 billion was repurposed from Defense Department projects over the objection of Congress. Trump falsely has tried to claim that Mexico provided 28,000 soldiers along its northern and southern borders to stem migration “free of charge,” which he says equals payment for the wall. But he’s wrong about that.

Trump “said he was going to eliminate the debt, and he added $7.8 trillion to the debt.”

— DeSantis

“He’s not defending the fact that he allowed us to have $8 trillion in debt over four years.”

— Haley

According to the Treasury Department, the nation’s total public debt, including intragovernmental holdings, climbed from nearly $20 trillion to $27.8 trillion under Trump, a gain of $7.9 trillion.

Of course, it is arbitrary and somewhat silly to tag presidents with the debt increase, as much of the gain is because of events, such as the pandemic, and policies made long before they took office. More than half of the debt under Trump came in the last 10 months of his term because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the biggest drivers of the debt are spending on Social Security and Medicare, established decades ago. That spending happens automatically, not subject to annual appropriations made by Congress.

When he first ran for president, Trump confidently claimed that he could eliminate the national debt — then $19 trillion — in just eight years through better trade deals. We gave him Four Pinocchios. He walked back the pledge, saying he would reduce a percentage of the debt. That didn’t happen.

“When Nikki Haley was governor of South Carolina, she was the number one governor in America for Republicans of bringing China into her state. She wrote a love letter to the ambassador saying that they were a great friend. She is on video saying China is a friend. She had a business, five — Chinese business five miles from a military base. There is video of her on the website right in front of a Chinese flag saying that she works for them now.”

— DeSantis

Haley has campaigned as a China hawk, but DeSantis has repeatedly — and somewhat misleadingly — knocked Haley for her wooing of Chinese companies. As governor from January 2011 to January 2017, Haley recruited Chinese companies to her state. Chinese capital investment in South Carolina more than doubled, from $308 million in 2011 to nearly $670 million in 2015. Haley has sought to distance herself from the specifics of these deals, but she acknowledged at an Iowa town hall last year: “I recruited a fiberglass company.”

The company, known as China Jushi, which Forbes says has 14,000 employees and $2.7 billion in revenue, is a partly state-owned enterprise and has a dedicated Communist Party committee with 618 members. But there is no indication it is a spy center for China. The company’s factory is located five miles from an Army training base, but it’s not a sensitive facility that would require a government review if such a foreign-owned company were located within one mile.

As for the “love letter,” DeSantis is referring to a letter sent to then-Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai on Dec. 30, 2014. Haley thanked the diplomat for congratulating her on her reelection and said she is “grateful” for China’s “contributions on the economic front.” In the letter, she said she considered China “a friend.”

“Instead of 87,000 IRS agents going after middle America, we’ll go after the hundreds of billions of dollars of covid fraud, 1 out of every $7.”

— Haley

Haley is correct that the Government Accountability Office concluded that one in seven covid dollars may have been lost to fraud, but the claim about the 87,000 IRS agents is wildly exaggerated. When Congress passed a bill in 2022 to provide the IRS with an additional $80 billion in funding over 10 years, that money was to be used in part to hire 86,852 full-time employees in the next decade. However, many would not be enforcement “agents” but employees hired to improve information technology and customer service.

“Nikki Haley, when she was governor, she promised she would never do the gas tax. Then she tried to raise the gas tax on hard-working South Carolinians.”

— DeSantis

This is misleading. Haley never supported a stand-alone gas tax when she was governor. She proposed raising the tax only if it was part of a package deal that reduced the state income tax. “Some have advocated raising the state gas tax,” she said in 2015, but “as I’ve said many times, I will veto any straight-up increase in the gas tax.” The gas tax was not raised while she was governor.

“I think what we should say is why does Florida have the highest property insurance in the country?”

— Haley

Haley is correct. While DeSantis has signed bills seeking to lower insurance costs, the Insurance Information Institute told PolitiFact that in 2023, Floridians paid the highest average home insurance premium at $6,000 a year. That’s 42 percent higher than the 2022 average premium.

“The last year we have numbers for, the federal government took in the highest percentage of taxes from the economy since World War II.”

— DeSantis

This is wrong. In 2023, the Treasury Department says, tax revenues were 16 percent of the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the economy. That was a sharp decrease from 2022, when revenues reached just over 19 percent of GDP. But even that was lower than it was in 2000, when revenues reached 19.75 percent of GDP. The highest level was achieved in 1945, the last year of World War II, when tax revenues were 19.8 percent.

“Why did he run on the fact that he wanted to ban fracking and ban offshore drilling?”

— Haley

This is complicated, but Haley’s framing is misleading. Running for president, DeSantis has advocated for fracking. But he has opposed it in Florida. When he ran for governor, he pledged “to pass legislation that bans fracking in the state.”

In November 2018, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that banned drilling under Florida waters, a stance supported by many of the state’s Republicans. But it did not mention fracking.

Two days into his term, on Jan. 10, 2019, DeSantis signed an executive order that implemented the measure. The order directed the Department of Environmental Protection to “take necessary actions to adamantly oppose all offshore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.” In effect, that has meant no oil and gas permit authorizing hydraulic fracturing has been issued during his term as governor.

“She supports this $106 billion [for Ukraine] that they’re trying to get through Congress. Where is some of that money going? They’ve done tens of billions of dollars to pay salaries for Ukrainian government bureaucrats. They’ve paid pensions for Ukrainian retirees with your tax dollars.”

— DeSantis

This is slightly exaggerated. Given the impact of the war on the Ukrainian economy, the U.S. government as of May had spent about $19 billion on direct support of the Ukrainian government, including social assistance payments to vulnerable populations, civil service employees and about $7 billion in payment of pensions, according to a report to Congress by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“He spent more money on private planes than he has on commercials trying to get Iowans to vote for him.”

— Haley

This appears to be wrong. News reports indicate that the DeSantis campaign spent about $2.3 million on television commercials in Iowa; a super PAC that backed DeSantis spent $17.6 million. DeSantis’s spending on private planes is not entirely clear, but it reached $1.5 million in one quarter of 2023 before the campaign started pulling back and booking more commercial flights, though they are limited from Tallahassee; the super PAC also started to pay for the renting of private jets.

A Haley campaign spokesperson could not supply evidence to support her statement.

“Biden’s let in 8 million people just in four years.”

— DeSantis

This is an inflated estimate, about double the actual number. (Biden has also been president for only three years.) Customs and Border Protection agents have recorded about 7.5 million “encounters” between February 2021, after Biden took office, through September of last year. But that does not mean all those people entered the country illegally. Some people are “encountered” numerous times as they try to enter the country — and others (about 4 million of the total) were expelled, mostly because of covid-related rules that have since been ended.

CBP has released more than 2.3 million migrants into the United States at the southern border under the Biden administration through September, the Department of Homeland Security said.

These numbers, however, do not include “gotaways” — which occur when cameras or sensors detect migrants crossing the border, but no one is found, or no agents are available to respond. There were 389,155 in fiscal year 2021 (which includes part of Donald Trump’s term) and more than 600,000 in fiscal year 2022, the inspector general of Homeland Security said in May. Another 530,000 crossed the border from October to May, Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said.

All told, that adds up to nearly 4 million undocumented immigrants.

“Russia said once they take Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next.”

— Haley

This is a curious comment. Haley tweeted a similar statement this month, but her spokesperson did not respond to questions about the source. U.S. officials have speculated that this could be the case, and Russian state media has suggested it, but the country’s decision-maker, President Vladimir Putin, has not announced this policy. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2023 suggested that the border with Poland needed to be pushed back.

“Biden wasn’t helping Americans get out of the war zone. These are people that were stranded. So I did an executive order. We scrambled planes and we rescued over 700 Americans from Israel and brought them back safely to the state of Florida.”

— DeSantis

DeSantis misleadingly claims that the Biden administration failed to evacuate Americans. The State Department on Oct. 12, five days after the Hamas attack, announced it would arrange charter flights to assist U.S. citizens. That same day, DeSantis signed an executive order allowing Florida to evacuate Americans.

The State Department said that of 5,600 seats made available, 1,500 U.S. citizens and their families had used them as of Oct. 19. About 700 Americans flew from Israel to Florida on four flights arranged by the state as of Oct. 24, according to DeSantis’s office.

“She said she’s against the surgeries for minors. That wasn’t what she said this summer. She was asked about it, it’s on video, and she said the law should stay out of it.”

— DeSantis

DeSantis in May signed a law prohibiting “sex-reassignment prescriptions and procedures for patients younger than 18 years of age,” but Haley has not advocated gender-affirming procedures for minors. DeSantis is misleadingly citing an exchange that Haley had with a CBS News reporter in a June interview, in which she said: “I think the law should stay out of it, and I think parents should handle it. This is a job for the parents to handle. And then when that child becomes 18, if they want to make more of a permanent change, they can do that.”

“He has to answer for the fact that he voted to raise the retirement age to 70 three different times.”

— Haley

Haley cites the votes correctly. The votes were for budget plans drawn by the Republican Study Committee, a conservative group of House members, that DeSantis, as a member of Congress, supported in 2013, 2014 and 2015. These plans sought to rapidly reduce the federal budget and included proposals that proponents said would put Social Security and Medicare on stronger financial footing.

The budget resolutions called for raising the retirement age for younger workers to 70. In a 2012 interview with the St. Augustine Record, when DeSantis was in his mid-30s, he said he would not change the program for people age 55 and older. But he noted a federal budget squeeze was coming, as fewer workers were expected to support a large cohort of retirees. “For me getting Social Security at 65 or 67, if I’m going to live in my 80s, is probably not sustainable,” he said.

“If you look at the polls right now, going against Joe Biden. In every one of those head-to-head polls, Ron doesn’t beat Joe Biden. Trump is head-to-head; on a good day he might be up by two points. I defeat Biden by 17 points.”

— Haley

Haley is referencing a Wall Street Journal poll released in December showing that Trump had a four-point lead over President Biden and that DeSantis was tied, but she led Biden in a test match-up by 17 points, 51 percent to 34 percent.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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