Fact Checker Fact-checking the ninth Democratic debate

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off in the Ninth Democratic Presidential Debate Photo/
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off in the Ninth Democratic Presidential Debate Photo/

CNN hosted the ninth Democratic presidential debate on April 14, a face-off between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).

Not every statement could be easily fact-checked, but here are 14 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we review assertions in debates.

Clinton “voted for virtually every disastrous trade agreement which cost us millions of decent-paying jobs.”

— Sanders

As a senator, Clinton had a chance to vote on 10 trade deals, and she voted for or supported all but two: The Trade Act of 2002, essentially a trade deal involving Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, and the 2005 Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement. So Sanders is correct on the “virtually.” As Secretary of State, she also pushed for the negotiations that led to the Trans Pacific Partnership, but as a presidential candidate she has come out against the final agreement.

The claim about trade deals costing “millions of jobs” is more problematic. Economists have battled endlessly over the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was approved under President Bill Clinton. Sanders often cites a figure of 800,000 just from NAFTA, but the Congressional Research Service in 2015 concluded the “net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest, primarily because trade with Canada and Mexico accounts for a small percentage of U.S. GDP [Gross Domestic Product].”

The biggest impact on jobs may have been President Clinton’s decision to grant China permanent normal trade relations. There is evidence that the flood of Chinese imports, spurred in part because of a once-undervalued currency and Chinese government incentives, has cost as many as 2 million jobs and reduced wages, at least in the short term.

“I’m the only one on this stage who did not vote to deregulate swaps and derivatives, as Senator Sanders did, which led to a lot of the problems that we had with Lehman Brothers.”

— Clinton

This is largely an unfair attack by Clinton.

Sanders directly voted for a version of a bill to modernize the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that was sent to the Senate for further negotiations, in what was considered a noncontroversial vote. (It was held under House suspension rules.)

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The Senate took no action before the 2000 election which ended in stalemate and recounts. When virtually no one was looking, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) quietly inserted language that stripped out regulating power on tools that contributed to the financial crisis eight years later. The bill then got wrapped up in a must-pass spending bill President Bill Clinton signed into law his last days in office.

Few people understood what Gramm had done till the financial crisis blew up eight years later. So it’s pretty unfair to tag Sanders with that vote.

Sanders: Jane does the taxes
Play Video0:50
At the CNN Democratic debate in Brooklyn, N.Y., moderator Wolf Blitzer pushed candidate Bernie Sanders on why he had not yet released his tax returns. (CNN)
“Of course we will release our taxes. Jane does our taxes. We’ve been busy lately, excuse us.”

— Sanders

For the past week and half, Sanders and his wife said they had released their full tax returns — which was not true. Now, Sanders is backing away from that and agreeing to release his full tax returns.

Presidential candidates have no legal requirement to release their federal income tax returns, but there has long been a tradition to do so for the sake of transparency. The Tax History Project, a public service initiative from Tax Analysts, has compiled tax returns for presidents, vice presidents and candidates vying for their seats in recent decades.

The 2016 candidates largely have been less than forthcoming about their tax records. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate currently in the race who released voluminous amounts full tax returns. There is one entry from 2014 available for Sanders on the website of the Tax History Project: a Form 1040 (a summary of his federal income tax return) and a one-page Vermont state income tax return. But this is a summary of his tax filing that gives a snapshot of the couple’s finances, not what is considered a full tax return.

When The Washington Post asked on April 4, 2016, the Sanders campaign said they did not release tax returns prior to the 2014 tax summary it released in 2015. During the debate, Sanders said he would release his full 2014 tax return the next day.

“As secretary of state, Secretary Clinton actively supported fracking technology around the world.”

— Sanders

Sanders is correct. A Mother Jones article extensively detailed how the State Department, under both Clinton and John F. Kerry, has actively promoted fracking for natural gas to countries around the world, mainly to undercut Russian energy influence but also to fight climate change.

Clinton in a 2012 speech pointed to fracking as a key moment in global energy politics: “Countries that used to depend on others for their energy are now producers. How will this shape world events? Who will benefit, and who will not? … The answers to these questions are being written right now, and we intend to play a major role.” In 2010, she also described natural gas to foreign ministers as “the cleanest fossil fuel available for power generation today.”

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Under Clinton, the State Department established the Global Shale Gas Initiative to promote the expansion of fracking in other countries.

“I have said from the very beginning that I supported the fight for $15 [minimum wage].”

— Clinton

Her support for the $15 minimum wage has been more nuanced than that. She has supported localized changes in the minimum wage, rather than a uniform federal policy change.

During a July 2015 town hall in New Hampshire, Clinton was asked about whether she would support a $15 national minimum wage. She did not commit to the change across the board, but said: “I support the local efforts that are going on that are making it possible for people working in certain localities to actually earn $15.”

“I think part of the reason that the Congress and very strong Democratic supporters of increasing the minimum wage are trying to debate and determine what’s the national floor is because there are different economic environments. And what you can do in L.A. or in New York may not work in other places,” she said during the July 2015 event.

In New York in April, ahead of the primary there, Clinton praised the state’s $15-an-hour minimum wage as a national model. Our colleague Anne Gearan reported:

“Clinton supports raising the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, but says the $15 an hour rate should only apply in localities that choose it. She said the New York law will help put pressure on opponents of a higher national minimum wage. That sets her apart from much of the organized labor movement, which has largely united behind a goal of a $15 national wage. It also marks a difference with rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, who calls the current level “starvation pay” that should be raised to $15 everywhere.”

Wolf Blitzer: “Do you owe the Sandy Hook families an apology?”

Sanders: “No, I don’t think I owe them an apology. They are in court today, and actually they won a preliminary decision today. They have the right to sue, and I support them and anyone else who wants the right to sue.”

This is a shift in Sanders’s stance on whether victims of gun violence have the right to sue gun manufacturers. He has always said that manufacturers should not be held liable for guns purchased legally, then used in shootings — as in Sandy Hook.

Sanders voted for a controversial 2005 gun manufacturers immunity law, which gave broad federal immunity to gun manufacturers. He consistently has said he supported the law because he believes that gun manufacturers should not be sued when a gun is misused by a third party.

After repeated criticisms from Clinton over his vote, Sanders has agreed to support repealing the law.

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As recently as two weeks before the debate, Sanders did not support the right of victims’ families (like those in Sandy Hook) to sue gun manufacturers. He was asked about this during his April 1 interview with the New York Daily News:

Daily News: There’s a case currently waiting to be ruled on in Connecticut. The victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are looking to have the right to sue for damages the manufacturers of the weapons. Do you think that that is something that should be expanded?

Sanders: Do I think the victims of a crime with a gun should be able to sue the manufacturer, is that your question?

Daily News: Correct.

Sanders: No, I don’t.

When Blitzer asked the same question, Sanders answered it differently. If a gun shop owner knowingly sells weapons or ammunition to people who should not have them, then the manufacturer should be held liable, he said. He then added that the Sandy Hook victims’ families have the right to sue the manufacturer.

But the weapon used in Sandy Hook was purchased legally, by the shooter’s mother. And Sanders believes a gun shop owner should not be held accountable or be sued if the owner sells a gun legally, and then the gun is used in a crime.

“We spend about 75 percent of the entire cost of the military aspect of NATO.”

— Sanders

Sanders is using a very slippery figure that is almost certainly wrong. The U.S. military budget represents 73 percent of all of the combined military budgets of the 28 NATO members. But that does not mean the U.S. is providing 73 percent of the cost of running NATO.

The United States has global responsibilities, including in Asia, and analysts say that it is almost impossible to carve out actually what the United States spends on behalf of NATO’s military budget because forces based in Europe are often deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In terms of direct “common” funding, the U.S. currently provides about 22 percent (about $500 million a year) of the total budget. But other costs are largely hidden.

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Moreover, few dispute that the most NATO members are not pulling their weight in the alliance.

NATO documents show that a majority of NATO members fail to meet NATO’s guideline, established in 2006, that defense expenditures should amount to 2 percent of each country’s gross domestic product. The median spending in 2015 is just 1.18 percent of GDP, compared to 3.7 percent for the United States, NATO says. Just four countries currently exceed the 2 percent guideline.

“As I understand it, 43 lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry maxed out, gave the maximum amount of money to Secretary Clinton’s campaign.”

— Sanders

Sanders is citing a Greenpeace analysis, which did find find that 43 lobbyists registred to represent the oil, gas and coal industry have contributed the maximum amount of money allowed ($2,700.) But many of the lobbyists cited in the Greenpeace report have many other clients besides the oil industry, including in the renewable energy industry.

The Fact Checker had previously give Three Pinocchios to the Sanders campaign for exaggerating the contributions that Clinton has received from the oil and gas industry. In the context of her overall campaign, the contributions are hardly significant.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of March 21, the Clinton campaign has received nearly $308,000 from individuals in the oil and gas industry. The Sanders campaign has received nearly $54,000.

If you include contributions from outside groups supporting a candidate, Clinton’s total increases slightly to $333,000, compared to Sanders’ $54,000. Compared to Republicans, Democrats have received just a pittance from the fossil-fuel industry: 2.3 percent of oil and gas contributions in this election cycle. That should be no surprise, given that both Clinton and Sanders have been critical of the oil and gas industry — and have targeted it for higher taxes or reduced loopholes.

In other words, about 0.15 percent of Clinton’s campaign and outside PAC money is from the “oil and gas industry,” compared to 0.04 percent of Sanders’s contributions.

“A few days ago Goldman Sachs formally reached a settlement with the United States government for $5 billion dollars. What Goldman Sachs acknowledged was, essentially, that they were selling fraudulent packages of subprime mortgage loans.”

— Sanders

“Essentially” is the key word here.

On April 11, the Justice Department announced the fifth in the series of settlements with banks over the packaging and sale of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities.

Through the settlement, Goldman Sachs acknowledged it “made false and misleading representations to prospective investors about the characteristics of the loans it securitized and the ways in which Goldman would protect investors in its RMBS [residential mortgage-backed securities] from harm,” the DOJ said.

The settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing. In the statement of facts, Goldman acknowledged that between 2005 and 2007, it had found problems with mortgages it was selling to investors but did not disclose the information to investors. Goldman also acknowledged that at the end of 2006, “Goldman employees observed signs of uncertainty in the residential mortgage market [and] by March 2007, Goldman had largely halted new purchases of subprime loan pools.”

“I would just point out that there was a vote in the Senate as to whether or not the United States should support the efforts by the Libyan people to protect themselves against the threats, the genocidal threats coming from [Moammar] Gaddafi, and whether we should go to the United Nations to seek Security Council support. Senator Sanders voted for that, and that’s exactly what we did.”

— Clinton

Clinton made this comment in response to Sanders’s charge that her support for an intervention in Libya was “the same type of mentality that supported the war in Iraq.”

Clinton is referring to a nonbinding resolution that passed the Senate by unanimous consent, applauding the uprising of the Libyan people. The resolution did lay out a series of steps, including urging “the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.”

The Senate resolution had no force in law. However, Sanders was one of ten original co-sponsors of the resolution. Moreover, the U.N. action that resulted — U.N. Resolution 1973, which provided for a no-fly zone — was a key part of the international pressure used to persuade the Libyan leader to step down. (He was killed by rebel forces.)

“We are the only country, major country on Earth, that does not guarantee health care to all people, and yet we end up spending almost three times what the British do, 50 percent more than the French.”

— Sanders

Sanders is citing 2013 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Its health resources data shows the United States spends $8,713 per person for health care, compared to $4,124 for France and $3,235 for the United Kingdom.

That would mean the U.S. spends almost double per person than the French (50 percent only gets you to $6,186) and about 2.7 times what they spend in the U.K. So he understated the difference with the French and slightly overstated the British. But his overall point is correct — and eye-opening.

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Dana Bash: “You don’t appear to have raised any money for the [Democratic] party. Yesterday you did announce that you will help three members of Congress who have endorsed you. Why aren’t you doing more to help the party you say you want to lead?”

Sanders: “The truth is, and you can speak to my colleagues, we have raised millions of dollars to the DSCC. I have written letter that have raised, if I may use the word, huge amount of money so that’s just not accurate.”

It’s unclear exactly how much Sanders raised for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and if it actually adds up to “millions.” But Sanders has fundraised for the DSCC and an affiliated PAC has donated to the group in recent years.

Sanders has been a host of at least one major fundraiser for DSCC every year since 2011, CNN reported.

A PAC affiliated with Sanders, called Progressive Voices of America, has given tens of thousands of dollars to the DSCC in recent election cycles. The PAC is not listed as one of the DSCC’s major contributors for any cycle from 2000 to 2016.

Sanders also signed a joint fundraising agreement with the Democratic National Committee, and lent his name to a fundraising letter for DSCC, Politico reported. A Sanders aide told Politico that the candidate signed a letter for DSCC that brought the group over $1 million.

“I’ve gotten more votes than anybody running. 9.6 million at the last count. That is 2.3 million more than Senator Sanders.”

— Clinton

The Fact Checker has examined the vote totals, which are missing the results of several key states which held caucuses, not primaries — in particular Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington. That’s because these states did not necessarily report raw vote counts.

But we do know the percentage breakdown between the candidates, and we have rough estimates of the turnout in each remaining caucus state. So, as a close approximation, we calculated the votes for the missing states based on the reported turnout. Under this method, Sanders gains 132,646 votes on Clinton by adding in the missing caucus votes.

Sanders also reduced the vote margin by about 130,000 votes with his victory in Wisconsin on April 5.

That leaves Clinton with nearly 2.3 million more votes than Sanders.

“Their [Republican] whole idea is to turn over the Social Security Trust Fund to Wall Street.”

— Clinton

This line has previously earned Clinton Three Pinocchios.

Social Security has two trust funds — one for retirement benefits and one for disability benefits — that are currently invested in Treasury securities, one of the safest investments possible.

But it actually was President Bill Clinton who in 1999 proposed transferring $2.7 trillion of the emerging budget surpluses to the Social Security trust funds — and investing 20 percent of the funds in the stock market, most likely in index funds. Clinton’s goal was to have about 14.5 percent of all trust fund assets in stocks.

Republicans, horrified by the idea of the government investing in the stock market, countered with an alternative proposal — allowing individuals to direct a portion (about 15 percent) of their Social Security payroll taxes to individual retirement accounts. These were called “personal accounts,” in that Americans would have a choice of investment options modeled on the retirement program for federal workers. Clinton then countered with his own alternative — each American would receive an identical chunk of money from the government to be invested.

In essence, the two parties split this way: Republicans proposed to “carve out” personal accounts within the existing Social Security system, while Democrats proposed to “add on” personal accounts while leaving the current defined-benefit system of Social Security in place.

President George W. Bush in 2005 pushed hard for giving workers investment options modeled on the ones in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for federal employees, but his plan never gained much traction even in a GOP-controlled Congress.

But clearly the GOP’s “whole idea” was not to put Social Security’s trust funds into the stock market. It was designed as a voluntary program, in which individuals could choose to direct a relatively small portion of their payroll taxes to investment options besides Treasury securities. (None of the current Republican candidates have offered anything much different than the Bush plan, if they have a plan at all.) Ironically, it was Clinton’s husband who actually had proposed to invest money earmarked for Social Security in the stock market.


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