Two minutes and 28 seconds into a campaign rally on a recent Saturday night in Janesville, Wisconsin, President Donald Trump delivered his first lie.
“When you look at our numbers compared to what’s going on in Europe and other places,” Trump said about the coronavirus raging across the United States, “we’re doing well.”
The truth? America has more cases and deaths per capita than any major country in Europe but Spain and Belgium. The United States has just 4% of the world’s population but accounts for almost a quarter of the global deaths from COVID-19. On Oct. 17, the day of Trump’s rally in Janesville, cases were rising to record levels across much of the country.
Over the course of the next 87 minutes, the president made another 130 false or inaccurate statements. Many were entirely made up. Others were casual misstatements of simple facts, some clearly intended to mislead. He lied about his own record and that of his opponent. He made wild exaggerations that violate even the pliable limits of standard political hyperbole.
As Trump battles for a second term with polls that show him trailing Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, rallies like the one in Wisconsin have become the backbone of his reelection campaign and a font of virtually nonstop misinformation. The president has boasted to reporters that he may hold as many as five rallies each day as he races toward the finish line on Nov. 3.
And while presidential candidates use political speech that occasionally bends the truth, Trump is fundamentally different. His falsehoods are the foundation of his campaign rallies and the connective tissue of the often 90-minute narrative he spins at every stop.
A detailed examination of his statements in Janesville by The New York Times found that more than three-quarters of the president’s assertions were either false, misleading, exaggerated, disputed or lacked evidence. Less than a quarter were true.
The rally in Wisconsin was hardly unique. Since Inauguration Day almost four years ago, the president has held more than 125 rallies around the country, returning to the place where he feels most comfortable — surrounded by supporters — and where his disconnection from the truth is rewarded with enthusiastic applause.
After recovering from a three-day hospitalization for COVID-19, Trump has delivered similar versions of his stump speech at airport hangars in Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada. In each place, he repeats many of the same lies, often verbatim, despite being called out by fact checkers.
Eight Falsehoods in Three Minutes
In one 3-minute stretch in Janesville, the president made eight inaccurate statements that had been fact-checked repeatedly before.
He claimed to have enacted the “biggest tax cut in history” (it wasn’t); that Biden was “going to raise your taxes substantially, like quadruple” (the Democratic candidate has promised no tax increase for people making less than $400,000); that “everybody owns stocks” (half of the country does not); that “we cut more regulations than any administration in history” (there is no evidence for this); that Biden would “ban fracking” (he has said he would not); that Democrats would reduce the child tax credit (Biden has promised to expand it); that it “used to take 18 to 21 years to get a highway built” but that he had reduced the time to two years (the average has been three to six years, and remains three years); and warned that Biden would impose a “draconian, unscientific lockdown” (Biden has said that if scientists believed it was necessary, “I would shut it down, I would listen to the scientists”).
Trump also claimed several times to have “rebuilt” a “depleted” military — a vast overstatement he has made since spring 2017.
He told the crowd that his policies had “brought back many car plants” and that previous administrations “hadn’t brought back a plant, I think, it’s 42 years” — a falsehood repeated in State of the Union addresses and in an earlier speech that same day in Michigan.
He promised to “protect patients with preexisting conditions” — a vow he has made since his first year in office that remains at odds with his administration’s legislative and legal record.
He said Biden and Democrats “don’t want to have a border” — an inaccurate charge he leveled against Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Democrats in 2018. The statement is even more inaccurate against Biden, whose immigration plan includes proposals to improve border screening and includes the line: “Like every nation, the U.S. has a right and a duty to secure our borders.”
Trump insisted, as he has done more than 200 times, that his border wall was being built — in fact, almost all of the 371 miles of barriers replaces or fortifies existing structures — and that “Mexico is paying” for it through a border fee. No border fee has been imposed, and Mexico is not paying the bill.
Dressing Up Data
The president does accurately cite some data in promoting his accomplishments, but it often does not seem to be enough for him. He likes to add in falsehoods to dress up the data and make it sound much better than it is.
In Janesville, Trump said he presided over the “greatest” employment numbers for Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, women and people without a high school degree. All of that is true. But the president tacked on a claim that employment numbers during his presidency were greatest for “people with a diploma” and “people that graduated first in their class at MIT.” In fact, unemployment rates for high school and college graduates were lower before he took office.
Trump took a similar approach to police unions. “Every single law enforcement group in the country has endorsed us, even New York City’s finest,” he told the Wisconsin crowd, as a handful of supporters standing behind him waved “Cops for Trump” signs. “You know, they endorsed us, first time they’ve ever endorsed a presidential candidate.”
New York’s largest police union did endorse Trump, but others, including a union in Cleveland and some Black law enforcement groups, have declined to do so.
The president moved on to claim that Biden did not have the support of law enforcement — more than 190 law enforcement officials have endorsed him — and that the former vice president refused to even utter the words “law and order” during the first presidential debate. (He did.)
Later in the rally, Trump correctly noted that he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a promise made by other presidents but fulfilled by him. But he gave a misleading account about how he reduced the cost of a new U.S. Embassy from over $1 billion to $350,000 for a facility “nicer than the one they want to build.”
The State Department has said it cost $200,000 to $400,000 to renovate an existing facility in Jerusalem for its reopening as the new embassy in May 2018. Since then, the State Department has awarded a contract to a Maryland company for more than $25 million for continuing renovations.
The State Department has estimated a new embassy would cost $500 million, half of what Trump claimed.
Missiles and a Toothbrush
Trump’s falsehoods can get bigger over time. As he reminisced in Wisconsin about his election night victory in 2016, he asked the crowd, “Remember the tears from the totally nonbiased anchors?”
His assertion has its origins in his crowing in the first weeks after he was elected president, when he claimed that Martha Raddatz, the ABC anchor, wept on election night. (Raddatz’s voice cracked at one point, but she did not cry.) Four years later, Trump has expanded on the lie to encompass multiple anchors.
The president also claimed in the rally to have “saved your suburbs,” “your house” and the “American dream.” This vague statement was most likely about an Obama-era housing rule that the Trump administration ended.
The rule, Trump said in July, was “having a devastating impact on these once thriving suburban areas.” The regulation refined and made more rigorous an existing process to combat housing discrimination, but it did not impose low-income housing or any zoning changes on the suburbs. After three months, the withdrawal of the rule became equivalent to rescuing the American dream from ruin.
Many of Trump’s falsehoods are in service to caricatures of his opponents, a favorite tactic of his presidency.
In Wisconsin, he continued to drive home the lie that Biden spends most of his time in the basement of his Delaware home, saying at one point that “he’s sitting in his basement right now watching us,” and at another point asking, “Does he ever leave Delaware?” In fact, the week before Trump’s rally, Biden had traveled to Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
By the end of the rally, the president offered up an inaccurate jab at his most recent predecessor.
“Hydrosonic missiles, I call them the super-duper missiles, they go seven times faster than a normal missile,” he said. “Now, President Obama let that get away.” In fact, efforts to revamp the nation’s nuclear arsenal began under Barack Obama.
Trump had also confused a hypersonic missile with the name of a toothbrush.
Before wrapping up with his trademark promise to “make America great again,” the president boasted that he kept open a plant in Lima, Ohio, that makes M1 Abrams tanks for the Army. In truth, there were no plans to shut down the plant, and Congress has authorized hundreds of millions of dollars to continue making the tanks.
“The plan was to close it,” Trump assured his supporters. “Anyway, we kept it open. And now it’s working 24 hours around the clock.”
The audience clapped with approval.