WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump roused a political tempest when he decided to plant himself squarely in Independence Day observances with a speech from the Lincoln Memorial. His words from that platform, though, were strikingly measured, except for some befuddlement over American military history.
The unscripted Trump — the one the world sees day to day — was to be found on Twitter and in other venues. It was in such places that the president misrepresented his record on care for veterans, the health of the economy, the state of the auto industry and more.
Some rhetoric in review:
TRUMP: “Someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.” — July 4 speech.
THE FACTS: This is not happening soon; almost certainly not while he is president even if he wins a second term.
The Trump administration has a placed a priority on the moon over Mars for human exploration (President Barack Obama favored Mars) and hopes to accelerate NASA’s plan for returning people to the lunar surface. It has asked Congress to approve enough money to make a moon mission possible by 2024, instead of 2028. But even if that happens, Mars would come years after that.
International space agencies have made aspirational statements about possibly landing humans on Mars during the 2030s.
Trump’s speech was almost entirely free of exaggerations about his agenda; this was an exception.
TRUMP: “The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge, found glory across the waters of the Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown. Our army manned the air (unintelligible), it rammed the ramparts. It took over the airports. It did everything it had to do. And at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory. And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant.” — July 4 speech.
THE FACTS: Trump said the teleprompter stopped working during this passage: “I knew the speech very well so I was able to do it without a teleprompter.”
There were, of course, no airplanes during the War of Independence, and the Battle of Fort McHenry took place during the War of 1812, not the revolution. Trump segued from colonial times to modern times and back to the War of 1812 so fast that it seemed he was conflating wars and misstating aviation history. But the confusion apparently came from his need to wing it when the script went down.
TRUMP: “The Economy is the BEST IT HAS EVER BEEN!” — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: The economy is not one of the best in the country’s history. It expanded at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. That growth was the highest in just four years for the first quarter.
In the late 1990s, growth topped 4 percent for four straight years, a level it has not yet reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth even reached 7.2 percent in 1984.
In fact, there are many signs that growth is slowing, partly because of Trump’s trade fights with China and Europe. Factory activity has decelerated for three straight months as global growth has slowed and companies are reining in their spending on large equipment.
Most economists forecast the economy will expand at just a 2% annual rate in the April-June period.
Trump is pushing the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, to cut short-term interest rates to shore up the economy. That isn’t something a president would do amid the strongest economy in history.
Economists mostly expect the Fed will cut rates, either at its next meeting in July or in September. Lower rates make it easier for people to borrow and buy new homes and cars.
Powell said last week the economy is facing growing uncertainties and he indicated the Fed would take the necessary steps to sustain the expansion, a sign that the Fed could cut rates soon.
The economy is now in its 121st month of growth, making it the longest expansion in history. But most of that took place under Obama.
The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 — the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama — and simply hasn’t hit historically high growth rates.
TRUMP, on North Korea’s help in returning the remains of U.S. troops from the Korean War: “The remains are coming back as they get them, as they find them. The remains of our great heroes from the war. And we really appreciate that.” — remarks Sunday to Korean business leaders in Seoul.
TRUMP: “We’re very happy about the remains having come back. And they’re bringing back — in fact, we were notified they have additional remains of our great heroes from many years ago.” — remarks June 28 in Japan.
THE FACTS: His account is at odds with developments.
No remains of U.S. service members have been returned since last summer and the U.S. suspended efforts in May to get negotiations on the remains back on track in time to have more repatriated this year. It hopes more remains may be brought home next year.
The Pentagon’s Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, which is the outfit responsible for recovering U.S. war remains and returning them to families, “has not received any new information from (North Korean) officials regarding the turn over or recovery of remains,” spokesman Charles Prichard said Wednesday.
He said his agency is “still working to communicate” with the North Korean army “as it is our intent to find common ground on resuming recovery missions” in 2020.
Last summer, in line with the first summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that June, the North turned over 55 boxes of what it said were the remains of an undetermined number of U.S service members killed in the North during the 1950-53 war. So far, six Americans have been identified from the 55 boxes.
U.S. officials have said the North has suggested in recent years that it holds perhaps 200 sets of American war remains. Thousands more are unrecovered from battlefields and former POW camps.
The Pentagon estimates that 5,300 Americans were lost in North Korea.
TRUMP, on approving private-sector health care for veterans: “I actually came up with the idea. I said, ‘Why don’t we just have the veterans go out and see a private doctor and we’ll pay the cost of the doctor and that will solve the problem?’ Some veterans were waiting for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, they couldn’t get any service at all. I said, ‘We’ll just send them out.’ And what I thought it was a genius idea, brilliant idea. I came back and met with the board and a lot of the people that handled the VA. ... They said, ‘Actually sir, we’ve been trying to get that passed for 40 years, and we haven’t been able to get it.’ I’m good at getting things done. ... It’s really cut down big on the waits.” — call on June 25 with military veterans.
TRUMP: “We passed VA Choice and VA Accountability to give our veterans the care that they deserve and they have been trying to pass these things for 45 years.” — Montoursville, Pennsylvania, rally on May 20.
THE FACTS: Trump did not invent the idea of giving veterans the option to see private doctors outside the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system at government expense. Nor is he the first president in 40 years to pass the program.
Congress approved the private-sector Veterans Choice health program in 2014 and Obama signed it into law. Trump expanded it.
Under the expansion which took effect last month, veterans still may have to wait weeks to see a doctor. They program allows veterans to see a private doctor if their VA wait is 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive is only 30 minutes.
Indeed, the VA says it does not expect a major increase in veterans seeking care outside the VA under Trump’s expanded program, partly because wait times in the private sector are typically longer than at VA. “The care in the private sector, nine times out of 10, is probably not as good as care in VA,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Congress in March.
TRUMP: “On average, 20 veterans and members take their own lives every day. ... We’re working very very hard on that. In fact, the first time I heard the number was 23, and now it’s down somewhat. But it’s such an unacceptable number.” — call on June 25 with military veterans.
THE FACTS: Trump incorrectly suggests that he helped reduce veterans’ suicide, noting that his administration was working “very, very hard” on the problem and that in fact the figure had come down. But no decline has been registered during his administration. There was a drop during the Obama administration but that might be due to the way veterans’ suicides are counted.
The VA estimated in 2013 that 22 veterans were taking their lives each day on average (not 23, as Trump put it). The estimate was based on data submitted from fewer than half the states. In 2016, VA released an estimate of 20 suicides per day, based on 2014 data from all 50 states as well as the Pentagon.
The estimated average has not budged since.
Trump has pledged additional money for suicide prevention and created in March a Cabinet-level task force that will seek to develop a national roadmap for suicide prevention, part of a campaign pledge to improve health care for veterans.
Still, a report by the Government Accountability Office in December found that the VA had left millions of dollars unspent that were available for suicide prevention efforts. The report said the VA had spent just $57,000 out of $6.2 million available for paid media, such as social-media postings, due in part to leadership turmoil at the agency.
TRUMP: “You also got very nice pay raises for the last couple of years. Congratulations. Oh, you care about that. They care about that. I didn’t think you noticed. Yeah, you were entitled. You know, it was close to 10 years before you had an increase. Ten years. And we said, ‘It’s time.’ And you got a couple of good ones, big ones, nice ones.” — remarks June 30 to service members at Osan Air Base, South Korea.
THE FACTS: He’s been spreading this falsehood for more than a year, soaking up cheers from crowds for something he didn’t do. In May 2018, for example, he declared to graduates of the United States Naval Academy: “We just got you a big pay raise. First time in 10 years.”
U.S. military members have received a pay raise every year for decades .
Trump also boasts about the size of the military pay raises under his administration, but there’s nothing extraordinary about them.
Several raises in the past decade have been larger than service members are getting under Trump — 2.6% this year, 2.4% last year, 2.1% in 2017.
Raises in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for example, were all 3.4% or more.
Pay increases shrank after that because of congressionally mandated budget caps. Trump and Congress did break a trend that began in 2011 of pay raises that hovered between 1% and 2%.
TRUMP: “We have many, many companies that left our country and they’re now coming back. Especially the automobile business. We have auto plants being built all over the country. We went decades and no plant was built. No plant was even expanded.” — remarks Monday in Oval Office.
THE FACTS: There’s no evidence that car companies are flooding back to the U.S. He’s also incorrect in saying that auto plants haven’t been built in decades. A number of automakers — Toyota, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen among them — opened plants in recent decades, mostly in the South.
Government statistics show that jobs in auto and parts manufacturing grew at a slower rate in the two-plus years since Trump took office than in the two prior years.
Between January of 2017, when Trump was inaugurated, and May of this year, the latest figures available, U.S. auto and parts makers added 44,000 jobs, or a 4.6 percent increase, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in the two years before Trump took office, the industry added 63,600 manufacturing jobs, a 7.1 percent increase.
The only automaker announcing plans to reopen a plant in Michigan is Fiat Chrysler, which is restarting an old engine plant to build three-row SUVs. It’s been planning to do so since before Trump was elected. GM is even closing two Detroit-area factories: One builds cars and the other builds transmissions. Toyota is building a new factory in Alabama with Mazda, and Volvo opened a plant in South Carolina last year, but in each case, that was in the works before Trump took office.
Automakers have made announcements about new models being built in Michigan, but no other factories have been reopened. Ford stopped building the Focus compact car in the Detroit suburb of Wayne last year, but it’s being replaced by the manufacture of a small pickup and a new SUV. That announcement was made in December 2016, before Trump took office.
GM, meantime, is closing factories in Ohio and Maryland.
TRUMP: “Robert Mueller is being asked to testify yet again. He said he could only stick to the Report, & that is what he would and must do. After so much testimony & total transparency, this Witch Hunt must now end. No more Do Overs.” — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: It’s highly questionable to say Trump was fully cooperative in the Russia investigation.
Trump declined to sit for an interview with the special counsel’s team, gave written answers that investigators described as “inadequate” and “incomplete,” said more than 30 times that he could not remember something he was asked about in writing, and — according to the report — tried to get aides to fire Mueller or otherwise shut or limit the inquiry.
In the end, the Mueller report found no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia but left open the question of whether Trump obstructed justice.
According to the report, Mueller’s team declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted. The report instead factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, specifically leaving it open for Congress to take up the matter.
TRUMP: “Iran was violating the 150 Billion Dollar (plus 1.8 Billion Dollar in CASH) Nuclear Deal with the United States, and others who paid NOTHING, long before I became President - and they have now breached their stockpile limit. Not good!” — tweet Wednesday.
THE FACTS: To be clear, there was no $150 billion payout from the U.S. treasury. The money he refers to represents Iranian assets held abroad that were frozen until the international deal was reached and Tehran was allowed to access its funds.
The payout of about $1.8 billion is a separate matter. That dates to the 1970s, when Iran paid the U.S. $400 million for military equipment that was never delivered because the government was overthrown and diplomatic relations ruptured.
That left people, businesses and governments in each country indebted to partners in the other, and these complex claims took decades to sort out in tribunals and arbitration. For its part, Iran paid settlements of more than $2.5 billion to U.S. citizens and businesses.
The day after the nuclear deal was implemented, the U.S. and Iran announced they had settled the claim over the 1970s military equipment order, with the U.S. agreeing to pay the $400 million principal along with about $1.3 billion in interest. The $400 million was paid in cash and flown to Tehran on a cargo plane, which gave rise to Trump’s dramatic accounts of money stuffed in barrels or boxes and delivered in the dead of night. The arrangement provided for the interest to be paid later, not crammed into containers.