Trump's State of the Union Fact Check: Mistakes, Exaggerations and Lies

U.S. President Donald Trump exaggerated the length of U.S. wars in the Middle East, misplaced Afghanistan on the map and misled on the economy and drug prices

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to deliver the State of the Union address, alongside Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence,at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019
Photo by Doug Mills / POOL / AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump laced his State of the Union speech with puffed-up numbers and partial truths Tuesday as he hailed an “economic miracle,” warned of human traffickers flooding across the border and appeared to place Afghanistan in the Middle East instead of where it is, Asia.

Trump used information selectively in claiming a drop in drug prices not seen in half a century and promised the nation it would see bountiful benefits from a trade deal that hasn’t been approved, might not be and in any event makes only modest changes from the status quo.

For her part, Democrat Stacey Abrams reflected a recent and misleading talking point by her party when she slammed the Trump administration for choosing to “cage children” at the border, ignoring a practice also employed by the Obama administration to hold migrant children in facilities with chain-link fencing.

Here’s a look at some of the statements from State of the Union night:

MIDDLE EAST WARS

TRUMP: “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years.”

THE FACTS: Trump exaggerated the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The invasion of Iraq was in March 2003. The U.S. has been at war for a bit more than 17 years.

Also, he refers to fighting in the Middle East. Iraq is in the Middle East, but Afghanistan is in south and central Asia.

FOOD STAMPS

TRUMP, describing progress over the last two years: “Nearly 5 million Americans have been lifted off food stamps.”

THE FACTS: The number of people receiving food stamps actually hasn’t declined that much.

Government data show there were 44.2 million people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program in 2016, before Trump took office. In 2018, there were 40.3 million people participating in SNAP. That’s a decline of 3.9 million, not the 5 million that Trump talked about.

The number of people participating in the SNAP program peaked in 2013 and has been going down since that time.

Trump’s last budget proposed cutting SNAP by $213 billion over 10 years. The administration also has been pushing to give states more flexibility in implementing the program, including tightening work requirements for recipients.

ABRAMS-ECONOMY

ABRAMS: “The Republican tax bill rigged the system against working people. Rather than bringing back jobs, plants are closing, layoffs are looming and wages struggle to keep pace with the actual cost of living.

THE FACTS: The economy is doing better in the wake of the Trump administration’s tax cuts than Abrams suggests. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits, a proxy for layoffs, briefly fell to a five-decade low last month. And average hourly pay is running ahead of inflation.

BORDER WALL

TRUMP: “These (border) agents will tell you where walls go up, illegal crossings go way, way down ... San Diego used to have the most illegal border crossings in our country. In response, a strong security wall was put in place. This powerful barrier almost completely ended illegal crossings ... Simply put, walls work and walls save lives.”

THE FACTS: It’s a lot more complicated than that.

Yes, Border Patrol arrests in the San Diego sector plummeted 96 percent from nearly 630,000 in 1986 to barely 26,000 in 2017, a period during which walls were built. But the crackdown pushed illegal crossings to less-patrolled and more remote Arizona deserts, where thousands died in the heat. Arrests in Tucson in 2000 nearly matched San Diego’s peak.

Critics say the “water-balloon effect” — build a wall in one spot and migrants will find an opening elsewhere — undermines Trump’s argument, though proponents say it only demonstrates that walls should be extended.

The Government Accountability Office reported in 2017 that the U.S. has not developed metrics that demonstrate how barriers have contributed to border security.

MINORITY UNEMPLOYMENT

TRUMP: “African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American unemployment have all reached their lowest levels ever recorded.”

THE FACTS: What he’s not saying is that the unemployment rates for all three groups have gone up since reaching record low levels.

Black unemployment reached a record low, 5.9 percent, in May, but rose to 6.8 percent in January.

Latino unemployment fell to 4.4 percent, its lowest ever, last October, and Asian unemployment fell to a record low of 2.2 percent in May. But Latino and Asian unemployment also have increased, in part because of the government shutdown, which elevated unemployment last month.

The African-American rate is still nearly double the jobless rate for whites, at 3.5 percent.

The most dramatic drop in black unemployment came under President Barack Obama, when it fell from a recession high of 16.8 percent in March 2010 to 7.8 percent in January 2017.

HUMAN TRAFFICKING

TRUMP: “Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”

THE FACTS: His administration has not supplied evidence that women and girls are smuggled by the “thousands” across remote areas of the border for these purposes. What has been established is nearly 80 percent of international trafficking victims cross through legal ports of entry, a flow that would not be stopped by a border wall.

Trump distorts how often trafficking victims come from the southern border, according the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative , a global hub for trafficking statistics with data contributed by organizations from around the world.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, a venture supported by federal money and operated by the anti-trafficking group Polaris , began tracking individual victim records in 2015. From January through June 31, 2018, it tracked 35,000 potential victims. Of those, there was a near equal distribution between foreigners on one hand and U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents on the other.

Most of the labor trafficking victims were foreign, and most of the sex trafficking victims were U.S. citizens. Of foreign nationals, Mexico had the most frequently trafficked.

ECONOMY

TRUMP: “In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before. There’s been nothing like it. ... An economic miracle is taking place in the United States.”

THE FACTS: The president is vastly exaggerating what has been a mild improvement in growth and hiring. The economy is healthy but not nearly one of the best in U.S. history.

The economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.8 percent last spring and summer, a solid pace. But it was just the fastest in four years. In the late 1990s, growth topped 4 percent for four straight years, a level it has not yet reached under Trump. And growth even reached 7.2 percent in 1984.

Almost all independent economists expect slower growth this year as the effect of the Trump administration’s tax cuts fade, trade tensions and slower global growth hold back exports, and higher interest rates make it more expensive to borrow to buy cars and homes.

DRUG PRICING

TRUMP: “Already, as a result of my administration’s efforts, in 2018 drug prices experienced their single largest decline in 46 years.”

THE FACTS: Trump is selectively citing statistics to exaggerate what seems to be a slowdown in prices. A broader look at the data shows that drug prices are still rising, but more moderately. Some independent experts say criticism from Trump and congressional Democrats may be causing pharmaceutical companies to show restraint.

The Consumer Price Index for prescription drugs shows a O.6 percent reduction in prices in December 2018 when compared with December 2017, the biggest drop in nearly 50 years. The government index tracks a set of medications including brand drugs and generics.

However, that same index showed a 1.6 percent increase when comparing the full 12 months of 2018 with the entire previous year.

“The annualized number gives you a better picture,” said economist Paul Hughes-Cromwick of Altarum, a nonprofit research organization. “It could be that something quirky happened in December.”

Separately, an analysis of brand-name drug prices by The Associated Press shows there were 2,712 price increases in the first half of this January, as compared with 3,327 increases during the same period last year.

The size of this year’s increases was not as pronounced. Both this year and last, the number of price cuts was minuscule. The information for the analysis was provided by the health data firm Elsevier.