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Trump vs. Biden town hall meetings: DW fact check

Maya Shwayder | Ben Knight | Joscha Weber
October 16, 2020

DW fact checks the parallel town hall meetings held by President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden, as the US election edges closer. The two events were televised simultaneously in the US.

Trump Biden
Image: Abc/Msnbc/Zumapress/picture alliance

US President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden held simultaneous town hall meetings in lieu of the canceled second presidential debate on Thursday, with the two candidates campaigning in key states: Biden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Trump in Miami, Florida.

Though the formats were similar — featuring questions from voters moderated by network anchors — the outcomes were noticeably different: Trump's 60-minute grilling by NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie occasionally turned into a combative encounter, while Biden's 90-minute appearance on ABC involved more detailed policy explanations.

DW fact checks some of the key statements made by the two candidates.

Trump on wearing masks

In the short interview opening the forum, the president said there were two schools of thought on the efficacy of masks. "You have a report coming out two days ago, that 85% of the people wearing a mask catching it (the virus)," he said.

Trump was misrepresenting a study produced in September by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What it found, among other results, was that among those tested positive for the coronavirus, 85% said that they were wearing a mask always or often.

But the study also found that for those persons that had tested negative, 89% reported they were wearing a mask. The CDC even clarified after Trump's earlier claims on Twitter that "the interpretation that more mask-wearers are getting infected compared to non-mask wearers is incorrect." 

The study followed 314 people in the US who had coronavirus symptoms, which is a very small sample. The results cannot be generalized. This is not the first time he is doubting the effect of masks. There are other studies that prove face masks could result in a large reduction in risk of infection, and slowing down the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Biden on a possible mask mandate

One of the first questions Biden faced was from a business owner asking whether the former vice president would take a vaccine or institute a nationwide mask mandate. In his answer, Biden said, "If we were to wear masks, we can save 100,000 lives before the end of the year."

This is somewhat true. The "100,000 lives" claim was said by Dr. Vin Gupta, a contributor to NBC, who made this claim in July 2020. Trump's own medical experts do recommend wearing masks and have said that it could save thousands of lives, but the numbers of exactly how many lives could be saved are a bit soft.

Also in July, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield wrote in a medical journal that universal masking would save more like 45,000 lives "by November." Still another analysis said 40,000 lives could be saved. Another study published in July from the University of Washington estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 by "October 1."

One fact that medical experts do agree on is that wearing masks, if done so universally, can greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Infografik COVID-19 Schlüsselzahlen USA EN

Trump on coronavirus stats

Trump claimed early on in the debate that: "The UK is up 2,500%, the EU is up 722%, and the United States is down 21%."

It's unclear where Trump got the 2,500% figure from, or what metric or time-frame he was referring to, but the UK has seen a rise in COVID-19 deaths per day in the last few weeks. The UK government's website for coronavirus stats says the country counted a 7-day average of deaths of 100.1 on October 12, up from 51.7 on October 1. 

On the EU: Again, Trump did not say where he got his 722% rise from, but the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Controlputs the 14-day COVID-19 death rate for the EU/EEA and the UK, based on data collected by ECDC from official national sources from 31 countries, at 12.7, which has been increasing for the past 30 days.

By comparison, COVID-19 deaths in the US have flattened out somewhat in recent weeks.

Biden on foreign policy

When asked by an audience member whether Trump's foreign policy deserved some credit — with the man citing the new diplomatic overtures between Israel and its Arab neighbors as an example — former Vice President Biden said, "sure, a little,” but quickly pivoted to criticism.

"The US is more isolated than ever before,” he said, claiming that in an international survey, Trump ranked lower on the list of trustworthiness than Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"I would say we find ourselves less secure than we've been," Biden said. "If you take a look, we're not well trusted around the world. When 17 major nations were asked who they trust more, the President [Trump] came in behind Putin and Xi."

This is somewhat true. According to aPew Research Survey published in September 2020, only 16% of people in the 13 (not 17) countries that were surveyed, said they have confidence Trump would "do the right thing" regarding world affairs. In the same poll, 19% of people said they trusted Xi, and 23% said they trusted Putin.

International ratings for Trump have been poor throughout his term, but it's not just Trump. Trust in the US as a whole has declined precipitously over the past year, the same survey found. In the UK and France, only 41% and 31% of people, respectively, expressed a favorable opinion of the US, marking a record low for the British ally. In Germany, only 26% of those surveyed viewed the US favorably.

Infografik international confidence in US EN

Trump on absentee ballots 

"And thousands of them are dumped in dumpsters," Trump claimed, raising a familiar talking point during his re-election campaign. "All you have to do is pick up the papers every day: 50,000 in Ohio. The great state of Ohio! 50,000 in another location, I think North Carolina. 500,000 applications in Virginia. No, no. There's a tremendous problem."

The FBI has said that it has no evidence of any coordinated absentee ballot fraud, but cases of bureaucratic errors have been appearing in the US media. 

Franklin County, which includes the Ohio state capital Columbus, reported on October 9 that 50,000 voters received an incorrect absentee ballot this week, and that it had started to print new ones to replace them. "Stringent tracking measures are in place to guarantee that a voter can only cast one vote," the local election board said.

On North Carolina, Trump may be referring to the fact that over 70,000 people had to wait weeks to receive absentee ballots, as reported by AP. This is evidence of inefficiency, but not fraud.

In Virginia, the independent organization Center for Voter Information mailed out 500,000 absentee ballots with an incorrect return address printed on the enclosed envelope. "We sent voters in eight Virginia jurisdictions a vote-by-mail application with a reply envelope that was addressed to the wrong jurisdiction," the organization said in a statement. "This mistake occurred because we incorrectly aligned a spreadsheet that matched the voter with their local election office." Again, this is a mistake, not fraud.

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris once had a different position on fracking to Joe BidenImage: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Biden on energy and fracking

"I do not support banning fracking," Biden said, when a voter asked him about his energy policies and how fracking had hurt people and the environment. "I think you have to make sure that fracking is in fact not emitting methane or polluting the well or dealing with what can be small earthquakes how they’re drilling. So it has to be managed very, very well."

This is at odds with his own running mate’s old position. Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris has stated previously that she is in favor of banning fracking. She has since reversed her position, and stated during the vice presidential debate that she and Biden did not want to ban fracking. 

During the presidential primaries, Biden was asked repeatedly about his stance on fracking. His website says he wishes to ban new permits from being issued for fracking, and wants to "gradually move away" from fracking. 

Trump on his tax cut 

Trump rounded off his forum by saying, "We've given you the greatest tax cuts in the history of our country." 

This claim is false. The Trump administration enacted a $1.5 trillion (€1.3 trillion) tax cut, which definitely is a big package. But compared to other tax reductions in the history of the United States it isn't the biggest. President Ronald Reagan enacted the biggest tax cut by percentage of the economy in 1981. Inflation-adjusted it was the tax cut by the Obama administration in 2012 that was the biggest. And the tax cut of President Trump is meant to reduce the taxes over 10 years.

Depending on which metric you apply, Trump's tax cut would be the 12th largest as a percent of GDP and 4th largest in real dollars, following a calculation by the NGO the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. So Trump's claim that it is the greatest in US history is false. 

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
Joscha Weber Bonn 9577
Joscha Weber Editor and fact-checker focusing on separating facts from fiction and uncovering disinformation.@joschaweber
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