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US presidential debate: Separating the facts from fiction

Rob Mudge
September 30, 2020

The clash between US President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden was marred by interruptions, personal insults and confusing rhetoric. DW fact-checks the first presidential debate of 2020.

Joe Biden, Donald Trump US presidential debate
Image: Olivier Douliery/Reuters

COVID-19 and the death rate:

Biden claimed that "One in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of the coronavirus. And if he doesn't do something quickly, by the end of the year 1 in 500 African Americans will have been killed."

Correct. African Americans suffer disproportionately more: 1 in 1,020 Black Americans have died so far which means 98 deaths per 100,000 people, while 1 in 2,150 white Americans have died, which means around 47 deaths per 100,000 people.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that in absolute numbers more white people die due to the coronavirus. We have to say that Joe Biden's claim is correct here. Black Americans are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 compared to white people.

Election fraud:

Trump said once again that voting by mail-in ballot leaves the door wide open to fraud:

"There's fraud. They found them in creeks. They found some with the name Trump just the other day in a wastepaper basket. They're being sent all over the place. They sent out 1,000 ballots. Everybody got two ballots. This is going to be a fraud like you've never seen."

There have indeed beenisolated irregularities, as highlighted by the US Postal Service.  A tray with ballots was reportedly found in the state of Wisconsin in a ditch. But it's not clear how many or whether they had already been completed.

In West Virginia a postal worker was charged with and admitted to attempted electoral fraud by altering absentee ballots.

A mail-ballot box outside a building in Fairfield
There's currently no evidence of widespread electoral fraud pertaining to mail-in votingImage: DW/C. Bleiker

The fact is, however, that Trump has not supplied any evidence of widespread irregularities. There is no evidence of widespread fraud.


According to Trump, as a result of the pandemic, he "had to close the greatest economy in the history of our country. And by the way, now it's being built again."

Incorrect: The economy under Trump has not performed as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton.

Gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.3% in 2019, down from 2.9% in 2018 and 2.4% in 2017. As a comparison: In 1997, 1998 and 1999, annual GDP grew by 4.5%, 4.5% and 4.7%, respectively.

Going back further, the figures are even more glaring. Growth between 1962 and 1966 ranged from 4.4% to 6.6%. In the postwar years 1950 and 1951, annual growth came in at 8.7% and 8%, respectively. 

The unemployment rate reached a low of 3.5% under Trump. In 1953, it was as low as 2.5%. 

Biden, in turn, took Trump to task on unemployment: "Trump will be the "first (president) in American history" to lose jobs during his presidency."

Incorrect. If Trump loses reelection, he would not be the first president in US history to have lost jobs. That happened under Herbert Hoover,  who lost the 1932 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the Great Depression caused massive job losses.

Official jobs records only go back to 1939. In that period, no president has ended his term with fewer jobs than when he began. However, the signs are that Trump's first-term record may show that he has lost jobs. That would make him the first to do so since Herbert Hoover, who served as president from 1929 to 1933.

Infografik Growth under the past 12 presidents EN

Tax returns

When asked how much he had paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, Trump said:

 "Millions of dollars and you will get to see it."

A recent New York Times report showed that he paid $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017 — the point here being that he's likely paid other taxes but not federal income tax.

He's reportedly paid no income taxes at all for 10 of the previous 15 years. This does not include personal tax returns.

As a point of comparison, middle-income households in 2016 paid an average of $2,200 in federal income taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Overall, the debate was thin on factual context and likely of little help to undecided voters. Judging by the reactions from political pundits and comments on social media platforms, the overriding feeling appears to be a mix of incredulity and exasperation.