Fact-checking Trump's State of the Union address

Posted at 10:49 PM, Feb 05, 2019

In his second State of the Union address, President Donald Trump sought to strike a bipartisan tone of unity and progress, just weeks after the longest shutdown in US history — and with less than two weeks to go before the next funding lapse.

Trump, asking Americans to "choose greatness," focused on some of his top priorities: immigration, the economy, infrastructure, drug prices and national security.

CNN vetted the President's claims:


Claim: "1 in 3 women is sexually assaulted on the long journey north."

Indeed, the trek to the US-Mexico border has been reported to be violent. According to data from Doctors Without Borders, 68.3% of migrants and refugees "entering Mexico reported being victims of violence during their transit toward the United States," and nearly one-third of women said they'd been sexually abused.

But this needs some perspective. This very violence is why women choose to travel in caravans, to achieve safety in numbers. Trump has offered no specifics about how his policies would address the scourge of sexual violence faced by migrants.

The administration has argued in the past that by building the wall, migrants will be deterred from making the journey.

-- Priscilla Alvarez

Claim: "Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens."

Trump has repeatedly cited crimes committed by undocumented immigrants — both during his presidential campaign and during his tenure in office. This is the second time he's invited family members of victims to the State of the Union.

The Bureau of Justice does not include citizenship in its breakdown of national arrest statistics, so there is not reliable federal data to quantify the number of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

Here's what the statistics do show on immigration and crime. A 2018 study by the libertarian Cato Institute, which reviewed criminal conviction data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, found that immigrants — legal or illegally — are less likely than native-born Americans to be convicted of a crime. Throughout the country, there is also generally a decrease in the number of violent crimes, according to the FBI.

Other studies have found that murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault have not increased alongside an uptick in undocumented immigration since 1990, that undocumented immigrants do not contribute to an increase in drug overdoses and DUI deaths, and that young, undocumented immigrants engage in less crime than their American or legal immigrant peers.

-- Priscilla Alvarez

Claim: "The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime -- one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities."

The President's statement, which has been repeated by public officials and the White House over the course of the last year, makes an inaccurate connection.

According to an analysis of FBI crimes data and city law enforcement data analyzed by the El Paso Times , violent crime in El Paso peaked in 1993. Border fence construction didn't begin until 2008, and was completed in 2009. But violent crime fell long before the wall was built in El Paso, with violent crime falling 34% between 1993 and 2006 in the city.

And according to the El Paso Times, from 2006 to 2011, violent crime in El Paso actually increased by 17 percent.

-- Maegan Vazquez

Claim: "The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans."

Trump said the southern border is "lawless," while making the case for sending an additional 3,750 troops to the border. Here's what we know about the nature of crime around the border region as well as the presence of law enforcement and military there.

There were 19,555 Border Patrol agents assigned to patrol the nation's borders in fiscal year 2018. It was the first year that had a net staffing gain in five years.

The majority of Border Patrol agents are assigned to the southern border.

Those Border Patrol agents apprehended 396,579 immigrants crossing the border illegally in 2018, which was down from a peak in of 1,643,679 arrests in nineteen years ago. Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents seized tens of thousands of pounds of illegal drugs at the border in the past years.

Studies and officials have also found that the US side of the border is relatively safe compared to other US cities.

"Violent crime rates have remained the same or dropped in many border cities" in the last five years prior to 2016, for which data is available, found an analysis by the Texas Tribune .

For example, "border communities like Laredo, El Paso, Edinburg and Brownsville all saw fewer than 400 crimes for every 100,000 residents," according to the 2016 report.

"You've got to understand, we're a border city so we have a lot of local law enforcement," said Webb County Jail commander Ponce Treviño told the Tribune.

Former Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner David Aguilar said in 2015 that "border communities are safer than the interior locations of each of the border states. Violent crime is lesser along the border than it is in the interior," reported the Huffington Post .

-- Geneva Sands

Claim: "I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally."

This is at odds with what's been the administration's stance on legal immigration. Trump has both sought to cut legal immigration and has made it more difficult for asylum seekers.

Administration officials have signaled a desire to curtail a number of aspects of the legal immigration system, from family-based immigration to the diversity visa lottery.

While major overhauls of legal immigration policies would require Congress to pass legislation, immigrant rights advocates say there are signs the Trump administration is already reshaping the system in more subtle ways, making it more difficult to obtain certain visas. The Trump administration has also slashed the number of refugees the US has taken in.

Last week, the administration also began implementing the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, which allows for the administration to return some migrants seeking asylum in the United States to Mexico to await their immigration court hearing.

As of last week, more than a dozen migrants had been returned to Mexico under the Trump administration's new asylum policy since execution of the program began, according to senior DHS officials.

-- Priscilla Alvarez and Catherine Shoichet


Claim: "In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom -- a boom that has rarely been seen before."

Trump can claim some credit for the acceleration of the economy on his watch, but not most of it.

He inherited a labor market in the later stages of a long recovery from the Great Recession, with fairly consistent job creation. Growth in monthly payrolls reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics averaged 217,000 jobs under President Barack Obama's second term, and under Trump it has averaged 203,000, pushing the overall unemployment rate to the lowest level since 1969 and unprecedented levels for people of color.

The economy has added 4.87 million jobs since Trump took office, not 5.3 million, the number he cited.

Wage growth has picked up since late 2017 especially for rank and file workers, but not to the above 3.5% rates seen in the late 1990s and mid-2000s. Some of the pace of the increase had to do with states and cities raising their minimum wages, which the President had no hand in.

Indeed, the economy grew at a rate of 4.2% in the second quarter of 2018, fueled in part by the surge in government defense spending, as well as a large corporate tax cut that temporarily goosed business investment. By the third quarter of 2018, growth slowed to a rate of 3.4% .

Economists forecast a further deceleration through 2019, as the effects of the fiscal stimulus wear off and as businesses and consumers confront higher interest rates.

-- Lydia DePillis

Claim: "We have unleashed a revolution in American Energy -- the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world."

This is true, but needs context.

The US became the world's largest crude oil producer in August 2018, when it surpassed Russia for the first time since 1999 in terms of total daily crude production, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Earlier in the year, the US surpassed Saudi Arabia's crude oil production for the first time since 1973. It has been the largest producer of natural gas since 2011.

The rise in US oil and gas production is due in large part to advances in fracking technology that allowed drillers to access reserves socked away in shale formations buried deep underground. Production dipped in 2015 and 2016 as a result of overproduction and a collapse in oil prices, but recovered quickly once supply stabilized and prices increased, just as Trump was coming into office.

The Trump administration often touts its moves to relax Obama-era rules on oil and gas production, such as one restricting the flaring of methane from fracking sites. Trump has also opened public lands to more drilling. It's unclear though, given the decade of increased energy production in the US, how much of an impact any of those moves have had.

-- Lydia DePillis

Claim: We have "added 600,000 new manufacturing jobs. Something which almost everyone said was impossible to do, but the fact is we are just getting started."

Trump is overstating the number of manufacturing jobs created during his presidency. About 454,000 were added since the beginning of 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics .

But it's true that growth in manufacturing jobs has sped up during the past two years. The reason for uptick is likely due to a number of factors, including falling oil prices, strong job numbers nationwide, and deregulation.

-- Katie Lobosco

Claim: "No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58% of the newly created jobs last year. All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before."

Trump is spinning the data here. By the numbers, there are more women working in the United States than ever before. But when measuring the labor force participation rate of women, America has fallen behind other advanced economies.

Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , roughly 57% of all women in the US are working or looking for work. But that's down from a high of 60.3% in April 2000.

More than three decades ago, the US was among the leading nations in terms of the share of prime-age women in the workforce. But American women's aggregate workforce participation has since edged down, while other advanced economies have caught up and surged ahead since 1985, according to an April 2018 report by the International Monetary Fund.

There are a number of reasons behind the trend including structural issues and an aging population. The US is the only advanced economy without a government-mandated paid maternity leave and lacks affordable child- and elder-care options making it more difficult for women to work.

Trump announced in his speech plans to include in this year's fiscal budget a nationwide paid family leave.

-- Donna Borak

Claim: "More people are working now than at any time in our history. 157 million people at work."

That's true, but it could do with some context.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released this month, employment numbers on household data sits at 156,694,000. As a percentage of the population, however, we are still below our pre-recession levels of employment.

-Holmes Lybrand


Claim: "I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill," Trump said, "and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future."

While there's lot of talk about infrastructure, there's been little tangible action to back up Trump's picture of a government eager to act.

Here's what has happened to date: last February, Trump proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, though only $200 billion would come from the federal government. The plan leaned on state and local governments to match federal funding by at least a four-to-one ratio, as CNN noted at the time.

The plan also focused on making it easier to get federal permits and would allow the federal government to sell assets that "would be better managed by state, local, or private entities," according to the proposal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have both said there's room to make a deal on infrastructure but neither are hopeful.

-- Holmes Lybrand

Drug prices

Claim: "It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place. This is wrong, this is unfair, and together we will stop it."

It's true that Americans shell out more for medications than their peers in Canada, Europe and many other places. Trump has often pointed this out as yet another example of how the world takes advantage of the US.

His administration put out a report in October that said pharmaceutical manufacturers charge 1.8 times more in the US for drugs that fall under Medicare Part B, which are administered in doctor's offices and hospitals to treat cancers, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses.

To counter this, the administration is exploring setting the reimbursement level for these drugs based on their cost in other countries. The so-called "target price" of these medications would be 126% of the average of other nations.

This International Pricing Index model was quickly panned by the pharmaceutical industry, as well as many conservatives , who call it price fixing. It runs counter to Republicans' allegiance to the free market system.

The proposal would stifle innovation and limit access to new medicines, Americans for Tax Reform and 56 other conservative groups wrote in a letter to the Department of Health & Human Services in November.

-- Tami Luhby

Claim: "As a result of my administration's efforts, in 2018 drug prices experienced their single largest decline in 46 years."

This is true, but misleading.

The President is citing the 12-month change in the consumer price index for prescription drugs. It dropped 0.6% in December, the largest decrease since April 1973.

However, the CPI varies widely month to month. It rose 3.2% in the 12 months ending in June. And some experts are concerned that the index isn't as adequate a measure as it was because of changes in the prescription drug market.

Drug companies are still raising drug prices, regardless of Trump's tweets calling them out for doing so. The prices of more than 2,300 drugs have gone up so far this year taking into account different dosages of the same drug, according to Rx Savings Solutions.

However, the increases so far this year are more muted than in 2018. The average rise has been 6.8% so far this year, as opposed to 10.4% the same period a year ago, according to Rx Savings Solutions.

-- Tami Luhby

National Security

Claim: "We have spent more than $7 trillion dollars in the Middle East," Trump said of the conflicts "in Afghanistan and Iraq."

This is false — never mind that Afghanistan isn't in the Middle East. And it's not the first time Trump has floated this claim about spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service said that between 2001 and 2014, the operational costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were $1.6 trillion.

A CNN analysis found that in order to get to $7 trillion, you have to add future spending, most of which is for veterans over the next 35 years.

-- Nicole Gaouette

Claim: "When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Just two years ago. Today, we have liberated virtually all of the territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters."

Trump is right about the amount of territory re-captured from ISIS during his time office. At the end of 2016, ISIS controlled territory in Syria and Iraq was about 23,320 square miles, according to defense publication IHS Jane's. On Tuesday, the commander of US Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, said the group is "down to about 20 square miles that they still control."

Tonight, Trump pointedly chose not to repeat his false statement that ISIS has been defeated, a claim his own generals have contradicted. On Tuesday, Votel said the fight against the terror group is "not over."

-- Kylie Atwood

Claim: "If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea."

This is questionable.

The diplomatic thaw did not begin with Trump. It began in early 2018 when South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed North Korean athletes to the winter Olympics in PyeongChang in February. In April, Moon and Kim Jong Un held the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade at the Korean demilitarized zone.

Before that, Trump's rhetoric had arguably raised tensions. His August 2017 threat to meet North Korea "with fire, fury and, frankly, power the likes of which the world has never seen before," prompted Pyongyang, the next day, to threaten to strike the US territory of Guam with an "enveloping fire."

Trump did break precedent by hastily agreeing to an historic summit in Singapore with Kim. The June 2018 talks led to a vaguely worded commitment to "complete denuclearization." Talks between the US and North Korea have faltered due to both sides' drastically different definitions of denuclearization, but Trump announced during the speech that he would meet for a second summit with Kim on February 27-28 in Vietnam.

-- Will Ripley

Claim: "We are also getting other nations to pay their fair share. Finally. For years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by friends of ours -- members of NATO. But now we have secured, over the last couple of years, more than $100 billion of increase in defense spending from our NATO allies. They said it couldn't be done."

Trump is right that NATO allies stepped up their defense spending under his watch.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said so in a Fox News interview last month: "By the end of next year, NATO allies will add 100 billion extra US dollars toward defense. So, we see some real money and some real results. And, we see that the clear message from President Donald Trump is having an impact."

That being said, the US push for NATO countries to spend more on national security began under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Spending has risen in recent years, but many countries in the decades-old alliance are still well below the requirement that they spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense.

Making sure that other countries "pay their fair share" is a pet issue for Trump -- he regularly railed against NATO countries during the 2016 campaign and rattled his counterparts during NATO summits these past two years. Trump regularly spreads falsehoods about the transatlantic alliance and questions its usefulness, but none of that heated rhetoric made its way into his State of the Union tonight.

-- Marshall Cohen and Nicole Gaouette

Claim: Trump declared that the US is withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, adding that "while we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms."

This is true.

The US says that Russia has not adhered to the INF Treaty since 2014, though Moscow consistently denies it is violating the pact and says US claims are driven by Washington's desire to develop currently banned weapons systems.

And during a January 29 hearing on worldwide threats, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said "we know Russia has violated the terms of -- of that treaty."

-- Nicole Gaouette


Claim: "This new era of cooperation can start with finally confirming the more than 300 highly qualified nominees who are still stuck in the Senate in some cases years and years waiting. Not right. The Senate has failed to act on these nominations, which is unfair to the nominees and very unfair to our country. Now is the time for bipartisan action."

This is misleading. While it is true that confirmations for Trump nominees lag behind the rate of confirmation for other American presidents, it is inaccurate to suggest that it is entirely the fault of the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.

Of the 705 key executive branch positions tracked by the Washington Post and the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service , 274 have not been confirmed. While Trump and Senate Republicans sharply criticize Democrats for slowing down the confirmation process, more than half of those — 144 to be exact — are open because the Trump administration has not yet nominated a candidate.

The jobs range from ambassadorships to important undersecretary roles to governorships at the Federal Reserve board.

Overall, the Partnership analysis shows that only 54% of Trump civilian executive branch nominations have been confirmed, much lower than the 77% of Obama nominees confirmed at the same point in his presidency.

-- Alex Rogers