The United States could be on track for a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch in 2024, but it’s the president’s son Hunter Biden who earned the most entries on the list of the 10 most-read fact checks midway through this year. The fascination with claims and counterclaims about Hunter Biden was observed last year, as well. Fact checks concerning the debate over raising the federal debt limit also drew many eyeballs.
Here’s the rundown.
By a large margin, our detailed look at the president’s State of the Union address was the most-read fact check. We examined 13 claims, including that billionaires pay a lower tax rate than a schoolteacher or a firefighter (he was counting unrealized capital gains, which is not how the current tax system works), that he had the “largest deficit reduction in American history” (his policies made the deficit problem worse) and that mass shootings tripled after an assault-weapons ban lapsed (this claim is subject to dispute, depending on how you do the math).
During the debt ceiling debate, Republicans pegged Biden as a big spender, while he pointed the finger at Trump. Trump did run up the debt while battling the coronavirus pandemic — policies Biden often supported. Biden’s attack was a bit misplaced. We explained how policy choices made long ago are more responsible for the fiscal state of the nation. In fact, the president most responsible for the nation’s fiscal imbalance is Lyndon B. Johnson. Close behind is Richard M. Nixon. Johnson enacted Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s, and then Nixon in the early 1970s expanded both programs and also enhanced Social Security so that benefits were indexed to inflation.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) earned Three Pinocchios for claims that House Democrats while in power increased discretionary spending by 30 percent while Republicans didn’t increase it by “one dollar” in the eight years they were in power. This is one of those cleverly misleading claims designed to flummox people who do not closely follow the budget debates in Washington. Bipartisan spending caps did hold for many years, but, in 2018, when Republicans controlled the White House, the House and the Senate, they blew through the caps and boosted discretionary spending by 16 percent. Then the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy and government spending spiked.
When we first fact-checked Biden’s claim that he reduced the budget deficit by $1.7 trillion, he earned Three Pinocchios. Biden gets his $1.7 trillion figure by comparing the deficit in fiscal year 2020 ($3.132 trillion) with the deficit in fiscal year 2022 ($1.375 trillion). But the Congressional Budget Office, the official scorekeeper, in February 2021 already estimated the budget deficit would fall dramatically in fiscal 2021 and 2022 because emergency pandemic spending would lapse. In fact, over two years, Biden increased the national debt about $850 billion more than originally projected. Despite our Pinocchios, Biden kept making this claim. So we awarded him a Bottomless Pinocchio — given for Three or Four-Pinocchio claims said more than 20 times.
McCarthy announced that he would block two prominent California Democrats — Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam B. Schiff — from serving on the House Intelligence Committee. But unless you were a regular consumer of right-wing media, you might have been puzzled by the accusations used to justify their expulsion. McCarthy said Schiff “lied to the American public” about whether he knew the whistleblower who triggered the impeachment investigation of Trump; without presenting evidence, he suggested that Swalwell had done something inappropriate with a suspected Chinese intelligence operative. We looked into both claims and awarded McCarthy Four Pinocchios.
Trump and his defenders have repeatedly claimed that the violence at the Capitol two years ago would have been prevented if only his order for 10,000 troops had been heeded. We had explored this claim twice before and debunked it, each time awarding Four Pinocchios. Our article explored how the Jan. 6 committee report provided new details on the meetings in which Trump claims he requested troops at the Capitol. The bottom line: Trump brought up the issue on at least three occasions but in such vague and obscure ways that no senior official regarded his words as an order.
In April, Trump was arraigned in Manhattan on New York state criminal charges related to his role in hush money payments to an adult-film star and a Playboy model. Both before and after the widely covered event, Trump made remarks on his social media website, Truth Social. He also made relevant remarks in an evening speech at his home in Florida after his arraignment. We examined 10 of his claims, including that Biden had refused access to his papers at the University of Delaware (actually, the FBI examined them) and that Biden had no right to declassify as vice president (he did have that right).
Right-wing media and conservative politicians suggested that a 2014 email found on Hunter Biden’s laptop contained classified information. Having covered the State Department for nine years, I did not think the email appeared especially sophisticated. We took a tour through the first 11 of 22 enumerated points in the email and confirmed that the main facts in them could be found in news reports of the time. (The last 11 points are opinion, musings on business strategy and the like, so we didn’t examine those.)
It started with a tweet on Jan. 12 by an anonymous account — a photo of a rental application by Hunter Biden, plucked from the hard drive of his laptop left behind for repair in a Delaware shop in April 2019. Then it quickly exploded across the internet, into articles posted on right-wing media, onto Tucker Carlson’s Fox News evening show and into the talking points of Republican lawmakers who pledged an investigation into why Hunter Biden was paying his father $49,910 a month in rent at the Biden residence where classified documents were found. But the rental application was misconstrued. Our article followed the misinformation trail.
During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden cited a letter from more than 50 former senior intelligence officials that he said claimed the Hunter Biden laptop was Russian disinformation. That’s how it was framed in a Politico headline — but the letter artfully did not say that. We conducted a line-by-line dissection of the letter, supplemented with interviews with people who signed it.
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