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Democratic debate fact check: Candidates spar in South Carolina

Gun control, stop-and-frisk and wage increases: NBC News fact-checked the contenders on stage in Charleston.
Image: Seven Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage in a debate in South Carolina on Feb. 25, 2020.
Seven Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in a debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Seven candidates made the stage for Tuesday night's debate in Charleston, South Carolina, taking place days ahead of the state's Democratic primary — the first nominating contest in the South.

We fact-checked the debate in real time.

Did Obama speak positively about Castro, too?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., took heat Tuesday night for recent comments he made about Cuba and Fidel Castro — and he defended himself by invoking remarks made by former President Barack Obama that he says are similar.

"I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world," Sanders said, adding: "What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress on education. What Barack Obama said is they made great progress on education and health care. That was Barack Obama."

First, some context: Sanders sparked criticism when, during an appearance on CBS' "60 Minutes" over the weekend, he said: "We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but, you know, it's unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?"

While it's true that the literacy rate in Cuba rose after Castro seized power more than 60 years ago, and health care expanded, as well, experts told NBC News that Sanders' comments leave out key parts of the nation's history. The island was already in the top tier on both fronts when compared to other Latin American countries before 1959, according to one leading expert, and post-revolution, overall living standards declined, as measured by gross domestic product. In addition, Sanders failed in his "60 Minutes" interview to mention that the literacy program was a vehicle for propaganda.

Sanders, defending himself on the debate stage Tuesday night, accurately refers to remarks the former president made at an event in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2016, although Obama didn't mention the literacy program specifically. Obama, amid a historic thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, was making a broader argument about ignoring the labels of socialist or capitalist theory — "You should just decide what works," he said, before describing a conversation he had with Castro.

"And I said this to President Castro in Cuba. I said, look, you've made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education — that's a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care — the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States, despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to health care. That's a huge achievement. They should be congratulated. But you drive around Havana and you say this economy is not working. It looks like it did in the 1950s."

Does every study say 'Medicare for All' would save money?

"What every study out there, conservative or progressive, says, 'Medicare for All' will save money," Sanders claimed.

In short, no. Many studies do say his Medicare for All proposal would save money — Sanders likes to tout a recent study that says the system would save $450 billion a year — but other studies say it would cost more than the current system measured as a share of GDP.

Democrats' claims about Trump and coronavirus preparedness

Both former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., went after President Donald Trump for neglecting the institutions that could help the U.S. face the coronavirus threat.

"The president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago. So there's nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing, and he's defunded Centers for Disease Control, CDC, so we don't have the organization we need," Bloomberg said.

"He tried to cut back on the CDC. He tried to cut back on the international organization that would coordinate with the rest of the world. He hasn't yet really addressed the nation on this topic," Klobuchar said.

Bloomberg is right on one point — the White House's top pandemic official left his role on the National Security Council abruptly in May 2018, and The Washington Post reported that there were no plans to replace him.

And while the president has indeed sought cuts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as Klobuchar said, he has not defunded it, as Bloomberg claimed.

Klobuchar is also right when she says the president has not given an address or a major speech about the deadly new virus spreading around the world, although he has tweeted about his administration's response.

Did Bloomberg release his tax returns as New York mayor?

"We had our tax returns out 12 years in a row," Bloomberg said, while pledging the same radical transparency as president.

That's not exactly true. During his three terms as mayor of New York, Bloomberg made highly redacted, vague versions of his tax documents available to reporters for a couple of hours each year — not the full and complete returns. In fact, this reporter — more than a decade ago — was one of the many who reviewed the documents and tried to glean details from the limited information provided.

Who wrote the bill?

No, not "Medicare for All." Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden got into it over who wrote which gun control bill before making it clear that they wanted an independent arbiter.

"I am the author of the 'boyfriend loophole' that says that domestic abusers can't go out and get an AK-47," Klobuchar said.

"I wrote that law," Biden interjected.

"You didn't write that bill. I wrote that bill," Klobuchar said.

"I did. I wrote the bill, the Violence Against Women Act, that took out of the hands of people who abused their —" Biden said.

"We'll have a fact check look at that," Klobuchar fired back.

As a senator in 1994, Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, which stopped people who were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from buying guns. But it covers only certain relationships, like married couples or those who have children with their victims. Klobuchar wrote a bill that would close that loophole by including stalkers or dating partners who aren't already covered.

So while Biden's off the mark in the beginning, he catches up in the end. He's right to note that the Violence Against Women Act is stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not acted on three gun control bills the Democratic-controlled House passed last year.

In February 2019, the House passed a law to close the "Charleston loophole," which allows the sale of a firearm if a background check is not completed within three days. It's a loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to obtain the weapon he used to murder nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

Last March, the House passed a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases to include buys made at gun shows and online, as well as other private sales.

And in April, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with new language that would close the so-called boyfriend loophole Klobuchar mentioned — a change opposed by the powerful National Rifle Association.

Did Sanders vote five times against the Brady Bill?

Biden hammered Sanders over his record on guns multiple times Tuesday night, while Sanders defended himself as a reliable supporter of gun control.

"Walking distance from here is Mother Emanuel church," Biden said. "Nine people shot dead by a white supremacist. Bernie voted five times against the Brady Bill and wanted a waiting period — no, let me finish — a waiting period of 12 hours."

It's true that Sanders has had a voting record that many gun control advocates consider checkered, having aligned more fully with the Democratic Party on the issue in recent years. And he did vote against multiple iterations of the Brady Bill, which required waiting periods for people buying guns — five times in total, according to PolitiFact.

Biden also hit Sanders for his 2005 vote to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from legal liabilities, which Sanders was asked about by a debate moderator.

"I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote," Sanders said.

He went on to defend his record: "I have today a D-minus voting record from the NRA. Thirty years ago, I likely lost a race for the one seat for Congress in Vermont because 30 years ago, I opposed — I supported a ban on assault weapons."

While Sanders is right that his most recent rating from the NRA is a D-minus and that he did lose his 1988 congressional race, multiple outlets have said the reason he lost isn't so clear cut.

When did Bloomberg scale back stop-and-frisk?

Bloomberg again claimed Tuesday night that he reined in the use of stop-and-frisk in New York City after it got "out of control."

"We let it get out of control, and when I realized that, I cut it back by 95 percent, and I've apologized and asked for forgiveness," he said.

That is still a false representation. Bloomberg championed and expanded the stop-and-frisk policing practice — the strategy that gave police the authority to detain people suspected of having committed a crime, which led to a practice of stopping mostly black and Hispanic men — during his three terms of mayor.

The practice was scaled back significantly thanks to a 2013 court order declaring the policy unconstitutional, not Bloomberg's change of heart.

Is half of America living paycheck to paycheck?

Sanders argued that the economy wasn't working for working people Tuesday, claiming that "real wage increases" were less than 1 percent for the average worker and that "half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck." Is he right?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real average hourly earnings increased by 0.6 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, it's true that several studies have found that roughly half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck — here's one from this year and another from last year.

Did two states kick hundreds of thousands of people off the voting rolls?

"Wisconsin has kicked hundreds of thousands of people off of their voting rolls. Georgia kicked 100,000 off," Klobuchar said.

It's true that Georgia recently purged 100,000 inactive voters from the voting rolls, but Wisconsin hasn't yet actually completed its purge: The registrations of more than 200,000 Wisconsin voters are caught up in litigation, and an appeals court put the planned purge on hold last month.

It's important to note that purges — the elimination of inactive voters from the rolls — are a normal part of roll maintenance. Voting rights activists say purges must be done carefully, however, so active voters aren't caught up in them. There is some indication that the proposed Wisconsin voter roll purge and Georgia's aggressive purges are, indeed, catching active voters.