Fact-checking the fifth Democratic debate in Atlanta live

Here are the claims from the 10 candidates on stage that hold up — and the ones that don't.
Image: Ten candidates took the stage in a Democratic presidential debate hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post in Atlanta on Wednesday night.
Ten candidates took the stage in a Democratic presidential debate hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post in Atlanta on Wednesday night.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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By Jane C. Timm, Adam Edelman and Elizabeth Janowski

Ten candidates took the stage Wednesday for the fifth Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta, a matchup hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.

The debate found South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg getting front-runner treatment, and took place amid the unfolding impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

As always, we fact-checked the White House hopefuls in real time. Here's what we found.

Do most Democrats oppose Medicare for All, as Joe Biden claimed?

"The fact is that right now the vast majority of Democrats do not support 'Medicare for All.' It couldn’t pass the United States Senate right now with Democrats. It couldn't pass the House," former Vice President Joe Biden claimed on Wednesday.

The veracity of this one may depend on whether Biden is talking about lawmakers or registered members of the party surveyed about their views. In a poll released earlier today, 77 percent of Democrats polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they supported Medicare for All. A Gallup poll last year saw 65 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters supported a government-run health care system.

But Biden is correct to note that support among legislators is decidedly lower. Currently, Democrats control the House but haven't passed a Medicare for All bill. A Medicare for All bill would definitely not pass the current Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.

Did Pete Buttigieg say he would send troops to Mexico, as Tulsi Gabbard claimed?

The two veterans on the stage — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Pete Buttigieg — sparred over the South Bend mayor’s recent comments on troops in Mexico. Gabbard said that the mayor had made a “careless statement about how you, as president, would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels.”

Buttigieg said his remarks were taken out of context.

"I was talking about U.S.-Mexico cooperation. We’ve been doing security cooperation with Mexico for years, with law enforcement cooperation and military cooperation that could continue to be developed with training relationships, for example. Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?" he said.

Gabbard retorted: “That’s not what I said!”

Here's what the mayor actually said at California event recently, according to The Sacramento Bee, responding to a question related to gang and drug violence.

"There is a scenario where we could have security cooperation," Buttigieg said, adding, “I’d only order American troops into conflict if American lives were on the line and if it was necessary to meet treaty obligations.”

Is Kamala Harris' statistic on black maternal mortality correct?

“Black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth in America,” the California senator said on the debate stage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes nationwide.

Is Buttigieg worth the least financially of all the candidates on stage?

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Buttigieg claimed to have the least assets of anyone on the stage. According to Forbes' assessment, he's right.

With just $100,000 in estimated assets, he's significantly less well off than billionaire Steyer or even millionaire Andrew Yang.

Do Harris' statistics on the gender pay gap hold up?

Raising a point about the ineffectiveness of the Equal Pay Act, Harris noted, “Women are paid 80 cents on the dollar, black women — 61 cents, Native American women — 58 cents, Latinas — 53 cents.”

Harris appears to be drawing these numbers from a 2019 report by the American Association of University Women, which compared the earnings of women across several racial demographics to the earnings of white men.

Her data is just slightly off, according to the AAUW’s report. According to the report, women are paid 82 cents for every dollar men earn. Black women make 62 cents on the dollar, Native American women make 57 cents and Hispanic women, 54 cents.

Are Gabbard's claims about past presidents and 'regime change wars' true?

Gabbard said there was an "ongoing Bush, Clinton, Trump foreign policy doctrine of regime change wars, overthrowing dictators in other countries."

This is mostly false. President Donald Trump hasn’t started any wars that can be considered regime change wars — he’s actually focused more on getting out of military engagements. President Bill Clinton didn’t start what could be considered "regime change wars," either, though he did sign order some military strikes in Iraq and support a policy of ousting Saddam Hussein, the country's president. But it was President George W. Bush who famously launched a war in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, which resulted in the removal and execution of Hussein.

It’s possible Gabbard is referring to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who served under President Barack Obama, but that's not clear, and wouldn't be correct. The secretary of state — while crucially involved in foreign policy — is not the decision maker, the president is.

Did Amy Klobuchar really pass more than 100 bills?

“I am the one who has passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat in that gridlock in Washington," Klobuchar said on Wednesday night.

This claim, one she's made during several previous debates, appears to be true. When asked by NBC News for proof of Klobuchar’s claim that she was a sponsor or co-sponsor of 100 bills that were ultimately enacted, her campaign produced a list of 101 bills and amendments that were enacted or that were consolidated into other bills that were later enacted.

Does the math behind Elizabeth Warren's 2-cent wealth tax add up?

“I have proposed a 2-cent wealth tax,” Warren said on Wednesday night. “Your first 50 billion is free and clear — but your 50 billionth and first dollar, you gotta pitch in 2 cents, and when you hit a billion dollars, you gotta pitch in a few pennies more.”

First, Warren misspoke here in the first part of her wealth tax plan. She meant to say "the first $50 million," not $50 billion. We know because it's how Warren’s been pitching her wealth tax for weeks — your first 50 million dollars are "free and clear," but once you hit 50 million and one dollar, a wealth tax of 2 cents kicks in.

It sounds simple, right?

Well, it’s not really. Yes, the tax is 2 cents on the dollar of assets over $50 million and 6 cents of every dollar over $1 billion. (She recently hiked that top bracket from 3 cents on every dollar above a billion to 6 cents, to pay for her health care plan.)

But, this tax is applied annually, so it would keep wealth from growing in many cases and act like an income tax in many ways. Wealthy investors with assets seeing a 6 percent return annually, for instance, would essentially see a 100 percent tax on those assets.

It may sound like pennies, but the dollars add up big time: Two economists who advised Warren estimated recently that if her wealth tax had been in effect since 1982, Bill Gates’ wealth would be a fraction of what it is now.

Did Donald Trump admit to diverting charity money from veterans, as Buttigieg said?

"The president had to confess in writing, in court, to illegally diverting charitable contributions that were supposed to go to veterans," Buttigieg said Wednesday night, responding to a question about impeaching President Donald Trump.

This is mostly true. The president did admit to illegally misusing the Trump Foundation — in particular the $2.8 million raised for veterans in an event in Iowa days before the 2016 caucuses — in a court filing. Those dollars were controlled and disbursed by Trump’s campaign staff at campaign events, instead of being overseen by the Foundation. But, the money was eventually donated to charitable causes.

Biden claims Steyer produced more coal than all of England

While touting his support of climate change bills during his time in Congress, Biden lobbed an attack against Tom Steyer's history as a hedge fund manager who invested in the coal industry.

"My friend [Steyer] was producing more coal mines and producing more coal around the world, according to the press, than all of Great Britain produces,” he said.

This appears to be true. Biden appears to be referencing a 2014 New York Times investigation that examined the coal production of companies in which Steyer's fund had invested.

The Times concluded that since receiving money from Steyer's hedge fund, the coal mines increased their annual production by about 70 million tons — “more than the amount of coal consumed annually by Britain.”

Still, though Biden was likely referencing the Times, the Financial Times reported that Britain produced just 2.6 million tons of coal in 2018, definitely less than Steyer's investments fueled.

Jonathan Allen contributed.