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Trump and Biden town halls: Fact-checking both candidates' claims

NBC News fact-checked both Trump and Biden town hall events. Find out which claims were true and false here.
Image: President Donald Trump and Joe Biden will have separate town hall events on Thursday night.
Trump and Biden will be participating in two town halls on the night when the second presidential debate was originally scheduled to take place. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden spoke in two respective town hall events on Thursday, the same evening a second presidential debate was supposed to occur virtually before it was canceled because the president refused to participate.

Trump spoke at a town hall moderated by NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie in Miami. The event also aired at the same time Biden participated in a town hall on ABC moderated by George Stephanopoulos. Both candidates answered questions directly from voters.

Below, find out which claims were true and which were whoppers.

Where does Biden stand on 'court packing'?

Biden has been evasive in recent weeks when it comes to whether he supports packing the Supreme Court with more justices, and ABC town hall moderator George Stephanopoulos tried on multiple occasions Thursday to get the Democratic nominee to take a position.

But Biden did not take the bait and his position on the critical issue remains somewhat murky.

Responding to Stephanopoulos' first attempt to pin him down, Biden said, "I have not been a fan of court packing because then it just...whatever happens, whoever wins it just keeps moving in a way that is inconsistent with what is gonna be manageable."

Expanding the court, which could be accomplished legislatively, is supported by many progressives as a way to dilute the power of conservative justices who are now in the majority.

When Stephanopoulos followed up by asking whether that means Biden was "still not a fan" of court packing — increasing the size of the court to more than the current nine justices — Biden replied, "Well, I’m not a fan. I didn't say — it depends on how this turns out. Not on how he wins, but how it's handled," an apparent reference to the Senate confirmation vote on nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

Later, Stephanopoulos tried again by asking Biden whether the Republican-controlled Senate voting on Barrett before Election Day would result in him being "open to expanding the court."

"I'm open to considering what happens from that point on," Biden replied.

Those responses do little clear up questions about Biden's position on the issue.

Last Thursday, Biden said he was withholding his position on the issue until after Nov. 3, telling reporters that, “you’ll know my opinion on court-packing the minute the election is over.” Then, on Monday, he said he's "not a fan of court packing."

Biden said in July that he opposed any efforts to expand the size of the Supreme Court, but has backed away from having a clear position on the matter in the weeks since the mid-September death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

During the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, Biden refused to answer a question about court packing, telling moderator Chris Wallace, "Whatever position I take in that, that'll become the issue."

He also told a Wisconsin television station last month that "it's a legitimate question" but that he was "not going to answer" it.

Biden's position on the issue has come under increased scrutiny since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Senate Republicans have vowed to speed through the confirmation hearings of Barrett — marking a reversal of the precedent they set in 2016, when they refused to even hold hearings for President Barack Obama's court nominee because it was an election year.

Did Trump denounce white supremacy during the first debate?

Pressed Thursday about his past remarks on white supremacy, Trump claimed he “denounced white supremacy” during the first debate.

Not quite. Asked if he was willing to do it, Trump said, “Sure, I’m prepared to do it,” but then immediately insisted that violence comes from those on the left and not the right.

Is it Nancy Pelosi's fault there isn't a new coronavirus stimulus package?

During the NBC News town hall Thursday, Trump put the blame for the failure of a new coronavirus stimulus package squarely on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"The problem we have is Nancy Pelosi — she couldn’t care less about the worker, she couldn’t care less about our people. We should have a stimulus, I want a stimulus, the Republicans will approve a stimulus,” he said.

Trump added, “She doesn’t want to give the money. We should have stimulus, this is not our people’s fault, this is China’s fault. And she’s penalizing our people. I’m ready to sign a big, beautiful stimulus."

In fact, Trump’s own positions have zigzagged abruptly and are out of sync with his own top administration officials as well as Senate Republicans, who are uninterested in giving him the big deal he says he wants. Pelosi has demonstrated willingness to spend considerably more money than his party has said it can stomach. Pelosi’s Democratic-led House passed a $3.4 trillion HEROES Act in May, which Senate Republicans rejected. Extended negotiations — stopping and starting — ensued during the summer where Trump administration officials sought to cut the price tag to about $1 trillion, which Democrats rejected.

The two sides were somewhat closer to a dollar figure when, last Tuesday on Oct. 6, Trump abruptly ordered an end to negotiations and told Republicans to focus on the Supreme Court vacancy. Days later, after the stock market reacted negatively, he shifted again and pleaded for a big stimulus deal. But Senate Republicans have made clear they won’t support that, and Pelosi has called their offers insufficient.

Is DACA 'working right now' and was it curtailed 'because of the pandemic'?

“We are going to take care of DACA, we’re going to take care of Dreamer, it’s working right now, we’re negotiating different aspects of immigration and immigration law,” the president claimed on Thursday night. “We’re working very hard on the DACA program.”

The idea that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program "is working right now" is extremely misleading. The president’s administration began rejecting new applicants to the program this summer about a month after the Supreme Court blocked the White House from ending the program completely.

In its ruling, the high court found that his administration was “arbitrary and capricious” in its attempt to end the Obama-era program. Existing applicants also must reapply every year, but remain in the program.

Pressed on this point by moderator Savannah Guthrie, Trump claimed his administration curtailed the program “because of the pandemic, much changed on the immigration front. Mexico is heavily infected.”

This is outright false. Trump's administration credited the change to the Supreme Court ruling in a press release.

What's more, DACA benefits some immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. as young children, not people coming in from Mexico in the present. The program confers certain protections from deportation and permission to legally work. Trump also referred to "Dreamer" Thursday night — DACA recipients are commonly known as "dreamers," based on proposals that would have afforded similar protections for young immigrants that never passed Congress.

Did Trump accurately quote Ginsburg on filling Supreme Court vacancies?

Trump defended his push to confirm a Supreme Court justice with weeks to go before the election by paraphrasing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat he is attempting to fill after her death in September, herself.

“When a president is elected, they're elected for a period of four years. And Justice Ginsburg said it best, I think talking about President Obama, having to do with somebody else, that the president is put there for four years, not for three years,” Trump said Thursday.

Trump is referring to comments Ginsburg made at Georgetown University on Sept. 7, 2016 when asked if there were any "valid constitutional arguments that would prevent President Obama" from filling the seat vacated after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Although Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat in March, the GOP-controlled Senate did not hold hearings for Garland.

During that 2016 event, Ginsburg replied: “The president has the authority to name appointees to the Supreme Court, but he has to do so with the advice and consent of the Senate. And if the Senate doesn’t act, as this current Senate is not acting, what can be done about it?”

“I do think that cooler heads will prevail, I hope sooner rather than later. The president is elected for four years, not three years, so the power that he has in year three continues into year four,” she continued.

Trump was also asked Thursday why he now supports confirming a justice so close to an election after arguing the opposite in 2016. He justified it by pointing to now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh contentious confirmation proceedings.

Does Biden's environmental plan differ from the Green New Deal?

During an exchange about the Green New Deal with ABC's Stephanopoulos, the host noted that Biden says he's "not for it, but in your website it, you call it a crucial framework."

Biden replied, "My deal is a crucial framework. But not the New Green Deal."

That is not true, and it mischaracterizes how similar Biden's own plan to combat climate change and environmental racism and push clean energy sources and environmental justice are to the Green New Deal — an ambitious environmental policy plan supported by progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

While Biden doesn't explicitly support the Green New Deal, his own plans feature similar provisions, and his campaign website literally cites it as a "crucial framework" — meaning his denials ring false.

Over the summer, Biden released a $2 trillion plan that emphasized building new energy efficient infrastructure projects and cutting fossil fuel emissions.

Under his plan, Biden would, if elected, increase clean energy use in various areas (including transportation, electricity and buildings), and have the U.S. achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The plan would also create 10 million clean energy jobs, according to his campaign website, with a focus on renewable energy, small nuclear reactors and grid energy storage, among other initiatives.

Biden's plans adopt many of the same pillars of the Green New Deal. One of his campaign documents even says that "Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face." In addition, release of these plans were celebrated by many of the same groups that had touted the Green New Deal.

Biden's plans do, however, omit some of the Green New Deal's more controversial elements, such as "Medicare for All," a federal jobs guarantee and a strict zero carbon-emissions mandate.

Another critical difference is that, while Biden's plan calls for the U.S. to get to a "100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions" by 2050, the Green New Deal wants it done by 2030 — a distinction Biden explicitly outlined on Thursday.

"The difference between me and the New Green Deal, they say automatically by 2030, we’re gonna be carbon free. Not possible," he said. "The New Green Deal calls for the elimination of all non-renewable energy by 2030. You can’t get there. You’re gonna need to be able to transition, George. To transition to get to the place where we invest in new technologies that allow us to get us to a place where we can get to net zero emissions."

In a statement to NBC News following the town hall, a Biden campaign official further outlined the differences between Biden's plan and the Green New Deal.

"When Biden laid out his own climate plan, he acknowledged that the Green New Deal is a crucial framework — or structure — to arrange thinking on climate because it includes two truths that he carried into his own plan," the official said. "The urgent need for action, and a recognition of the interconnectedness of our environment and economy. You can see those truths in his plan. But his plan is very much the Biden plan."

Where does Biden stand on fracking?

Biden said Thursday, "I do not propose banning fracking."

"I think you have to make sure that fracking is, in fact, not admitting methane or polluting the well or dealing with what can be small earthquakes in how they’re drilling. So it has to be managed very well," he added.

While it's true Biden has said he will not ban fracking, his position is complicated.

The policies he has released call only for no new fracking on federal lands. His policy also allows for existing fracking on federal lands to continue, and existing and new fracking on privately owned land to continue.

Biden, however, has also called for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — a plan that would include a systematic departure from the use of fossil fuels, which has implications for fracking.

ABC's George Stephanopoulos brought up at the town hall the apparent contradiction in a follow-up question, noting that "not everyone buys your denial" that he won't ban fracking and pointing to a quote from a member of the Boilermakers Local 154 union who told The New York Times that "you can't meet your goal to end fossil fuels without ending fracking."

Biden responded by saying that he had discussed the issue with the union "and went into great detail with leadership on exactly what I would do."

Biden, including in that response, has yet to explicitly say how or when that move away from fossil fuels would affect fracking. President Donald Trump has used Biden's proposal to tell audiences, inaccurately, that his opponent wants to ban fracking now.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a practice used to tap into natural gas reserves deep below the earth's surface. It's a critical issue in states like the battleground of Pennsylvania, where the practice has brought economic prosperity to several once-impoverished areas. It is controversial because many of the chemicals used in the process are toxic to humans and have been known to cause serious health problems in populations near fracking fields.

Did the Trump administration build '400 miles of border wall'?

"We’ve built now over 400 miles of border wall, southern border,” Trump said.

Trump's administration says he's built 360 miles as of Oct. 12. The bulk of it is replacement wall for older barriers, while a small portion of that figure consists of brand new wall.

Is the Trump administration 'always protecting people with pre-existing conditions'?

Trump said that "we are always protecting people with pre-existing conditions" during his Thursday town hall, attacking Obamacare while reiterating his unkept campaign promise to replace the health care law with something better and cheaper.

We’ve fact checked the claim about pre-existing conditions at length before, and it’s still false. Trump has long insisted that he and the GOP will protect people with pre-existing conditions from losing their health insurance — but he has pursued legislation, litigation and executive actions to dismantle those protections under the Affordable Care Act.

A Republican bill backed by Trump included ACA state waivers that would allow insurers to charge higher prices to people with pre-existing conditions, potentially pricing them out of the market. It passed the House and died in the Senate in 2017, with Republicans not coalescing around a new, comprehensive health care plan since.

Trump has also used executive actions to expand the use of short-term insurance plans that aren't required to cover pre-existing conditions.

His administration has argued that the Supreme Court should overturn the law in a case it will hear next month. When asked about that lawsuit, Trump defended it and said Republicans will "replace it with a much better health care at a much lower price and always, under all circumstances...protect people with pre-existing conditions."

Trump recently signed a symbolic executive order affirming the protections Obamacare created and directing his administration to limit surprise billing. But the order had little effect on existing law.

What was Biden's contribution to the 1994 crime bill?

Biden, responding to a question about the 1994 crime bill, which he co-authored as a then-senator, acknowledged that "it had a lot of other things in it that turned out to be both bad and good."

During a discussion with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Biden said at the town hall that he was against the bill's provision that helped fund state prison systems — a provision that critics have frequently said contributed to "mass incarceration."

So what's this all about?

The 1994 crime bill earmarked billions for new prisons and encouraged states to keep criminals behind bars for years by offering special grants. It also instituted a federal "three-strikes" life sentence mandate, among other things. After the bill was enacted, crime dropped and incarceration rates skyrocketed.

"The crime bill, however, was just the most high-profile legislation to increase the number of people behind bars," New York University's Brennan Center for Justice concluded in a 2016 analysis. "On their own, states passed three-strikes laws, enacted mandatory minimums, eliminated parole, and removed judicial discretion in sentencing. By dangling bonus dollars, the crime bill encouraged states to remain on their tough-on-crime course."

Does having more cops mean less crime?

During an exchange about the 1994 crime bill that Biden co-authored, ABC News moderator George Stephanopolous noted that the bill "funded 100,000 police," prompting Biden to note that the officers placed on the streets conducted community policing, which caused crime to drop.

"You've often said that more cops clearly mean less crime," Stephanopolous said. "Do you still believe that?

"Yes, if in fact they're involved in community policing, not jump squads," Biden replied. "For example, when we had community policing from the mid-90s on until Bush got elected, what happened? Violent crime actually went down precipitously."

Is that true?

Biden's fudging a bit here, according to government reports. The 1994 crime bill did help reduce violent crime, but whether that was a direct result of the bill's Office Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants has been disputed. Estimates also suggest that the COPS grants did not lead to a full 100,000 new police on the streets.

At passage, the crime bill aimed to put 100,000 more cops on the streets. A 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found the bill resulted in about 88,000 additional officers.

The 2005 GAO report found that COPS had a "modest" effect on the drop in violent crime but noted "factors other than COPS funds accounted for the majority of the decline in crime during this period

Was the U.S. ever facing 42 percent unemployment?

“We just hit a record, 11.4 million jobs,” Trump said Thursday, pointing to recent job gains after historic pandemic losses. “So people were saying we're going to have a 42 percent unemployment. Look, this was a thing that came into our country, and it happened 100 — more than 100 years ago, and it happened now. We're talking about a 42 percent unemployment rate.”

He continued: “Just came out at 7.8 percent unemployment and people can't even believe it.”

The president is wildly inflating the economy’s successes here, as well as projections for the unemployment rate. The U.S. has replaced 11.4 million of the 22 million jobs that were lost in March and April because of the pandemic, though job growth is slowing and economic predictors suggest the recovery may be slowing.

But the U.S. was never facing 42 percent unemployment — economists predicted 20 percent unemployment. Additionally, this isn't the first time 42 percent unemployment has made its way into a false economic claim by the president. Back in 2015, Trump falsely claimed the “real” unemployment rate was 42 percent; at the time, it was 5.1 percent, PolitiFact reported.

Is voter fraud rampant and are ballots being 'dumped in dumpsters'?

In response to a question about accepted the results of the 2020 election, Trump insisted Thursday that voter fraud was rampant.

"When I see thousands of ballots, right, unsolicited ballots being given out by the millions and thousands of them are dumped in dumpsters and when you see ballots with the name — Trump military ballots from our great military and they're dumped in garbage cans," he said.

Moderator Savannah Guthrie pointed out that the president was referring to anecdotal reports, adding, "Your own FBI director said there's no evidence of widespread fraud."

Trump responded: “Oh, really? Then he's not doing a great job. 50,000 in Ohio, the great state of Ohio. 50,000 in another location, I think North Carolina. 500,000 applications in Virginia. No, no. There's a tremendous problem.”

This is not true. Numerous studies have debunked the notion that there is substantial, widespread voter fraud in American elections, whether those elections are conducted predominantly by mail or otherwise.

Trump is citing election infrastructure errors — like 50,000 flawed absentee ballots sent out in one county in Ohio and later reprinted by officials, or a half million absentee ballot application that were mailed by a nonpartisan group encouraging mail voting that included inaccurate return mailing addresses — as proof of fraud, instead of what they are, which is errors and inefficiencies.

There's no reason to believe either of these errors will result in fraudulent ballots being counted. Only verified and registered voters can cast a mail ballot.

Did the Obama administration spy on Trump's campaign?

President Trump, during Thursday's NBC News town hall, once again accused the Obama administration of spying on his campaign — a claim that Trump has made on numerous occasions and remains false.

"They talk about the peaceful transfer," Trump said, about questions posed to him about whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he loses in November.

"They spied on my campaign and they got caught," he said, a reference to his claim about the Obama administration.

A review conducted by the Justice Department’s own watchdog deemed in December that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — a probe that deeply touched the 2016 Trump campaign — was justified.

The 434-page report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz raised questions about the FBI's use of confidential human sources to gather information from individual members of the Trump campaign. FBI officials said it was a normal investigative technique, but the inspector general questioned whether there should be special guidelines when it comes to political campaigns.

The report did, however, clearly refute the notion that the FBI placed a "spy" in the Trump campaign.

"We found no evidence," the report said, that the FBI sent any confidential sources to join the Trump campaign, or sent them to campaign offices or events, or tasked them to report on the Trump campaign.

The inspector general said he examined more than a million documents and interviewed more than 100 witnesses to reach the report’s conclusions.

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Did Trump downplay the severity of the coronavirus?

Biden said Thursday that he recognized as early as February, writing in an editorial for USA Today, that Covid-19 was a "serious problem," while accusing Trump of having "denied it."

"We later learned that he knew full well how serious it was when he did an interview with...Bob Woodward, and at the time, he said he didn’t tell anybody because he was afraid Americans would panic."

The facts show that Trump downplayed the severity of the pandemic.

Here’s what Trump said in the early days of the pandemic.

And in interviews with journalist Bob Woodward, referenced by Biden, Trump revealed he knew the virus was deadly and admitted playing it down.

"You just breathe the air and that’s how it's passed," Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7, according to The Washington Post. "And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flus."

In a March 19 interview, Trump acknowledged he'd been playing down the threat from the start.

"I wanted to always play it down," Trump said. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

Did original projections show that 2.2 million people would die in America from the coronavirus?

Trump on Thursday claimed that original projections for coronavirus deaths in America said the country would lose 2.2 million people to the virus.

“We were expected to lose, if you look at the original charts from original doctors who are respected by everybody, two million [and] two hundred thousand people," Trump said.

This is misleading. Trump is referring to a model published on March 17 by Imperial College London, which did predict that 2.2 million people in America could die from the virus, but only if no mitigation efforts whatsoever were in place.

In late March, White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told NBC's "Today" that the projection of 1.6 million to 2.2 million deaths referred to what could happen if America did "nothing" to stop the spread of the virus.

"If we do things together, well, almost perfectly, we could get in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities," Birx said at the time.

As of Thursday evening, there have been 218,744 deaths attributed to the virus in America, according to NBC News data.

Have 1 in 5 minority businesses closed because of Covid-19?

Biden on Thursday said at the ABC town hall, "You had in one in five, one in six, minority businesses closing, many of them permanently" because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This appears to be true — and Biden may be understating the closures.

According to a study conducted by Stanford University, more than 1 million black-owned businesses in the U.S. were open in February 2020. But by April, 440,000 black business owners had closed, a drop of more than 40 percent.

Did the U.S. do an 'amazing' job on Covid-19 response and is it 'rounding the corner' on the pandemic?

“What we’ve done has been amazing, we’ve done an amazing job,” Trump said on Thursday, claiming that the U.S. is “rounding the corner” with the pandemic.

This is false. The U.S. is facing an uncontrolled outbreak and there are few signs of a turnaround. The U.S. has more cases than any country, with more than 8 million, and more deaths than any country, recently surpassing 218,000.

Cases are high and rising in 28 states; cases are low and rising in 19 states, according to New York Times data.

Did Trump say people could inject bleach to fight Covid-19?

Biden on Thursday said at the ABC town hall, "President Trump says things like, everything from ‘that's crazy stuff,’ then he walks away and says inject bleach in your arm and that's gonna work."

That comment is inference to Trump's suggestions that people should inject bleach in their arm to effectively fight off Covid-19.

Trump did indeed speculate that an injection of disinfectants like bleach could have a curative effect.

"And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?" Trump said during a news conference at the White House in April, after a briefing from a Homeland Security official who described the ability of disinfectants like bleach to kill the coronavirus on surfaces.

"Because, you see, it gets on the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it'd be interesting to check that. So that you're going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds — it sounds interesting to me."

Do '85 percent of people who wear masks catch' the coronavirus?

Trump wrongly characterized a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study Thursday evening when he claimed that "they came out with a statement that 85 percent of people who wear masks catch" the coronavirus.

That is an inaccurate read of a Sept. 10 CDC report — the study found that people who contracted Covid-19 are more likely to have eaten in a restaurant, and both those who have tested positive and negative for the virus report wearing masks at similar rates.

The CDC tweeted on Wednesday that “the interpretation that more mask-wearers are getting infected compared to non-mask wearers is incorrect.”

All the available evidence suggests that masks help slow the transmission of the deadly coronavirus. A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs showed that Covid-19 transmission slowed after states implemented mask requirements. Scientists believe this is because masks reduce the amount of respiratory droplets spread by the wearer.

While some masks appear ineffective at slowing the spread of coronavirus (like very thin masks or masks with valves), the concept of masks is not up for debate. Trump has been criticized for not aggressively promoting the use of masks, and for refusing to appear in public wearing one until months into the pandemic.