Fact check: Breaking down Joe Biden’s first month of claims
Biden was not remotely comparable to former President Donald Trump in either the quantity of his false claims or in the magnitude. He did, however, make some inaccurate comments, mostly when ad-libbing. For example, Biden made at least six false claims at a CNN town hall event last week. (CNN wrote about four of them in our initial fact check article.)
For this article, CNN looked into 40 of the claims Biden made from January 20 through February 19. Our fact checks are below — inaccurate claims first; then the claims that are disputed, complicated, or on which Biden could have been clearer if he had added some more context; then the claims that we can simply call accurate.
We invited the White House to comment on our findings. The White House offered comments only on the condition of anonymity. For fairness, we have included these anonymous comments in cases where they help explain where Biden was coming from.
We won’t repeat the fact checks we have published before. You can click here for a fact check on the CNN town hall in which Biden was repeatedly inaccurate, here for a fact check of a quite accurate economic speech Biden made in January, and here for a fact check on Biden’s January exaggeration about early media coverage of his goal of having 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in 100 days.
It’s worth noting that Biden was quieter than Trump not only qualitatively but quantitatively. Biden spoke far fewer public words than Trump did over the same period in 2017 — uttering about 34% fewer words than Trump did in his own first month, according to data provided to CNN by Factba.se, a website that tracks presidential remarks.
Walter Reed visits
Biden told reporters before his January 29 visit with wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: “…as vice president, every single Christmas, we spent all of Christmas day at Walter Reed.” He told military personnel in a chat upon his arrival: “For eight years, as uh, vice president, I’d come here, we’d — the whole family would spend every Christmas day here, all day.”
Facts First: There is public proof that Biden visited Walter Reed on five of his eight Christmases as vice president, but not on “every single Christmas” as vice president as he claimed. We could not find evidence he went to Walter Reed on Christmas in 2012, 2015 or 2016, and the White House did not provide any such evidence when we asked. (Biden’s son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer at Walter Reed in May 2015. Joe Biden visited the facility in 2015 while Beau Biden was being treated there.)
Asked whether Joe Biden did visit Walter Reed on Christmas in 2012, 2015 and 2016, the White House official did not answer directly. The official responded by noting that in 2012, Biden hosted a Thanksgiving gathering at the vice presidential residence for wounded troops from Walter Reed.
Vaccines to community health centers
Responding to a question that asked generally about racial disparities in health care and specifically about the relatively low rates at which Black and Hispanic people were being vaccinated for Covid-19, Biden said at the CNN town hall that he met with the Congressional Black Caucus and agreed that “all of the community health centers now, which take care of the toughest of the toughest neighborhoods in terms of illness, they are going to get a million doses, you know, a week…”
Facts First: Biden was right that his administration planned to send community health centers one million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine — but wrong when he said it would one million doses “a week.” Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the administration’s Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force, had explained that the plan was to send the million doses over the “initial phase” of their program.
The White House has not explained how long the “initial phase” is supposed to last, but it is clear that it is longer than a week. (When we asked the White House how long the phase is supposed to last, the White House official referred us to an online “fact sheet” that didn’t contain an answer.)
Biden’s travel with Xi Jinping
Speaking about how well he knows Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden claimed twice that he has traveled 17,000 miles with Xi. For example, Biden said in a February 5 interview with CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell, “I probably spent more time with Xi Jinping, I’m told, than any world leader has because I had 24, 25 hours of private meetings with him when I was vice president. Traveled 17,000 miles with him. I know him pretty well.”
Facts First: Biden has not traveled anywhere close to 17,000 miles “with” Xi, as Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler noted. While Biden could accurately say that he has spent many hours and many meetings with Xi — they spent time together in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 — Kessler noted that the two leaders often did not even travel parallel routes to their gatherings, let alone physically travel together. The only apparent way to get Biden’s mileage past 17,000, Kessler found, is to add the length of his flight journeys between Washington and Beijing, during which, obviously, Xi was not with him.
The White House official told CNN that Biden was making “a reference to the total travel back and forth — both internally in the US and China, and as well as internationally — for meetings they held together. Some travel was in parallel, some was separately to joint destinations.” But that is very different than traveling “with” Xi, especially in the context a point about how familiar he is with Xi.
The plan for pharmacies
Biden said at the National Institutes of Health on February 11: “When I got to office, there was no federal plan — none — to ship vaccines directly to local pharmacies.”
Facts First: This needs context. Specifically, it’s worth noting that Biden’s administration did not come up with the idea of shipping vaccines directly to local pharmacies; the Trump administration said in fall 2020 that this was its own intention. However, we aren’t calling Biden’s claim false or misleading because two sources in the pharmacy industry said the Trump administration never presented an actual plan to turn its concept into reality.
“When we first started talking to the Biden team during the transition, it was unclear what the federal pharmacy partnership program was going to look like, and key details…were missing. Those details were critical for us, obviously, as we needed to be prepared to activate. What we’ve seen over the last several weeks is a clear national plan emerge,” said a source at one company participating in the partnership program.
A White House official — a different official than the one who responded to our other queries — said that when the transition team approached major pharmacies to ask what the specifics of the federal partnership program were, “They were like, ‘We have no idea. We were going to ask you guys this question.'”
Suicide and the pandemic
Biden said in the February 5 economic speech: “A lot of folks reaching the breaking point. Suicides are up.”
Facts First: This claim is premature because complete national data on suicide in the last year is not yet available, two experts on the subject told CNN. Dr. Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the federal National Institutes of Health, said in an interview that while it is very clear that surveys show that suicidal thoughts have increased among Americans during the pandemic, it is not clear if this increase has translated to a national increase in people actually going through with the act; he said “we always look at survey data with a grain of salt,” since there is a lot it cannot tell us, and there are also some indications that the number of people reaching out for help is up. “If we look at deaths from suicide, the data so far that we have available does not yet show an increase for 2020,” Gordon said.
Gordon also said that the mental health consequences of disasters are often “not fully realized until the disaster is over,” so it is possible that the impact of the pandemic could show up in suicide data after the immediate threat of the virus itself has passed.
Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology, said nobody can definitively say today that suicide deaths are up nationally — and even if the data does end up showing that there was an increase, “it’s going to be really hard to say it’s because of the pandemic.” Singer pointed out that suicides had annually increased for years before a slight decline in 2019.
When we told the White House what the two experts had told us, the White House official who responded to most of our queries pointed to: reports about suicides increasing in particular areas of the US, the evidence that suicidal ideation is up in the US, evidence that suicide in Japan has increased during the pandemic, and an NPR article that noted the absence of nationwide numbers but also said, “NPR spoke with providers at hospitals in seven states across the country, and all of them reported a similar trend: More suicidal children are coming to their hospitals — in worse mental states.”
All of that is fair enough. But it doesn’t change the fact that we don’t yet know for sure whether Biden’s general claim that “suicides are up” is correct.
Biden’s role in the 2009 stimulus talks
Biden said in an economic speech on February 5: “When this nation hit the Great Recession that Barack and I inherited in 2009, I was asked to lead the effort on the economic recovery act to get it passed. It was a big recovery package, roughly $800 billion. I did everything I could to get it passed, including getting three Republicans to change their votes and vote for it.”
Facts First: This needs context. Biden certainly did play a role in persuading three Republican senators (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania) to vote in favor of the 2009 stimulus bill, but Collins objects to how Biden portrayed his role here. Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark told CNN that Collins did not “change” her vote — Collins had never decided to vote No before she voted Yes — and that, while Biden was “was among those who advocated for the bill,” Collins negotiated the actual details with four other Democratic officials: then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, then-Senator Joe Lieberman, and then-Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag. (After the vote in 2009, Collins also noted that President Barack Obama met personally with her.)
Biden didn’t claim that he was the only person responsible for securing the three Republicans’ votes, so his claim isn’t false. But he would’ve been more accurate if he had made clear he was part of a team and if he had not suggested that the three Republicans flip-flopped on the bill.
Specter died in 2012. Snowe left office in 2013, and her institute did not respond to a request for comment.
Hunger in January
Biden said during January 29 remarks on his pandemic relief plan: “Thirty million Americans don’t have enough food to eat this week.”
Facts First: This figure was slightly outdated. A Census Bureau survey for December 9 to December 21, which was released in early January, found that just under 30 million people said they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous seven days. However, the latest version of the survey at the time Biden spoke, released two days before his speech, put the number at just under 24 million people.
Biden said in a January 27 environmental speech: “Unlike previous administrations, I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to Big Oil to the tune of $40 billion in fossil fuel subsidies.”
Facts First: Biden has a reasonable factual basis for this claim, but it’s worth noting that the accuracy of the “$40 billion” figure depends on what you consider a “handout to Big Oil” and what time period you are looking at.
There is no single accepted figure for what counts as a “handout to Big Oil”; the question of what qualifies as a subsidy for fossil fuels is complicated. And Biden was unclear about what time period he was referring to. When we asked the White House about this claim, Biden’s team referred CNN to a 2012 Bloomberg article about an Obama-administration budget proposal to cut more than $40 billion in various forms of subsidies for oil, gas and coal companies over 10 years — so at least 2.5 presidential terms.
Similarly, a 2016 estimate from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, listed nine oil and gas tax breaks whose elimination would save more than $39 billion between 2016 and 2026.
Biden’s “$40 billion” figure is very close to at least one estimate for annual US subsidies for fossil fuels. The estimate, provided to CNN by the research and advocacy group Oil Change International, which seeks to transition away from fossil fuels, is $39.4 billion. That $39.4 billion figure, however, also includes subsidies for coal (so not just to “Big Oil”), relies largely on figures from 2015 and 2016, and includes billions in subsidies from state governments (not only the federal government).
Masks and lives
Biden said the day after his inauguration that “the experts say by wearing a mask from now until April, we’d save more than 50,000 lives going forward; 50,000 lives.”
Facts First: The White House official said this figure came from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). An IHME study published in October estimated that if 95% of the US population wore masks in public from September 22 through February 2021 “an additional 129,574…lives” could be saved. That math comes out to 809 lives per day, which would mean 56,630 lives could be saved from January 21, when Biden made these remarks, to April 1.
Trump and health care
In a January 28 speech about health care executive orders, Biden said the orders would “undo” damage done by Trump. He said, “There’s nothing new that we’re doing here, other than restoring the Affordable Care Act and restoring the Medicaid to the way it was before Trump became President, which by fiat he changed — made more inaccessible, more expensive, and more difficult for people to qualify for either of those two items: the Affordable Care Act or Medicaid.”
Facts First: This needs context. Actions taken by the Trump administration did make it more difficult for people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act or qualify for Medicaid. The question of whether those actions also made coverage more expensive is more complex.
According to Robin Rudowitz, Co-Director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured, the Trump administration’s proposals and actions “mostly focused around limiting the scope of Medicaid coverage.”
For example, in a historic step, the Trump administration allowed states to apply for waivers to require certain Medicaid recipients to work, volunteer, take classes or search for jobs in order to receive coverage. A dozen states received permission to do so. About 18,000 people were stripped of their insurance in Arkansas — the only state to fully implement the rules before being stopped by a federal judge — within a few months of the mandate taking effect. The Supreme Court agreed in December to hear the case.
The Trump administration also made the Affordable Care Act less accessible by cutting the enrollment period in half and slashing the advertising budget by 90%, which meant certain individuals likely weren’t aware of the shorter time frame to sign up or aware of their coverage options and possible subsidies for them. Additionally, in his first year in office, Trump required those seeking coverage during special enrollment periods because of a major life change, like job loss or divorce, to provide documentation proving their eligibility.
On the question of affordability, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2018 that Congress’ reduction of the individual mandate penalty to $0 would drive up individual premiums starting in 2019. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, certain insurance carriers added an average of 6% to premiums in 2019 which the carriers stated was the result of Congress’ effective elimination of the individual mandate and the Trump administration’s promotion of loosely regulated plans as alternatives to the comprehensive ones sold on the ACA exchanges.
However, it’s worth noting that since 2018, the average premium for the benchmark plan has decreased 8%, according to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
While the Trump administration has tried to take credit for that, the decrease is likely a result of the market stabilizing as insurers figured out how to set the proper premiums based on their enrollees’ health, which in turn drew insurers back into the exchanges and prompted new carriers to offer policies. This decrease also comes after a massive increase when insurance carriers raised the average premium for the benchmark plan by 37% for 2018 coverage. Therefore, despite the recent downward trend, according to CMS, average benchmark plan premiums remain higher on average than before the Trump administration’s changes.
– CNN’s Tami Luhby contributed to this item.
Biden getting ‘shot at’
Biden said at the State Department on February 4: “I’ve been with some of you when we’ve been shot at.”
Facts First: What counts as being “shot at” is subjective, but there is enough evidence for Biden’s vague claim that we say it is somewhat accurate at minimum. The White House pointed to five incidents during Biden’s career as senator and vice president, at least two of them corroborated by media outlets.
In 2009, the New York Times reported that the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq was “attacked by rocket fire for a second night on Wednesday, this time just after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had made brief public remarks and sat down for a traditional dinner to break the Ramadan fast.” (The Times reported that one rocket landed about a mile away from where Biden was.)
In 2010, CNN reported, “Three mortar rounds struck harmlessly inside Baghdad’s Green Zone on Sunday night during a weekend visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.”
The White House sent CNN a list of three other incidents Biden says occurred: another Green Zone mortar incident in 2005, an incident in 2005 in which Biden said a bullet narrowly missed a helicopter carrying him from the Green Zone to the Baghdad airport, and an incident in 2004 in which Biden said he was leaving Iraq in a military plane that had to take evasive action after its missile warning system was activated.
Some of Biden’s critics have noted that, as a senator in 2007, he walked back a claim about having been “shot at” in the Green Zone. According to a report in The Hill in 2007, he said then that it would have been more accurate to say, “I was near where a shot landed.”
He could have been more precise then and now. Still, his claim that he has been with American diplomats as they were “shot at” is not baseless.
Racial disparities and the pandemic
Biden said in a January 26 speech on racial issues: “Black and Latino Americans are dying of Covid-19 at rates nearly three times that of White Americans.”
Facts First: Biden was correct at the time he spoke; these figures were taken from published Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data at the time. However, it’s worth noting that updated CDC data published later, in mid-February, shows smaller disparities.
The updated CDC data shows that, through January 30, Black people had died of Covid-19 at 1.9 times the rate of White people, down from 2.8 times in the previous data. Latino people had died at 2.3 times the rate of White people, also down from 2.8 times in the previous data.
Attitudes about climate change
Biden said in the environmental speech: “And I might note, parenthetically: If you notice, the attitude of the American people toward greater impetus on focusing on climate change and doing something about it has increased across the board — Democrat, Republican, independent.”
Facts First: This is correct, but it’s worth noting that survey data suggests there has been a much smaller increase among Republicans than among Democrats. Of Pew Research Center survey respondents, for example, the percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who thought that dealing with global warming or climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress spiked from 47% in 2008 to 78% in 2020. For Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, the increase was 15% to just 21%.
“Over the last decade, we’ve seen little growth in the shares of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who view climate change as a major threat to the U.S. or call it a top priority for the president and Congress,” Cary Funk, Pew’s director of science and society research, said in an email.
Pew asked all respondents about “global warming” from 2008 to 2014. In 2015, it asked half of respondents about “global warming” and half about “climate change.” From 2016 onward, it has asked all respondents about “climate change.”
Biden said in the environmental speech: “Already, 84 percent of all new electric capacity planned to come onto the electric grid this is year is clean energy.”
Facts First: This is true if you accept a certain definition of “clean energy.” According to the US Energy Information Administration, of the new electricity generating capacity planned to come online in 2021, 39% is solar, 31% is wind, 11% is batteries and 3% is nuclear. That adds up to the 84% Biden referenced. However, there’s debate over whether nuclear power and batteries should be considered sources of clean energy generation.
Climate change and the military
Biden said in the environmental speech: “[T]he Defense Department reported that climate change is a direct threat to more than two thirds of the military’s operational critical installations.”
Facts First: This is accurate. A 2019 Pentagon report on the “Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense” looked at “79 mission assurance priority installations based on their operational role” across the Navy, Army and Airforce, and a few other related agencies. The report says two-thirds of these installations are vulnerable to “future recurrent flooding.” Separately, “more than one-half are vulnerable to current or future drought. About one-half are vulnerable to wildfires.”
Here are some other claims Biden was correct about:
Race and the economy: Biden was correct in saying that about 1 in 4 Black households and 1 in 5 Latino households reported not having enough to eat; that 1 in 10 Black people and 1 in 11 Latino people were out of work; that more than 10 million people were out of work in total, four million of them for six months or longer; and that more than 40 percent of the active-duty military is made up of people of color.
The pandemic: Biden was correct that January 2021 was the deadliest US month of the pandemic (with more than 95,000 deaths, per the latest Johns Hopkins University data); that more than 24 million Americans had been infected with the virus as of late January; that the US had 25 percent of the world’s confirmed Covid-19 cases with just 4 percent of the world’s population (though it’s important to note that international statistics do not capture all actual cases); that studies have shown that air pollution is associated with an increased risk of death from Covid-19; that there was initial talk that it could take years or even decades before there was a Covid-19 vaccine; and that, in January, experts predicted more than 100,000 more US deaths from the virus.
Assorted: Biden was also correct that Trump reversed a late-Obama-era move to reduce the use of private prisons; that there are more than 80 million displaced people around the world; that China has trains that go more than 225 miles per hour; and that Biden is the first president in 40 years to have a child who served in a war zone.