Fact checking the Democratic presidential primary debate in Houston
HOUSTON — Welcome to CNN’s fact check of the third Democratic presidential primary debate. We will be posting our checks of candidates’ claims as we complete them.
This debate, in Houston, features the 10 candidates who met polling and fundraising thresholds set by the Democratic National Committee.
It comes as former Vice President Joe Biden and his rivals — including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — have sharpened their criticism of one another’s campaign themes. This debate featured heated moments over health care, criminal justice and immigration, among other topics. The two previous debates (fact checks here and here) have also included lengthy exchanges on health care.
The debate also features South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, businessman Andrew Yang, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
Here are the facts.
How many people will be covered under Biden’s health care plan
Castro attacked Biden’s health care plan, saying “the problem with your plan is that it leaves 10 million uncovered.”
Facts First: Castro is right.
It’s not the first time a Democratic contender has criticized Biden’s plan. Harris made an issue of it on the debate stage in Detroit.
Biden’s proposal — which builds on the Affordable Care Act by creating a government-backed health insurance option and increasing Obamacare’s federal subsidies — would insure more than an estimated 97% of Americans, according to his plan.
That means out of the population of 327 million in the country, roughly 10 million would be left without any health insurance.
However, it’s unclear exactly who would be uninsured. But under Biden’s plan, families buying coverage on the Obamacare exchanges would spend no more than 8.5% of their income on health insurance — a sum that might be too pricey for some Americans.
The future of private health insurance
Klobuchar went after Sanders’ defense of his Medicare for All bill, attempting to turn his signature line of “I wrote the damn bill’ into a one-liner of her own.
“And while Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill. And on page 8 — on page 8 of the bill, it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. And that means that 149 million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance.”
Facts First: This is true according to one estimate by a prominent health care research center.
On page 8 of the legislation Klobuchar references — S.1129, the Medicare for All Act of 2019 — there is a provision that stipulates it would be unlawful under the plan for “a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act.” The bill also bans employer-provided coverage on the same page.
However, different organizations have different estimates for how many Americans have private insurance, and who therefore would be at risk of losing it under a Medicare for All plan. Klobuchar cites a number backed by a 2014 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a national nonpartisan nonprofit. That survey indicated that 149 million non-elderly people had employer-sponsored coverage.
While some Republicans and Democrats have cited the higher figure, the US Census Bureau estimated that in 2017, more than 181 million people had employment-based health insurance.
-Sarah Westwood and Caroline Kelly
US health care spending vs. other wealthy countries
Sanders repeated a claim he’s often made on the amount of money the US spends on health care.
“We are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians or any other major country on Earth,” Sanders said.
Facts First: Sanders is right about Canada. While there’s no universal definition of “major country,” so there’s some subjectivity here, it’s not true that the US spends twice as much per capita on health care as every other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a group of 36 wealthy countries around the world.
At $10,586 per capita in 2018, the US did spend more than twice as much as Canada ($4,974) and more than twice as much as the OECD average ($3,992) in 2018 — but Switzerland ($7,317), Norway ($6,187) and Germany ($5,986) all were substantially above half the US level; Sweden ($5,447), Austria ($5,395) and Denmark ($5,299) were also above half, though more slightly.
You can read a longer version of this fact check here. Sanders has been repeating this same exaggeration since at least 2009, when fact-checkers at PolitiFact first noted that it wasn’t true.
Family separations at the border
In a discussion of immigration policy, former Vice President Joe Biden said: “We didn’t lock people up in cages, we didn’t separate families.”
Facts first: Both of Biden’s claims are false. While the Obama administration didn’t systematically separate families, it did happen under certain circumstances.
Separations did sometimes occur under Obama, but they were non-routine and much less frequent, according to immigration experts and former Obama officials.
They occurred in exceptional cases. Examples include those where the parent was being criminally prosecuted for carrying drugs across the border or other serious crimes aside from illegal crossing, those where human trafficking was suspected and those where the authorities could not confirm the connection between the child and the adult.
The separations didn’t happen as a result of a blanket policy, however, as was the case during the Trump administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” policy last year.
Similarly, fenced enclosures at processing facilities along the border, the structures that have been labeled as cages, existed under the Obama administration. Some individuals — including children — were held in those cells during processing.
Trump’s tariffs are costing jobs
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that Trump’s trade war is costing American jobs. “One forecast recently says that it has already cost us 300,000 jobs,” she said.
Facts First: This is true according to one major economic analysis. A September report from Moody’s Analytics estimates that Trump’s trade war with China has cost “almost 300,000 jobs” since it started about a year ago.
It’s tricky to calculate exactly how many jobs have been lost because of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese-made goods. One reason the trade war could be hurting American jobs is because Trump’s tariff strategy has created a lot of uncertainty for businesses. They don’t know how long the tariffs will be in place or whether the rate of the tariff will go up as part of a negotiating strategy — making it hard to make investments and hire new workers.
But the Moody’s report isn’t the only one that suggests the duties are having an effect on US workers. A report from staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said that trade difficulties were cited as the reason for more than 10,000 job cuts in August alone.
NRA member support for gun control measures
Former Vice President Joe Biden claimed that gun control measures put forward by the Obama administration had a majority of support from NRA members.
“Those proposals I put forward for the President had over 50% of gun — members of the NRA supporting them,” he said.
Facts First: According to one poll, a majority of NRA members did support some gun control measures proposed by the Obama administration, but not all.
In a 2013 poll conducted by Johns Hopkins University, 74% of people who identified as NRA members supported universal background checks, which the Obama administration proposed following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook.
A majority — 62 percent — of this cohort “supported prohibiting gun ownership for 10 years after a person has been convicted of violating a domestic-violence restraining order,” according to the poll. And 70 percent supported increasing penalties for individuals who sell a gun to someone who is not allowed to own a gun.
As part of its proposals following Sandy Hook, the Obama administration proposed a ban on so-called assault weapons and high capacity magazines (those that hold more than ten bullets). Only 15% of NRA members supported the ban of so-called assault weapons and 19% supported the banning of sales of high capacity magazines, according to the JHU poll.
Environmental cleanup in Los Angeles
In discussing air pollution, Sen. Kamala Harris brought up the progress Los Angeles has made in cleaning up its air.
“If any of you have been to Los Angeles 20 years ago, you’ll remember the sky was brown. You go there now, the sky is blue and you know why? Because leaders decided to lead and we took on these big fossil fuel companies,” she said. “We have some of the most important and strongest laws in the country and we made a difference.”
Facts First: Harris was correct that L.A.’s skies are less polluted than they were 20 years ago, but it remains one of the most polluted cities in the country.
Air quality has improved in LA and in many cities around the country since the 1990s. This is largely due to better air quality-control policies at the federal, state and local levels. The improvement in air quality has had a positive health impact on L.A. residents. Studies show better lung function in children who live in the region.
Those bluer skies, though, are still extremely polluted. The Los Angeles area has the worst level of ozone pollution in the country, according to the annual American Lung Association’s State of the Air report. Ozone, also called smog, essentially causes a sunburn of the lung, irritating and inflaming the lining of our lungs when we breathe it in. It can leave us winded, cause asthma attacks, make us more susceptible to infection and even shorten our lives.
In 2018, the region violated federal smog standards 87 days in a row, the longest single stretch in 20 years.
Comparing the current penal system with slavery
Speaking about the need for criminal justice reform, Booker drew a comparison between the current situation facing black Americans with slavery: “We have a criminal justice system that is so racially biased. We have more African Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850.”
Facts first: Booker’s wrong on the numbers here, though stark racial disparities do exist in the U.S. criminal justice system.
There were about 3.2 million held in slavery in the US in 1850, according to the census for that year, while there are an estimated 2.1 million African Americans in jail, state or federal prison or on parole or probation today, according to the most recent reports from 2016 released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on these issues.
African Americans do makeup a disproportionate amount of people incarcerated in the U.S. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, found African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites, according to a 2018 report that analyzed numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
While African Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, they account for 30 percent of people on parole or probation, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit.
Public support for gun control
Biden argued that his gun control proposals have more support than they did after the Sandy Hook massacre, saying that: “Now the numbers are much higher, because they realize what we’ve all been saying is correct. Over 90% of the American people think we have to get assault weapons off the street. Period.”
Facts First: Support for buyback programs of assault weapons and a ban on assault weapons are both much lower than Biden’s “90%” claim, recent polls show.
Around 50% of Americans support a mandatory buyback program of assault weapons that would get them “off the street,” according to polls published in September by both Monmouth University and The Washington Post/ABC News, which showed 43% and 52% support respectively.
Among Democrats only, support for an assault weapons ban is much higher. The Monmouth University poll found 86% of Democrats support specifically a ban on future sales of assault weapons.
Meanwhile, support among all Americans for criminal background checks is at 90%, according to a Fox News poll from August 11-13. The Monmouth poll also shows support for background checks near the 90% range.
Among members of the NRA, half of whom Biden claimed supported his original gun control proposals, support for any assault weapon related measures is low.
That same Monmouth poll found 27% of NRA members support a ban on assault weapons sales and only 11% of NRA members are in favor of a mandatory assault weapons buyback program.
Harris’ record as a prosecutor
Harris pushed back on detractors of her criminal justice record Thursday night, touting her work to bring body cameras to California law enforcement among the progressive highlights of her years as a prosecutor.
“I created one of the first-in-the-nation requirements that a state law enforcement agency would have to wear cameras and keep them on full-time,” the former California attorney general said.
Facts First: Harris accurately describes the program she started, but it’s not the whole picture of her history on body cameras.
Harris required that law enforcement officials under her at the California Department of Justice wear body cameras in 2015 — a policy billed at the time as novel at the state level.
But soon after setting that rule she told the Sacramento Bee that she was against statewide standards regulating the use of body cameras for police officers, a position that disappointed some advocates locally.
According to the Los Angeles Times at the time, Harris “stopped short of endorsing statewide regulations on the use of police body cameras, saying that she believes all officers should wear them but that local agencies are best equipped to enact policies.”
Support for the war in Iraq
Former Vice President Joe Biden framed his vote for the Iraq War as a vote to get more weapons inspectors into Iraq.
“The fact of the matter is that I should have never voted to give Bush authority to go in and do what he said he was gonna to do,” Biden said. “The AUMF was designed, he said to go in and get the Security Council to vote 15 to nothing, to allow inspectors to go in to determine whether or not anything was being done with chemical weapons or nuclear weapons. And when that happened, he went ahead and went anyway without any of that proof.”
Facts First: Biden is only telling half the story. The 2002 AUMF did call for continued UN enforcement of weapons inspections, but it also authorized the president to use military force in Iraq and Biden was never opposed to the possibility of military action, saying in 2003 that he was “not opposed to war to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq.”
The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, which Biden voted for, did call for President Bush to “strictly enforce through the United Nations Security Council all relevant Security Council resolutions applicable to Iraq and encourages him in those efforts” and “obtain prompt and decisive action by the Security Council to ensure that Iraq abandons its strategy of delay, evasion and noncompliance and promptly and strictly complies with all relevant Security Council resolutions.”
But it also authorized the president to use force in Iraq in to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and “enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq.”
Biden made clear at the time his vote included the possibility of military action.
“Let everyone here be absolutely clear,” he said in a speech to the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce in Delaware in February 2003. “I supported the resolution to go to war. I am not opposed to war to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. I am not opposed to war to remove Saddam from those weapons if it comes to that.”
Air Force layovers at Trump hotels
Mayor Pete Buttigieg claimed that Air Force flights were “apparently being routed through Scotland” so that air crews can stay at President Donald Trump’s hotels.
“We also have a president right now who seems to treat troops as props,” Buttigieg said. “Or worse tools for his own enrichment. We saw what’s going on with flights apparently being routed through Scotland just so people can stay at his hotels.”
Facts First: There is no current evidence that any military flight was routed through Scotland for the express purpose of having personnel stay at a Trump property. The Air Force however is conducting an investigation into how it chooses airports and hotels during international trips, so it’s possible more information may emerge.
While the Air Force has increasingly used Scotland’s Prestwick airport for refueling in recent years, the service says it is because of favorable weather conditions in the area and the fact that there is less aircraft congestion there.
A decision by the Pentagon to increase its use of the airport to refuel Air Force flights in 2015 had local airport officials sending flight crews to hotels in the area for overnight stays, including Trump’s Turnberry resort, according to The New York Times.
The President’s company, the Trump Organization, did enter into a partnership with the Scottish airport in 2014 that routinely sent flight crews to his Turnberry resort, the Times reported.
But there is no discernable connection between that 2014 deal and the Pentagon’s 2015 decision to send more aircraft there — Trump wasn’t even President until 2017.
Overnight stays by Air Force personnel at Trump Turnberry, the hotel and golf course in Scotland, have come under scrutiny from House Democrats in recent weeks.
The controversy stems, in part, from the fact that there are hotel options even closer to Prestwick airport but some Air Force crews have still opted to stay at the President’s resort. President Trump has continually faced questions about conflicts of interest because, unlike his predecessors, he has not divested from his businesses.
An internal US Air Force review of overnight stays by air crews during refueling stops at Prestwick Airport found that military personnel stayed at Turnberry “approximately 6%” of the time between 2015 and 2019.
-Zachary Cohen and Sarah Westwood