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The Journal Gazette

Monday, December 18, 2017 11:40 am

Washington Post's most popular fact checks of 2017

GLENN KESSLER | Washington Post


Once again, we present a list of our most popular fact checks of the last year.

In terms of reader interest, it was yet again a banner year for the Fact Checker. We had thought the election year of 2016 would be impossible to beat, given that the number of unique visitors in 2016 was five times higher than during the 2012 presidential year. But we had 20 percent more unique visitors in 2017 than in 2016, proving yet again that although President Donald Trump may be bad at sticking to the facts, he is certainly good for fact-checking.

Indeed, the top four fact checks were about Trump. In compiling the top-10 list, we focused on full fact checks of specific claims. (Meanwhile, we're going to try to take a needed break before the new year. Only something really dramatic will cause us to change our plans.)

1. Trump's claim that his refugee policy is similar to Obama's in 2011.

In January, President Trump justified his original executive order halting travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries by claiming that former president Barack Obama did the same thing in 2011. But the comparison is a bit facile.

Obama responded to an actual threat -- the discovery that two Iraqi refugees had been implicated in bombmaking in Iraq that had targeted U.S. troops. Under congressional pressure, officials decided to re-examine all previous refugees and impose new screening procedures, which led to a slowdown in processing new applications. Trump, by contrast, issued his executive order without any known triggering threat.

Obama's policy did not prevent all citizens of that country from traveling to the United States. Trump's policy was much more sweeping.

The Trump White House failed to provide any evidence for its position, pointing to attacks unrelated to countries named in the original executive order. (Note: This is the most popular fact check in The Fact Checker's 10-year history.)

Three Pinocchios

2. President Trump's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Twitter day

The president claimed (and continues to claim) that Russian tampering in the 2016 election was "fake news" produced by the Democrats.

On March 20, while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, then-FBI Director James Comey confirmed that a criminal investigation into possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign was active. The president's Twitter account went into spin mode -- trying to make lemons out of lemonade.

But the tweets in response to Comey's -- and later National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers' -- testimony were misleading, inaccurate or simply false.

The gravity of the disclosures might have called for a more restrained response. But the president chose another approach, which clearly backfired, tweet after tweet.

Four Pinocchios

3. President Trump and accusations of sexual misconduct: The complete list

More than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct.

Most of the accusations surfaced after the release of a 2005 tape of Trump speaking graphically about kissing and groping women uninvited. While the White House has accused all of the women of lying, many have produced witnesses who say they heard about these incidents when they happened -- long before Trump's political aspirations were known. Three have produced at least two witnesses.

Such contemporaneous accounts are essential to establishing the credibility of the allegation because they reduce the chance that a person is making up a story for political purposes. The Fact Checker provided a list of 13 women who have publicly come forward with claims that Trump had physically touched them inappropriately in some way, and the witnesses they provided.

We did not include claims that were made only through Facebook posts or other social media or in lawsuits that were withdrawn. We also did not include the accounts of former beauty contestants who say Trump walked in on them when they were half nude because there were no allegations of touching.

4. Trump's "evidence" for Obama wiretap claims relies on sketchy, anonymously sourced reports

In March, Trump fired off a series of tweets, accusing Obama of "wire tapping" phones in his New York office during the "very sacred election process."

Trump called his predecessor a "bad (or sick) guy," but his explosive accusation seemed to be very thinly sourced. None of the news reports the White House provided as justification supported Trump's claims that Obama ordered the tapping of his phone calls.

Furthermore, James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence under Obama, who presumably would be aware of a FISA court order, issued an on-the-record denial. And Comey asked the Justice Department to issue a statement refuting Trump's claim, echoing Clapper's denial. Comey later testified before Congress, again refuting the president's claim.

Four Pinocchios

5. Ted Cruz's claim that two-thirds of the Hurricane Sandy bill "had nothing to do with Sandy"

After Houston and much of southeast Texas was swamped by Hurricane Harvey, critics complained that Texas senators and members of Congress sought emergency federal aid but refused to back relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The defense from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was that the Sandy legislation was a bad bill filled with pork-barrel projects.

"Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy," Cruz claimed.

But we found that the vast majority of the spending was for Hurricane Sandy, including elements (such as Smithsonian roof repairs) that some lawmakers incorrectly believed were unrelated to the storm.

The slow rate of projected spending that Cruz had criticized at the time was actually based on how quickly the government had spent funds after previous major storms. Cruz earned Three Pinocchios.

6. Here's what you need to know about pre-existing conditions in the GOP health plan

Much of the debate in May about the House GOP health-care bill focused on whether Obamacare's popular prohibition against denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions would remain in place.

The reality was more nuanced and complicated, as is often the case in Washington policy debates, so we compiled The Fact Checker's guide to the debate.

When it comes to health care, readers should be wary about claims that important changes in coverage are without consequences and that people are "protected" -- or that the changes will result in massive dislocation and turmoil.

There are always winners and losers in a bill of this size. In this case, if the House bill ever became law, much would depend on unknown policy decisions by individual states -- and then how those decisions are implemented.

We explored a similar debate about pre-existing conditions in the Senate version of the GOP health plan.

7. Did President Trump add $33 million to Puerto Rico's debt by bankrupting a golf course there?

After Category 4 Hurricane Maria tore through the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, left-leaning media reports and social-media posts made a startling claim: Trump had contributed to the island's debt because he declared bankruptcy on a Trump golf course there and left Puerto Ricans with the bill.

But it turned out that Trump's role in the Puerto Rican economic crisis is limited, in the larger context of the recession and the history of this property, which was flailing even before he came into the picture.

Even if Trump were directly responsible for all $33 million in outstanding bonds that the golf property incurred -- and he's not -- it would result in less than 1 percent of the island's debt. Thus, the headlines and social-media posts blaming him for adding $33 million to the debt are exaggerated. He didn't make it any better for the golf course, but he didn't make it any worse.

Three Pinocchios

8. Kellyanne Conway's claim of a "Bowling Green massacre"

In defending the president's initial executive order temporarily banning refugees, immigrants and citizens from Iraq and six other Muslim-majority countries, White House aide Kellyanne Conway blamed two Iraqis for a massacre that didn't happen. There was no massacre, and she got some other details wrong in her recalling the incident during a TV interview.

Later, Conway did note that her use of "massacre" was an "honest mistake," tweeting that she meant to say "Bowling Green terrorists."

We don't play gotcha at The Fact Checker. Uncorrected, this would have been worth Four Pinocchios. While many readers requested a Pinocchio rating, we chose not to do so because she noted her mistake.

9. The "dossier" and the uranium deal: A guide to the latest allegations

As a service to readers bound to be confused by an increasingly complex story, The Fact Checker provided a brief guide to the latest developments in the tangled allegations involving Russia, President Trump and Hillary Clinton.

For both "the dossier" -- a collection of 17 memos concerning Trump and Russia written by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele -- and the sale of a U.S. uranium company to a Russian entity, we provided the necessary background and an explanation of what was new and what was controversial about the allegations.

10. Stephen Miller's bushels of Pinocchios for false voter-fraud claims

In February, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller appeared across Sunday talk shows, spouting the White House's go-to false claims about voter fraud.

Miller repeated that 14 percent of non-citizens are registered to vote -- yet the authors of the study he was citing disputed such use of their research. He mentioned other examples that also failed to support the White House's allegations of voter fraud.

However, these claims have now morphed into a commission to investigate their veracity. Many months later, we still have not seen evidence to support these talking points that have been repeatedly shown to be false.

Four Pinocchios