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Do Facts Still Matter in US Politics? Here Are Some of 2015's Biggest False Claims

A take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward reality became something of a badge of honor among the crowd of candidates seeking the presidency — and actively ignoring the facts didn't appear to undermine anyone's support.
December 22, 2015, 6:10pm
Photo by Ruth Fremson/EPA

Honesty isn't the first adjective that leaps to mind when describing politicians. But at some point over the past year, acknowledging the truth went from being pretty necessary for US presidential candidates to something that was fully optional — facts were fine to have in 2015, but actively ignoring them didn't appear to undermine anyone's support.

"It's not quite clear that reality matters to the electorate right now," remarked David Brooks, conservative political commentator for the New York Times, of the Republican primary race during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press in September. "There are some people who are great campaigners and some people that are good in reality, and so far the good in reality people aren't doing so good in the polls."


This take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward reality went along with the "outsider" obsession that also swept the race this year. Contenders like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Bernie Sanders have enjoyed wide support for being seen as antidotes to a dysfunctional establishment, manifested in their plainspoken willingness to "tell it like it is." Whether or not "it" is actually true doesn't seem to matter quite as much. In fact, the routine disavowal of facts by GOP candidates Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina might actually have helped their standing in the race.

In remembrance of our forgotten friend, the truth, here are some of the biggest false statements the candidates made this year.

Donald Trump saying Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals
No one led the charge in brazen false statements this year — and then doubled down after being called out on them — more so than Donald Trump. The reality TV star steadily ascended to frontrunner status after opening his campaign with a speech broadly smearing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug traffickers.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you…. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems," he said at his Manhattan Trump Tower in June. "They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people — but I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we're getting."


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Besides the statement being just plain offensive, it was also empirically false. As the Washington Post noted, there is no evidence to support the claim that immigrants commit violent crimes at rates higher than native-born citizens — or, for that matter, that the Mexican government is purposefully sending over people that do. Furthermore, crime statistics and data compiled by the American Immigration Council show that immigrants are actually less likely to be criminals or engage in violent behavior than native-born citizens.

Despite provoking widespread outrage, Trump continued to defend his claim about Mexican immigrants in the following weeks. He told Business Insider that the Mexican government is "pushing the bad ones in here." Then, just in case anyone still was unsure of his position, he released a statement shortly afterward saying, "What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc."

Carly Fiorina and the Planned Parenthood videos
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO blasted Planned Parenthood during the second Republican debate in September with a grisly but questionable claim.

"As regards Planned Parenthood… I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes," she said, describing footage she said she had seen that was supposedly from one of the organization's clinics. "Watch a fully-formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' "


Fiorina's passionate performance during this debate was heavily praised and caused her to briefly surge in the polls, even though it quickly became doubtful whether the video she described even existed. Fiorina, it turned out, was describing someone else's account of watching a video.

But despite agreement among fact checkers that the footage was, at the very least, not what Fiorina had described, she did not back down. Several days after the debate, Fox News' Chris Wallace asked her, "Do you acknowledge what every fact checker has found, that as horrific as that scene is, it was only described on the video by someone who claimed to have seen it, there is no actual footage of the incident that you just mentioned?"

"No," she responded, "I don't accept that at all. I've seen the footage. And I find it amazing, actually, that all these supposed fact checkers in the mainstream media claim this doesn't exist. They're trying to attack the authenticity of the videotape."

Related: Senate Votes to Defund Planned Parenthood, Obama Promises Veto

Gregg Cunningham of the Center for Biomedical Ethics, an anti-abortion group, later released 13 minutes of footage that he said was relevant to Fiorina's description, but it lacked audio and raised still more questions. There was no evidence that the scene Fiorina claimed to have seen took place in a Planned Parenthood facility or involved an abortion. Cunningham wouldn't confirm or deny that it had anything to do with Planned Parenthood, and medical experts who reviewed the footage said that it looked like a hospital miscarriage or premature birth, not an abortion.


Planned Parenthood did receive money for donating fetal tissue to medical research, but it stopped accepting reimbursements after the controversy, incited in part by Fiorina's video claims.

Hillary Clinton on gun control
During a campaign rally in Iowa on October 7, Clinton criticized legislation that "protect[s] gun sellers and gun makers from liability," saying that "they are the only business in America that is wholly protected from any kind of liability. They can sell a gun to someone they know they shouldn't, and they won't be sued. There will be no consequences."

Politifact checked Clinton's claim and labeled it as false. Clinton was referring to a law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which protects gun manufactures from being sued if and when their product is used to kill someone or commit a crime. Politifact determined that Clinton's statements were misleading because, while it is true that gun sellers are protected from some lawsuits, they can still be held liable in certain instances, such as if the dealer knowingly sells to someone planning on using it illegally or if the gun violates regulations.

Furthermore, the gun business is far from the only industry that is protected from consumer lawsuits — airlines and toy manufacturers have similar legal protections.

Mike Huckabee on climate change
When the former governor of Arkansas was asked about climate change on Meet the Press in June, he responded by saying, "Whether it's man-made or not, I know that when I was in college I was being taught that if we didn't act very quickly, that we were going to be entering a global freezing. And, you know, go back and look at the covers of Time and Newsweek from the early '70s. And we were told that if we didn't do something by 1980, we'd be popsicles. Now we're told that we're all burning up. Science is not as settled on that as it is on some things."


Actually, the science is pretty much settled. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler gave Huckabee's statement four Pinocchios, the highest rating for it being categorically false. As Kessler points out, the scientific consensus is (and has been for a while) that increased levels of carbon dioxide as a result of human activity is causing the earth to gradually warm. There have been cyclical cooling periods, which Huckabee apparently read about in college, but these are far outweighed by the earth's overall increase in temperature. Even Newsweek has admitted that it was wrong to publish the story that Huckabee was referring to, which warned of an impending Ice Age.

Donald Trump insisting that "thousands" of Muslims celebrated after 9/11
"I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down," Trump said at a November 21 rally in Birmingham, Alabama. "And I watched in Jersey City, NJ, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering."

This claim was made and debunked plenty of times in the years after the 9/11 attacks, so it did not take long for the national media to point out that Trump's statement was completely false. Local news reports refuted the story years ago, including Newark's Star-Ledger, which wrote on September 18, 2001, "rumors of rooftop celebrations of the attack by Muslims here proved unfounded."


Related: Police Union Endorses Donald Trump Despite His Controversial Muslim Ban Proposal

Politicians and law enforcement agents who were actually there during 9/11 also said that Trump's description of thousands of people celebrating was pure fiction. Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, tweeted that Trump either "has memory issues or willfully distorts the truth," while fellow Republican candidate George Pataki, who was governor of New York during 9/11, also disputed Trump's claim.

Despite the resounding evidence that Trump had either fibbed or didn't know what he was talking about, the presidential candidate spent much of the following weeks asserting that he was correct. When confronted about it by George Stephanopolous of ABC News, Trump insisted that "there were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations."

"It was well covered at the time, George," he added. "Now, I know they don't like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time."

Trump still has yet to budge.

Ben Carson saying that Chinese forces are in Syria
During the fourth Republican debate in November, moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Carson if he supported President Barack Obama's decision to put 50 special operations forces in Syria and leave 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan. He replied that having US forces on the ground in Syria was better than not having them there.


"We also must recognize that it's a very complex place," Carson went on. "You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there."

It did not take long for fact checkers to pounce on Carson's statement and quickly determine that it was both untrue and kind of bizarre. In response, the Carson campaign first tried to insist that his claim was valid, sending the Washington Post a 2013 report from an Arab blog that speculated that Chinese troops were arriving in Syria. An advisor for Carson's campaign also told Business Insider that he had been given unconfirmed intelligence reports showing Chinese advisors in Syria. This was entirely unconfirmed, prompting Chinese media to call the claims "speculative nonsense," according to Reuters.

After it became clear that Chinese military personnel were not actually in Syria, the campaign then quickly backtracked and attempted to explain that Carson actually just meant that the Chinese were providing tactical support in the conflict.

But Carson's attempt to dismiss his misstatement wasn't convincing, especially after one of his top policy advisors publicly acknowledged that it was a struggle to get the former neurosurgeon to grasp foreign policy. "Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East," Duane Clarridge told the New York Times in November.

Oh, well — at least he's not the only one.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @Obecker928