FactChecking the First GOP Debate
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We found false and misleading claims on abortion, crime, climate change and more.
Several candidates claimed that Democrats support allowing abortions “up to the moment of birth,” but what Democrats support is an exception for bans on abortion after fetal viability if the mother’s health is at risk.
Former Vice President Mike Pence claimed a fetus is “capable of feeling pain” at 15 weeks of gestation, but research indicates it would be much later than that, around 24 weeks.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy blamed the closure of mental health institutions for “a spike in violent crime.” But there isn’t evidence that the shuttering of such facilities measurably increased crime. Most violence is committed by people without mental illnesses.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley claimed Ramaswamy would “stop funding Israel.” Ramaswamy did propose winding down military aid, but claimed it wouldn’t be necessary under certain conditions.
Ramaswamy said “the climate change agenda is a hoax” and causes more deaths than “actual climate change.” The U.N. climate panel has said that the “evidence is now ‘unequivocal’ that humans are causing global warming,” and the World Health Organization has called climate change “the single biggest health threat facing humanity.”
Also on climate change, Haley said China and India — and not the U.S. — is “where our problem is.” But the U.S. emits more carbon dioxide than India and emits more CO2 per capita than both countries.
Pence wrongly claimed that the Trump/Pence administration “reduced illegal immigration and asylum abuse by 90%.” Border apprehensions went up over the administration’s term.
Sen. Tim Scott revived a false narrative that the Department of Justice labeled parents complaining at school board meetings “domestic terrorists.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that “crime is at a 50-year low in Florida.” The rate has been declining for decades, and experts have cautioned that the 2021 data cannot be compared to prior years due to a new method of crime reporting.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that there are conservative legal scholars who believe Donald Trump “may be disqualified under the 14th Amendment from being president again, as a result of the insurrection.” That’s true, but there are other legal scholars who disagree.
DeSantis boasted that in Florida “we eliminated critical race theory from our K through 12 schools,” but there is little or no evidence that it was being taught in public schools anyway.
The debate, which also included former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, was held on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee and hosted by Fox News.
DeSantis, Scott and Hutchinson all misleadingly claimed that Democrats support allowing abortions “all the way up to the moment of birth,” as DeSantis put it. Pence claimed that a fetus is “capable of feeling pain” at 15 weeks of gestation, but that’s unproven.
We’ll start with the first claim. As we’ve explained before, Democrats in Congress support legislation that would bar states from prohibiting abortion after a fetus is viable outside the womb in cases where the patient’s life or health is at risk. Republicans object to the health exception, claiming the bill would allow abortion on demand at any point in a pregnancy.
Mary Ziegler, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis and the author of six books on the abortion debate and the law, told us that “Republicans view those health exceptions as sort of like a blanket permission to have an abortion whenever you want.” Democrats say “it’s an exception for life or health.”
Hutchinson singled out President Joe Biden, claiming he was “pushing for a Democrat proposal which is, in essence, abortion on demand through the term. So they have their extreme position at a national level.” But the bill in Congress, the Women’s Health Protection Act, mirrors the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade in allowing exceptions for the life and health of the mother post-viability.
The court opinion in Roe said the government can’t interfere with a right to an abortion in the first trimester, but it could restrict or prohibit abortions once a fetus is viable outside the womb. But Roe, and a companion case decided the same day, required exceptions after viability for the life and health of the mother, meaning both physical and mental health.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of abortions in the U.S. occur early in pregnancy. The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 93.1% of abortions were performed at or before 13 weeks of gestation and less than 1% were performed at or after 21 weeks.
Scott claimed that three states — California, New York and Illinois — “have abortions on demand up until the day of birth.” Those states prohibit abortions after viability but have exceptions for endangerment to the life and health of the mother, according to the Guttmacher Institute. New York also allows for an exception for a fetal abnormality.
As for Pence, he said: “Can’t we have a minimum standard in every state in the nation that says when a baby is capable of feeling pain an abortion cannot be allowed? A 15 week ban is an idea whose time has come. It’s supported by 70% of the American people.” He later added: “70% of the American people support legislation to ban abortion after a baby is capable of experiencing pain.”
We couldn’t find the poll Pence referenced. A Gallup poll conducted in May found that 70% of Americans opposed abortion in the third trimester, but that begins at 28 weeks. Similarly, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in June found that about two-thirds of Americans supported barring abortion at 24 weeks.
We examined the issue of fetal pain in 2015 and found that it was a complicated topic, with no firm starting point for a developing fetus to feel pain. At the time, Republicans were claiming that a fetus could experience pain at 20 weeks, but the published research generally said it wasn’t possible until after that point.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that the concept of pain occurs several weeks later than that. “The science conclusively establishes that a human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24–25 weeks,” ACOG says on its website. “Every major medical organization that has examined this issue and peer-reviewed studies on the matter have consistently reached the conclusion that abortion before this point does not result in the perception of pain in a fetus.”
Mental Health and Violent Crime
Ramaswamy claimed without evidence that closing mental institutions, which began in the 1950s in the U.S., is responsible for a rise in violent crime.
“And we also have a mental health epidemic in this country. Just over the same period that we have closed mental health institutions we have seen a spike in violent crime,” he said. “Do we have the spine to bring them back? I think we should, and as president, I will.”
“But it’s not just drugging up people in those psychiatric institutions with Zoloft and Seroquel,” he continued. “We will back law enforcement because we remember who we really are. And that’s also how we address that mental health epidemic in the next generation that is directly leading to violent crime.”
As we have written before, people who have serious mental illnesses are more likely than those who do not have such conditions to be violent. But the vast majority of these individuals are never violent — and most violence is committed by people who do not have psychiatric conditions.
As the American Psychological Association has explained, it’s a myth that a large share of community violence is committed by people with mental illness.
In many cases, people with mental illness who are violent also have substance abuse problems or other issues that increase the risk of violence — factors that also affect those without such illnesses. Only about 3% to 5% of all violence, according to one study, is attributable to mental illness alone. The best predictor of violence, experts say, is violent behavior, not any kind of diagnosis.
It’s worth noting that violent crime in the U.S. is at a relatively low point, historically. The latest data, from 2021, shows the violent crime rate is nearly half of what it was at its peak in the early 1990s.
Ramaswamy’s Proposal on Military Aid for Israel
As expected, Haley pressed Ramaswamy on his proposal to wind down military aid to Israel, claiming he would “stop funding Israel.”
Ramaswamy denied that claim, calling it “false” and accusing Haley of lying. The candidate has recently explained that he would fulfill the U.S. aid obligation through 2028, which is required by a 2016 agreement that had renewed previous aid packages. It provides $3.8 billion per year to the Jewish state.
Ramaswamy says that he plans to broker a deal that would normalize relations between Israel and some of its neighbors, effectively lifting the need for U.S. military aid to the country. He has called the plan: “Abraham Accords 2.0,” which is a reference to diplomatic agreements signed in 2020 and 2021 between Israel and four Arab countries — Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco.
“I want to get Israel to the place where it is negotiated back into the infrastructure of the rest of the Middle East,” Ramaswamy told Russell Brand, an actor turned conservative commentator, on the Aug. 11 episode of Brand’s Rumble show. “That’s good for Israel, it’s good for the rest of the Middle East, it’s good for us, such that come 2028, that additional aid won’t be necessary.”
It is, of course, unclear how feasible it is for that plan to work as Ramaswamy intends, and conservative commentators have criticized it. A recent column in the National Review blasting the candidate’s foreign policy proposals said, “foreign aid to Israel isn’t a mere charity; it’s a strategic investment.”
And, similarly, conservative radio host Mark Levin posted a lengthy response to Ramaswamy on X, the platform formerly called Twitter, saying in part, “Israel is an ally in a very dangerous part of the world. We need Israel as a counterweight to Iran, Syria, terrorist organizations, etc.”
It’s also worth noting that this proposal is a departure from what Ramaswamy had campaigned on earlier this year.
In May, he echoed the more common conservative theory expressed by Levin and the National Review. He told a New Hampshire voter who asked about treating Israel as an apartheid state and ending military aid: “Our interests are what guide me to be an unapologetic supporter of Israel. In a part of the world where we have very few reliable allies, Israel has been our most reliable one for the last 40 to 50 years.”
And in February, when an Iowa voter asked Ramaswamy broadly about his stance on Israel, Ramaswamy said that he favored “a policy that still stands with Israel in the Middle East,” but he went on to invoke U.S. military aid to Ukraine and suggested that the U.S. should focus on domestic issues.
So, Ramaswamy’s platform regarding aid for Israel has evolved over the course of the year, but what Haley said wasn’t exactly what Ramaswamy has proposed.
Early in the debate, host Martha MacCallum asked for a show of hands: Who believes that human behavior is causing climate change? DeSantis short-circuited the response by asking for a debate, rather than a show of hands.
In his response, Ramaswamy falsely said “the climate change agenda is a hoax” and causes more deaths than “actual climate change.”
Ramaswamy: I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this — the climate change agenda is a hoax. … And the reality is, the anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy. And so the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.
The fact is, climate scientists have long since established that human activity is the primary cause of global warming. In 2007, and most recently in its report issued last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said there is “unequivocal” evidence that humans are causing global warming.
“Aside from temperature, other clearly discernible, human-induced changes beyond natural variations include declines in Arctic Sea ice and glaciers, thawing of permafrost, and a strengthening of the global water cycle,” the IPCC said in its recent report. “Oceanic changes include rising sea level, acidification, deoxygenation, and changing salinity. … Over land, in recent decades, both frequency and severity have increased for hot extremes but decreased for cold extremes; intensification of heavy precipitation is observed in parallel with a decrease in available water in dry seasons, along with an increased occurrence of weather conditions that promote wildfires.”
We are not aware of any deaths caused by “bad climate change policies,” but the World Health Organization has said “climate change is already killing us.” The WHO has called climate change “the single biggest health threat facing humanity.”
“Climate change is already impacting health in a myriad of ways, including by leading to death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, the disruption of food systems, increases in zoonoses and food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues,” the WHO said in a fact sheet, predicting that climate change will cause about 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050 “from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.”
As we have written, the U.S. Department of Defense and its military leaders have warned that climate change is a threat to national security. Gen. Mark Milley, who has been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Biden and Trump, testified at a House hearing in 2020 that climate change will cause an increase in diseases, destabilization and a depletion of natural resources. “And does it impact on U.S. national security? Yes it does,” he said.
In her response, Haley said climate change is real, but said China and India — and not the U.S. — is “where our problem is.”
But the U.S. emits more carbon dioxide than India and emits more CO2 per capita than both countries.
According to the European Commission’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, “China, the United States, the EU27, India, Russia and Japan,” in that order, were the world’s largest CO2 emitters in 2021, accounting for 67.8% of global CO2 emissions. When measured by emissions per capita, the U.S. ranked higher than China and India. The U.S. emitted an average of 14.24 tons per person, and China’s and India’s averages were 8.73 and 1.90 tons per person, respectively.
Pence wrongly claimed that the Trump/Pence administration “reduced illegal immigration and asylum abuse by 90%.”
Pence has made this claim a few times. As we’ve written before, apprehensions at the southern border actually went up over Trump’s entire time in office. They were 14.7% higher in Trump’s final year in office compared with the last full year before he was sworn in.
Apprehensions decreased in Trump’s first year in office, by 43% compared with 2016, the year before he was sworn in. However, in 2018 and 2019 the number of apprehensions began to rise.
PolitiFact, which reported on this claim in 2022, found that Pence could claim about a 90% drop if he used the month during the administration with the highest number of apprehensions — May 2019 — and the month with the lowest number– April 2020. But that clearly doesn’t reflect the administration’s full term.
As for “asylum abuse,” that’s likely a reference to limits on asylum eligibility and the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program that Trump instituted. The program sent non-Mexican asylum seekers who crossed the southern border back to Mexico while their claims moved through immigration courts.
DOJ Did Not Call Parents ‘Domestic Terrorists’
Scott said the public has lost confidence in the justice system, and he said if elected president he would immediately fire U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray. While making his argument, Scott revived a false Republican talking point about the Department of Justice labeling parents at school board meetings “domestic terrorists.”
Scott: We keep seeing not only the weaponization of the Department of Justice against political opponents, but also against parents who show up at school board meetings. They’re called, under this DOJ, they’re called domestic terrorists.
As we have written, Garland testified before Congress that he couldn’t even “imagine a circumstance” where “parents complaining” at a school board meeting would be “labeled as domestic terrorism.”
What’s true is that on Sept. 29, 2021, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to the White House warning about a growing number of threats and acts of violence against public school board members and other public school district officials — mainly over the issues of mask mandates and “propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula.” The NSBA argued that some violent threats against school officials “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism” that would warrant the intervention of federal law enforcement. In response, Garland directed his agency to review strategies to address violent threats and harassment against school boards, but he didn’t use the NSBA’s “terrorism” language — and the NSBA later apologized for using it.
During a congressional oversight hearing on Oct. 21, 2021, Garland said repeatedly that he considered parents voicing concerns at school board meetings to be protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech.
“I do not believe that parents who testify, speak, argue with, complain about school boards and schools should be classified as domestic terrorists or any kind of criminals,” Garland said. “Parents have been complaining about the education of their children and about school boards since there were such things as school boards and public education. This is totally protected by the First Amendment. I take your point that true threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment. Those are the things we’re worried about here.”
Crime in Florida
When asked about his policies to deter crime, DeSantis boasted that “crime is at a 50-year low in Florida.”
But as we’ve written, experts caution not to read too much into the 2021 data, because there was a significant switch that year in the way data was reported, and much of Florida’s law enforcement community had not switched to the new reporting method.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida’s overall crime rate in 2021 — which includes violent and property crimes — was 1,952.3 crimes per 100,000 residents, a roughly 9.5% drop from the rate in 2020. (DeSantis took office in January 2019.)
The 2021 overall crime rate was the lowest since 1971, which is as far back as the state reports the statistic. That would make it the lowest total crime rate in at least the last 50 years, as DeSantis said.
However, the rate has been steadily declining for three decades. In fact, the state has achieved the lowest crime rate on record in every year since 2008, including DeSantis’ first two years in office.
Data experts also caution there is a large caveat with the 2021 data that makes comparisons to previous years precarious. For 2021, the FBI switched to a new method of crime data reporting, using an “incident-based” system instead of a “summary-based” one in which only the most egregious offenses in an incident are reported, even when multiple crimes may have been committed.
In Florida, 239 law enforcement agencies representing 57.5% of the state’s population submitted data using the old, summary-based crime statistics in 2021. In addition, 29 law enforcement agencies had transitioned to incident-based crime reporting, and another 140 were in the process of transitioning.
FDLE says the new incident-based reporting method will provide “more robust and dynamic crime reporting.” But until data is collected uniformly, comparisons to previous years may be skewed.
“I would say these are provisional data and should be treated with some caution,” Richard B. Rosenfeld, a criminologist and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the Tampa Bay Times in December.
Trump and the 14th Amendment
When host Bret Baier asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would still support Donald Trump as the GOP nominee if he is convicted of a crime, Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie were the only ones who did not.
Hutchinson said he did not raise his hand because he believes Trump’s role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 “morally disqualified” him from being president again. Hutchinson also said that there are even some “conservative legal scholars who say he may be disqualified under the 14th Amendment from being president again, as a result of the insurrection.”
As Forbes wrote in an article this week, William Baude, Michael Stokes Paulsen, Steven Calabresi and J. Michael Luttig are all conservative legal minds who have written that Trump could be barred from office under the 14th Amendment, which says, in Section 3, that “no person shall … hold any office” in federal or state government if they have taken an oath of office and “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the U.S. “or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
For example, Baude and Paulsen, in a forthcoming law review article currently published as a preprint, argued that Section 3 is “self-executing, operating as an immediate disqualification from office,” which does not require additional action by Congress.
“It can and should be enforced by every official, state or federal, who judges qualifications,” they wrote. “It covers a broad range of former offices, including the Presidency. And in particular, it disqualifies former President Donald Trump, and potentially many others, because of their participation in the attempted over-throw of the 2020 presidential election.”
But not all legal scholars agree, as Forbes also pointed out.
Noah Feldman, of Harvard Law, argued that an 1869 circuit court opinion said that Section 3 was “not automatically enforceable” without an act by Congress — contrary to what Baude and Paulsen wrote.
Also, Michael McConnell, of Stanford Law, wrote that he worried “too loose an interpretation” of Section 3 could empower “partisan politicians such as state Secretaries of State to disqualify their political opponents from the ballot, depriving voters of the ability to elect candidates of their choice.”
Critical Race Theory
DeSantis argued that the U.S. education system is in “decline,” and he vowed that if he were elected president, he would eliminate the federal Department of Education.
DeSantis said schools need to focus on “solid academics” rather than “indoctrination,” and he boasted that “in Florida we eliminated critical race theory from our K through 12 schools.” But as we wrote when DeSantis made a similar claim in a speech announcing his presidential bid, there wasn’t really anything to eliminate.
In April 2022, DeSantis signed the Individual Freedom Act, which bans public school teachers and Florida College System instructors from teaching that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” It doesn’t actually mention the phrase “critical race theory.”
Critical race theory started as an advanced legal theory taught at Harvard University in the 1980s by law professor Derrick Bell. It accepts that institutional racism exists and needs to be better understood in order to address racial inequality. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Harvard law student at the time who is now a law professor at Columbia University, has been credited with coining the phrase “critical race theory.”
At her Senate confirmation hearings, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson defined CRT as “an academic theory that’s at the law school level.” Most teachers say critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12 schools. In 2021, the Association of American Educators surveyed more than 1,000 educators and 96% of those surveyed said they were not required to teach it.
In a 2022 report on state efforts to ban critical race theory in public schools, UCLA education researchers wrote that critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12 schools. They said the term “critical race theory” has been co-opted by conservative activists who seek “to restrict or ‘ban’ curriculum, lessons, professional development, and district equity and diversity efforts addressing … race, racism, diversity, and inclusion.”