Readers’ guide to the State of the Union
When Trump gave his State of the Union address last year, he was coming off one of the highest points in his presidency. He had just signed a huge tax cut into law and removed the Obamacare mandate penalty. Both the House and Senate were controlled by Republicans, and he was enjoying some of his highest approval ratings as president.
Tonight, Trump is delivering his address in the wake of the longest government shutdown in US history. The House has been taken over by Democrats, funding for the border wall is still off the table in negotiations, he remains hounded by the Robert Mueller investigation, and his approval rating remains around 40%.
According to one senior administration official, the theme of Trump’s speech is “choosing greatness.” Topics are set to include the economy, immigration, trade, healthcare, and foreign policy. “It’s going to be a speech that’s going to cover a lot of territory,” Trump told reporters last week.
As a pre-SOTU guide, we’ve taken a look at the President’s recent rhetoric and the facts around the topics he may touch on.
Immigration and The Wall
More than anything else, the issues of immigration and border security have consumed Trump’s first two years in office. Here’s a look at some recent talking points and whether they’re true.
“You don’t bring trucks of drugs through the checkpoints. You bring trucks of drugs by making a right 20 miles, and a left into the country. …they bring massive amounts of drugs, and they do it because there’s no barrier.”
Trump said this in an interview with the New York Times last week, and according to Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs and Border Protection data, it’s incorrect.
Trump made a similar claim last week when he announced a potentially temporary end to the government shutdown. But, according to data from the DEA and the CBP, this is not true. In fact, in the DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment the agency reported that marijuana was the one drug where the majority coming across the southern border came in the US between ports of entry. “Unlike other illicit drugs,” according to the analysis, “the majority of marijuana smuggled into the United States occurs between the ports of entry on both the northern and southern borders.” For example, the CBP seized 67,292 pounds of methamphetamine at legal ports of entry and 10,382 pounds by Border Patrol agents in between ports last fiscal year.
“The wall will also be paid for indirectly by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.”
We can’t see how. The President made this claim during his immigration speech last month. Here’s what we found:
Trump long ago abandoned his 2016 campaign promise that Mexico would pay to build a wall. Instead, he now makes the case that Mexico will “indirectly” pay for the barrier, thanks to the potential increase in tax revenue generated by his replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement. (See more on these trade agreements below.)
But the new deal hasn’t yet been ratified by Congress, where Democrats have expressed opposition. And even if the new United States Mexico Canada Agreement ends up raising tax revenue, there’s nothing earmarking that money for a wall. Income and corporate taxes are general revenue that would have to be appropriated by Congress.
Another way trade could bring money into the Treasury is through tariffs — which are paid by American importers when they buy foreign goods. But like the original NAFTA, the new deal aims to keep trade between the three countries largely tariff-free.
“Every day, Customs and Border Patrol agents encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country.”
This isn’t quite right. The claim also comes from Trump’s recent speech on immigration, and it’s one he’s thrown around before. We took a look:
Available Customs and Border Protection data shows a total of 396,579 people were apprehended by the US Border Patrol for fiscal year 2018 at the southwest border, which would mean an average of 1,087 each day — hardly the “thousands” that Trump purports. The numbers differ each month. The highest number of apprehensions was in September, with a daily average of nearly 1,400.
Apprehensions are still well below historic highs. In the early 2000s, for example, annual apprehensions routinely topped 1 million. After hitting an historic low in 2017 of around 300,000, apprehensions increased in fiscal year 2018 to nearly 400,000.
The President also expressed concern about what he called “a growing humanitarian crisis.” There’s been an uptick in unaccompanied minors and families approaching the US-Mexico border, many of whom are seeking asylum. Deteriorating conditions in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) are among the reasons that some have decided to make the journey.
In 2016, nearly half of the people apprehended at the US-Mexico border came from these three countries, compared with roughly 10% in 2010, according to Homeland Security Department data.
“Our backlog in the immigration courts is now far greater than the 800,000 cases that you’ve been hearing back over the last couple of years.”
Trump made this claim during his speech on immigration during the government shutdown last month, and — as we found at the time — it’s true:
The nation’s immigration courts have been faced with a massive backlog. The number of pending cases stands at 809,041, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks immigration court data.
The government shutdown made that worse, as only courts that handle detained dockets (the cases of people who are in immigration detention) were allowed to proceed. A report released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse last month found that an estimated 42,726 immigration court hearings had been canceled as a result of the shutdown. It’s unclear when they’ll be rescheduled.
Terrorists and the southern border
In our fact check on Trump’s border wall, we examined claims from the administration around terrorists and the border. Here’s what we found:
For months, Trump has raised the specter of “terrorists” crossing the US-Mexico border. He brought this up repeatedly before the 2018 midterms when a caravan of migrants, primarily from impoverished Central American countries, marched through Mexico toward the US border.
These claims were debunked at the time as exaggerations and speculation. Though they’ve made a comeback this year. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was fact-checked live on Fox News when she said “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”
DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried to massage the narrative with a series of tweets: “The number of terror-watchlisted encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years. The exact number is sensitive and details about these cases are extremely sensitive.”
Recent reporting revealed that the actual number encountered on the southern border is nowhere near the staggering 4,000 figure. An administration official told CNN that only about a dozen non-citizens on the terrorist watch list who were stopped at the US-Mexico border in fiscal year 2018. That is a tiny fraction of all known or suspected terrorists who tried to enter or travel to the US in that timeframe.
Additionally, a State Department report from 2016 said there was “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico” to sneak into the United States.
“I cannot think of a single example of a terrorism case where somebody came over the southern border to infiltrate the United States,” said Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst who has tracked hundreds of terrorism cases. “It’s sort of a non-problem.”
Bergen noted that the most notorious case of a terrorist apprehended at the US border is the “millennium plot,” when an Algerian citizen with ties to al-Qaeda was arrested at the US-Canada border in December 1999. He hoped to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.
Trump continues to cite the strong US economy (particularly robust job numbers) as evidence of his success in the White House. He’s paid particular attention to the impact the economy has had for minorities, continuing to note that unemployment numbers for Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans are at record lows, as he did last fall:
“Hispanic American, African-American and Asian-American unemployment all recently achieved their lowest rates ever recorded in the history of our country.”
This is essentially true, but the numbers have ticked up in recent months. CNN fact checked this claim last year, noting up front that it’s not really possible to determine whether these rates are the lowest in history because the available data simply doesn’t go back that far. That said, Trump is essentially right on all three counts, since all three measures are the lowest since they started being recorded. The Hispanic unemployment rate reached its lowest point on record in July, at 4.5% and has since increased to 4.9%. The rate for African-Americans reached its lowest point on record in May, at 5.9%, and now stands at 6.8%. The rate for Asians also reached its lowest point in May, at 2.0%, and has since increased to 3.1%.
Most Americans working, ever
Trump likes to claim that more people are working now than at any point in the history of the United States.
As we noted in our 48-Hour Fact Check from October of last year, this is essentially true, though it’s been true for a while now. Employment has been growing steadily since the bottom of the recession in 2010, and it now stands over 150 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s well above the pre-recession peak of 138.4 million from January 2008, which was regained in May 2014, when the number of working Americans hit 138.6 million, according to payroll data. As a share of the total population, however, employment remains a touch below its all-time high in 2000.
The President has spent a lot of time touting the resurgence of manufacturing jobs, as he did during an interview with the New York Times last week:
“We’ve created over 500,000 manufacturing jobs, and the previous administration lost 200,000 over eight years.”
This is true, but it needs context. By the time former President Barack Obama left office, there were some 190,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than existed at the start of his administration. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The US was in a deep recession when Obama entered the White House in January 2009, and the manufacturing sector was shedding tens of thousands of jobs a month. But the losses stopped by early 2010. Over the next six-plus years, manufacturing jobs rose by more than 800,000.
Under Trump, the pace of growth is certainly faster. During his first two years in office, the economy has added more than 470,000 manufacturing jobs. (According to Market Watch, the manufacturing job growth from August 2017 to August 2018 was “the best 12-month stretch in 23 years.”)
The reason for this result is likely multifaceted. Oil prices dropping, healthy job numbers nationwide, and deregulation are all often cited reasons for the uptick. However, the decline in vehicle sales paired with uncertainty around trade might harm these numbers. Also, while the number of manufacturing jobs continues to increase, the total is still below its pre-recession level.
Trump has also loves to tout the resurgence of the US steel industry
“New and expanded [steel] plants are happening all over the U.S. We have not only saved this important industry, but created many jobs. Also, billions paid to our treasury. A BIG WIN FOR U.S.”
This is a bit misleading. Since Trump took office, some mills have restarted, gone through renovations and been expanded. But it’s important to note that the vast majority of this work was planned years before Trump took office, according to industry analysts.