Key fact checks from the first US presidential debate of 2020

Trump spread the most misinformation on Tuesday, while Biden also made several misleading claims.

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden squared off in the first presidential debate on Tuesday [Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press]

The first presidential debate proved a chaotic affair that at times had more shouting and cross talk than policy.

However, claims made by President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden kept fact-checkers busy during the fiery 90-minute event in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday night.

Here are some key fact checks from the night on the coronavirus, racial justice protests, the economy, and voting.


When it came to the coronavirus, one of the most pressing issues facing the country, Trump made the audacious claim that the death toll in the US, which is currently more than 200,000, would be 10 times higher if Biden had been president, while saying children are not vulnerable to the disease.

Those two claims were among many the president made that were false and misleading.

The accusation that there would be a higher death toll under Biden is predicated on the false assertion that Biden opposed Trump’s early February China travel restrictions. While Biden was slow in staking a position on the matter, when he finally did, he supported the restrictions.

The claim also echoed Trump’s repeated insistence that he banned travel from China. While the president restricted travel, he still allowed travel from the territories of Hong Kong and Macao.

The Associated Press news agency reported that more than 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals based in the two locales entered the US in the first three months after the travel restrictions were imposed, while more than 27,000 Americans returned from mainland China in the first month after the restrictions took effect. US officials lost track of more than 1,600 of them who were supposed to be monitored for virus exposure.

People watch the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden [Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency]

The president also asserted there have not been any outbreaks related to his campaign rallies, which have been widely criticised for not adhering to crowd limits, social distancing, and mask-wearing.

“So far we have had no problem whatsoever. It’s outside, that’s a big difference according to the experts. We have tremendous crowds,” Trump said.

That statement is false. Following Trump’s indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in late June, which drew thousands of participants, the Tulsa City-County Health Department director said the rally “likely contributed” to a dramatic surge in new coronavirus cases there.

While there has not been contact-tracing to determine the exact effect of the rally on the outbreak in the city, Trump does not have the information to assert there have been “no problems whatsoever”.

By the first week of July, Tulsa County was confirming more than 200 new daily cases, setting record highs. That is more than twice the number the week before the rally.

Meanwhile, Biden claimed Trump still has no plan to respond to the coronavirus. That is also false.

While the merits of the Trump administration plan can be debated, Trump in September laid out the most detailed plan to date on how it would distribute vaccines, while showing how the government would make the vaccine free of cost.

Biden also misleadingly said Trump would no longer provide masks for schools. According to, while one federal programme to pay for masks has ended, another is aiming to provide 125 million masks to schools.

Protests and crime

Both candidates made misleading or false statements in regard to continuing protests sparked following the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minnesota in May.

Trump has repeatedly seized on the at-times violent unrest, particularly in Portland, Oregon, to push a “law and order” message that says cities and suburbs are under threat from violent agitators.

On Tuesday, Trump said: “The (Portland, Oregon) sheriff just came out today and he said I support President Trump.”

That claim is false. The sheriff of Multnomah County, Oregon, which encompasses Portland, said he does not support Trump, tweeting: “As the Multnomah County Sheriff I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him.”

Meanwhile, Biden, referencing a June 1 incident in Lafayette Square, in Washington, DC said: “There was a peaceful protest in front of the White House. What did [Trump] do? He came out of his bunker, had the military do tear gas.”

That statement includes false claims: It was law enforcement, not the military, that used chemical irritants to forcefully remove peaceful protesters from the square.

There is also no evidence Trump was inside a “bunker” in the White House as the clearing took place.

President Donald trump debates presidential nominee Joe BidenTrump and Biden made several misleading or false claims during the debate [File: Morry Gash/Reuters]

Secret Service agents had rushed Trump to a White House bunker days earlier as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the executive mansion, some of them throwing rocks and tugging at police barricades.


Meanwhile, when it comes to crime, both candidates also made misleading claims, with Biden overstating the drop in violent crime during his eight years in office as part of the administration of former President Barack Obama.

“The fact of the matter is violent crime went down 17 percent, 15 percent, in our administration,” Biden said.

Overall, the number of violent crimes fell roughly 10 percent from 2008, the year before Biden took office as vice president, to 2016, his last full year in the office, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting programme.

However, the number of violent crimes was spiking again during Obama and Biden’s final two years in office, increasing by 8 percent from 2014 to 2016.

More people were murdered across the US in 2016, for example, than at any other point under the Obama administration.

Biden also said violent crime went up under Trump. That is false, according to The number of violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) actually went down 3.5 percent between 2016 and 2018, and dropped another 3.1 percent in the first six months of 2019.

Trump, for his part, claimed Biden had referred to Black citizens as “super-predators” in support of a controversial 1994 crime bill, which is largely credited with leading to mass incarceration in the country.

The phrase was actually used by Hillary Clinton in 1996 referring to “kids” in gangs. There is no evidence Biden used that phrase.

Economy and Trade

In terms of the economy, Biden claimed Trump will be the “first [president] in American history” to lose jobs during his presidency.

The AP news agency noted that claim is false. While Trump would be the first president to lose jobs since the government began recording official job numbers in 1939. Herbert Hoover lost jobs during his presidency amid the Great Depression, before being voted out of office in 1932.

Trump also made misleading claims about the country’s ability to bounce back from the pandemic recession, touting the record job increases in recent months.

While increases have set records following the worst job losses in March and April, according to Politifact, Trump neglected to give the wider context: That employment still remains down by about 11.5 million jobs from before the pandemic began.


During the debate, Trump also made several false statements about voting, continuing his unfounded claims that mail-in voting leads to high rates of fraud. Experts have said there is no evidence to support that claim. About half of US voters are expected to vote by mail in November.

Trump referenced an instance in West Virginia of “mailmen selling ballots”.

While a mail carrier in West Virginia pleaded guilty to attempting to commit election fraud, it was not related to selling ballots, according to Politifact, who could not find any evidence of mail deliverers selling ballots in the state.

Instead, the mail carrier in West Virginia, Thomas Cooper, admitted to altering some party ballot request forms during the primary, changing the registration from Democrat to Republican.

He later told authorities the action was a joke.

Trump also falsely claimed “poll watchers” were thrown out of a Philadelphia polling site on Tuesday.

He was apparently referring to an incident involving a new satellite office the city had opened for a new form of early voting. The office is not a polling place and no permits have been issued for poll watchers there, a city official told local media.

Nevertheless, a woman showed up at a satellite office on Tuesday and said she was there to monitor the election. She did not provide any proof she was a poll watcher and was turned away.

Nazdar Barzani contributed research.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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