AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s Syrian mission-accomplished moment
WASHINGTON – As President Donald Trump describes it, the U.S. swooped into an intractable situation in the Middle East, achieved an agreement within hours that had eluded the world for years and delivered a “great day for civilization.”
It was a mission-accomplished moment that other Republican leaders, Democrats and much of the world found unconvincing.
Trump spent much of the past week trying to justify his decision to pull U.S. troops away from America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, leaving those Kurdish fighters vulnerable on several fronts and already reeling from attacks by Turkish forces.
In the process, Trump exaggerated the scope of a deal bringing a temporary cease-fire to Turkish-Kurdish hostilities and mischaracterized the history of the conflict and even the geography of it.
A look at his rhetoric on that topic and other subjects over the past week as well as a sampling of statements from the latest Democratic presidential debate:
TRUMP: “This is a great day for civilization. I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but somewhat unconventional, path. People have been trying to make this ‘Deal” for many years. Millions of lives will be saved. Congratulations to ALL!” – tweet Thursday.
TRUMP: “A lot of things are in that agreement that nobody ever thought possible.” – remarks at Dallas rally Thursday.
THE FACTS: The agreement he is hailing is not nearly as consequential to the prospects for peace as he claims. It provides for s five-day cease-fire in the Turks’ deadly attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, which began after Trump announced he would withdraw U.S. troops.
The agreement requires the Kurds to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border in an arrangement that codifies nearly all of Turkey’s stated goals in the conflict and relieves it of U.S. sanctions.
It imposes no apparent long-term consequences for Turkey’s move against the Kurds, important U.S. partners in the fight against the Islamic State group. Trump calls that fight a mission accomplished despite the U.S. officials’ fears of an IS resurgence.
TRUMP, on the Syrian areas of Turkish-Kurdish conflict: “It’s a lot of sand. They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.” – remarks Wednesday.
THE FACTS: The area of conflict is not known for being particularly sandy. In contrast to Trump’s imagery of arid, worthless land that other countries – not the U.S. – should fight over, it’s actually the breadbasket of Syria.
The area is part of what was historically known as the Fertile Crescent, where settled farming and early civilizations first began.
TRUMP: “We were supposed to be in Syria for one month. That was 10 years ago.” – news conference Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Previous administrations never set a one-month timeline for U.S. involvement in Syria.
The U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria in September 2014. About a year later, the Pentagon said teams of special operations forces began going into Syria to conduct raids and start efforts to partner with the Kurdish forces.
Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it clear to Congress at that time that the Pentagon was ready to expand operations with the Kurds and would continue to do so as needed to battle IS, without setting a specific deadline.
TRUMP: “Our soldiers are mostly gone from the area.” – news conference Wednesday.
THE FACTS: They’re mostly still there.
Close to 30 U.S. troops moved out of two outposts near the border area where the Turkish attack was initially centered. But the bulk of the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria are still in the country.
According to officials, most of the U.S. troops have largely been consolidated into a few locations in the north, including an airfield facility in the western part of the country known as the Kobani landing zone. A couple hundred have left in recent days with military equipment, and officials say the withdrawal will take weeks.
TRUMP: “It’s time to bring our soldiers back home.” – news conference Wednesday.
THE FACTS: That’s not what he’s doing.
While the U.S. has begun what the Pentagon calls a deliberate withdrawal of troops from Syria, Trump himself has said that the 200 to 300 U.S. service members deployed to a southern Syria outpost in Al-Tanf will remain there.
And on Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the current plan calls for all U.S. troops who are leaving Syria to go to western Iraq. They number more than 700.
JOE BIDEN: “I would not have withdrawn the troops, and I would not have withdrawn the additional 1,000 troops that are in Iraq, which are in retreat now, being fired on by Assad’s people.” – Democratic debate on Tuesday.
THE FACTS: The former vice president is wrong. There is no evidence that any of the approximately 1,000 American troops preparing to evacuate from Syria have been fired on by Syrian government forces led by President Bashar Assad. A small group of U.S. troops came under Turkish artillery fire near the town of Kobani last week, without anyone being injured, but there is no indication that Syrian troops have shot at withdrawing Americans.
Also, Biden was addressing the situation in Syria, not Iraq.
WOMEN IN SPACE
TRUMP: “This is the first time for a woman outside of the Space Station. … They’re conducting the first-ever female spacewalk to replace an exterior part of the Space Station.” – speaking to flight engineers Jessica Meir and Christina Koch outside the International Space Station in a teleconference Friday.
THE FACTS: Meir corrected the record, telling Trump: “First of all, we don’t want to take too much credit, because there have been many other female spacewalkers before us. This is just the first time that there have been two women outside at the same time. “
TRUMP: “When I first got in, a general told me we could have had a conflict with someone. Said, Sir, we don’t have ammunition. And I said I never want to hear a president – I just never want to hear somebody have that statement made to them again as president of the United States. We don’t have ammunition. Think of how bad. Now we have so much ammunition we don’t know what to do with it.” – Dallas rally Thursday.
THE FACTS: Trump periodically quotes unidentified generals as saying things that he wants to hear and that are hard to imagine them actually having said. This is no exception. The U.S. doesn’t go to war without sufficient ammunition.
At most, budget constraints may have restricted ammunition for certain training exercises at times and held back the development of new forms of firepower. It’s not unusual for generals to want more people and equipment at their disposal than they have. But they don’t run out of bullets.
ECONOMY and TRADE
TRUMP: “Just out: MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME IS AT THE HIGHEST POINT EVER, EVER, EVER! How about saying it this way, IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!” – tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Another way of saying it is that median household income has been this high before.
Trump also builds his boast on the records of others.
In the Census Bureau’s definitive annual report on income and poverty, it found that median household income in 2018 matched the previous peak of $63,200, in inflation-adjusted dollars, reached in 1999.
While that was a welcome increase after household income fell sharply in the Great Recession, it also suggests that the median American household went back to where it was 19 years ago. (The median is the point where half of households earn more and half earn less).
Household income began rising in 2014, after falling in the aftermath of the recession, and jumped 5.1% in 2015, making its most significance gains in President Barack Obama’s second term.
It grew just 0.9% in 2018, the slowest in three years. The Census Bureau says its data is difficult to compare with previous years because it changed its methods in 2013.
It released a supplemental report showing that, adjusted for those methodological changes, median incomes in 2018 matched those in 1999. A separate census report, which has fewer details on incomes, said last month that median household income has reached a record high, but those data only go back to 2005.
TRUMP, on a World Trade Organization ruling allowing the U.S. to tax impose tariffs on $7.5 billion worth of European imports annually: “I think the WTO award has been testament to a lot of good work by the Trump administration. We never won with the WTO, or essentially never won. Very seldom did we win. And now we’re winning a lot.” – remarks Wednesday before meeting with Italy’s president.
TRUMP: “We didn’t win anything for years practically. Now we’ve won a lot of cases. You know why? Because they know I’ll leave if they don’t treat us fairly.” – Dallas rally Thursday.
THE FACTS: He’s incorrect to say the U.S. never or rarely got any WTO victories under other presidents.
The U.S. has always had a high success rate when it pursues cases against other countries at the WTO. In 2017, trade analyst Daniel Ikenson of the libertarian Cato Institute found that the U.S. had won 91% of time it brought a complaint that ended up being adjudicated by the Geneva-based trade monitor. True, Ikenson noted, the countries bringing complaints tend to win overwhelmingly. That’s because they don’t bother going to the WTO in the first place if they don’t have a pretty strong case.
The WTO announcement culminated a 15-year fight over EU subsidies for Airbus – a fight that began long before Trump was in office.
JULIÁN CASTRO: “Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania actually in the latest jobs data have lost jobs, not gained them.” – Democratic debate.
THE FACTS: No. Figures from the Labor Department show that the former Housing and Urban Development secretary is wrong.
Ohio added jobs in August. So did Michigan. Same with Pennsylvania.
So Castro’s statement is off.
These states do still have economic struggles. Pennsylvania has lost factory jobs since the end of 2018. So has Michigan. And Ohio has shed 100 factory jobs so far this year.
TRUMP: “MORE PEOPLE WORKING TODAY IN THE USA THAN AT ANY TIME IN HISTORY!” – tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: True, but it’s due to population growth, not just steady hiring.
A more relevant measure is the proportion of Americans with jobs, and that is still far below record highs.
According to Labor Department data , 61% of people in the United States 16 years and older were working in September. That’s below the all-time high of 64.7% in April 2000, though higher than the 59.9% when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.
BERNIE SANDERS: “We’re forgetting about the existential threat of climate change.” “Right now the CEOs in the fossil fuel industry know full well that their product is destroying this world and they continue to make huge profits.” – Democratic debate.
THE FACTS: Earth’s existence and life on the planet will not end because of climate change, as the Vermont senator suggests. Fossil fuels do not have Earth on a path of destruction.
Science says climate change will cause great harm, but it won’t wipe out everything and won’t end humanity.
“It’s an existential threat for many species,” said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer. “It’s an existential threat for many ecosystems. I don’t think it’s an existential threat for humanity.”
Life will be dramatically altered if the burning of fossil fuels continues unabated, said Oppenheimer, a co-author of many of the most dire international science reports on climate change.
“Existential” has perhaps lost its literal meaning, as politicians in general and Democrats in particular cast many threats as existential ones even when existence is not on the line. In the debate, for example, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker described the closing of two Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio as an existential threat to abortion rights in America.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: “On guns, we are this close to an assault weapons ban. That would be huge.” – Democratic debate.
AMY KLOBUCHAR: “I just keep thinking of how close we are to finally getting something done on this.” – Democratic debate.
THE FACTS: No, the U.S. is not close to enacting an assault-weapons ban, as Buttigieg claimed, nor close on any significant gun control, as Klobuchar had it. Congress is not on the verge of such legislation. Prospects for an assault-weapons ban, in particular, are bound to remain slim until the next election at least.
Legislation under discussion in the Senate would expand background checks for gun sales, a politically popular idea even with gun owners. But even that bill has stalled because of opposition from the National Rifle Association and on-again, off-again support from Trump. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress say they will continue to push for the background checks bill, but movement appears unlikely during an impeachment inquiry and general dysfunction in Congress. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made it clear he won’t move forward on gun legislation without Trump’s strong support.
Buttigieg was citing the chance for an assault-weapons ban as a reason for not supporting the more radical proposal by Democratic presidential rival Beto O’Rourke to force gun owners to give up AR-15s and other assault-style weapons. Klobuchar spoke in a similar context.
ELIZABETH WARREN: “Mueller had shown to a fare-thee-well that this president obstructed justice.” – Democratic debate.
THE FACTS: That’s not exactly what special counsel Robert Mueller showed.
It’s true that prosecutors examined more than 10 episodes for evidence of obstruction of justice, and that they did illustrate efforts by Trump to stymie the Russia investigation or take control of it.
But ultimately, Mueller did not reach a conclusion as to whether the president obstructed justice or broke any other law. He cited Justice Department policy against the indictment of a sitting president and said that since he could not bring charges against Trump, it was unfair to accuse him of a crime. There was no definitive finding that he obstructed justice.
— Associated Press writers Christopher Rugaber, Seth Borenstein, Josh Boak, Robert Burns, Matthew Daly, Eric Tucker and Paul Wiseman in Washington, Lisa Marie Pane in Boise, Idaho, and Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed to this report.