Welcome to CNN’s fact check coverage of the last Democratic presidential debate before the voting begins with the Iowa caucuses on February 3. We will post fact checks as we complete them.
The debate was hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It included six candidates who met the party’s qualification criteria, the smallest number to date.
The candidates were former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; and businessman Tom Steyer.
Sanders on US health care spending
Sanders repeated a previous claim about the amount of money the US spends on health care.
“We are now spending twice as much per person on health care as do the people of any other country. That is insane,” Sanders said.
Facts First: This is an exaggeration. The US does not spend twice as much per capita as “any” other country on health care, though it does spend more than twice the average for the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a group of 36 countries with large market economies.
Switzerland, at $7,317 per capita, and Norway, at $6,187 per capita, were well above half the US level, $10,586 per capita, in 2018, the last year for which international data is available. Germany ($5,986), Sweden ($5,447), Austria ($5,395) and Denmark ($5,299) were also above half though more narrowly.
The OECD average for 2018 was $3,992 per capita, so Sanders would be correct if he had said the US spends more than twice the average for wealthy countries. But he has been using his incorrect wording since at least 2009, when fact-checkers at PolitiFact first noted that it wasn’t true. You can read a longer version of this fact check here.
It is possible that the health spending numbers were different in 2019 than they were in 2018 and in years prior, but that data is not yet available.
– Daniel Dale
Klobuchar on Obamacare’s affordability
In defending her plan to build on the Affordable Care Act instead of pushing for the more sweeping Medicare for All plans proposed by her rivals, Klobuchar pointed out that more people support Obamacare than approve of President Donald Trump.
“I would also note practically, that the Affordable Care Act right now is 10 points more popular than the president of the United States,” the Minnesota Democrat said at CNN’s debate on Tuesday night.
Facts First: While no poll directly compares the two, it’s true that Obamacare is better liked. Polls done in November show Obamacare with a 10-point advantage over Trump. Subsequent polls also show former President Barack Obama’s health reform law being more popular than the current president.
A November poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has tracked public opinion on the Affordable Care Act since it was passed in 2010, found that 52% of American adults had a favorable opinion of the law.
By contrast, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS in November found that 42% approve of Trump’s job as president. That figure stayed essentially the same in a December CNN poll, which found Trump’s favorability rating was 43%, but it was within the margin of error.
– Tami Luhby
Sanders on wages of US childcare workers
Sanders said America’s childcare system “is an embarrassment, it is unaffordable,” claiming that childcare workers take home lower paychecks than people working at McDonald’s.
“Childcare workers are making wages lower than McDonald’s workers,” Sanders said.
Facts First: While some childcare workers undoubtedly make less than some McDonald’s workers, US government data from 2018 shows that childcare workers took home a higher mean hourly salary than fast food workers.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says the average wage for fast food and counter workers was $22,260 in May 2018. That’s a mean hourly salary of $10.70.
US childcare workers make on average $24,610 a year, the 2018 BLS data showed, more than the fast food workers. That corresponds to mean hourly wages of $11.83.
A proxy statement from McDonald’s, a worldwide company, filed in 2018 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, shows that the company’s median employee made $7,017 in 2017. What this number doesn’t say is that McDonald’s median employee is a part-time restaurant crew member in Poland, according to the proxy statement.
– Anneken Tappe
Biden on Trump weakening sanctions on North Korea
Biden claimed President Donald Trump “weakened” sanctions against Pyongyang in his pursuit of meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“The President showed up, met with him, gave him legitimacy, weakened the sanctions we have against him,” Biden said.
Facts First: Trump has not weakened the sanctions his administration has placed on North Korea to date, and has in fact ratcheted them up from the Obama administration. Although Trump did once spark mass confusion among his aides when he tweeted he was ordering the removal of sanctions on Pyongyang that had not yet been imposed or even announced.
Biden’s claim that Trump offered Kim Jong Un the “legitimacy” North Korea has long craved echoes a widespread criticism of the President’s approach to dealing with the Hermit Kingdom.
In March of last year, Trump tweeted that he had “ordered the withdrawal” of “additional large scale sanctions” he claimed the Treasury Department had announced earlier that day. But his announcement sent White House officials scrambling. Many aides quickly concluded that the President was referring to sanctions targeting two Chinese shipping companies that have allegedly helped North Korea skirt sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Those new actions were fulfilled under existing sanctions authority. But two sources familiar with Trump’s tweet said it was in fact not about those sanctions, but instead about additional large-scale sanctions targeting North Korea that had been in the works.
During an Oval Office meeting a month later with his South Korean counterpart, Trump claimed he believed sanctions are at a “fair level” and acknowledged the dust-up, saying he “had the option of significantly increasing them” but decided he “didn’t think it was necessary.”
The Trump administration ratcheted up sanctions even as the President has met with Kim Jong Un three times without preconditions. In the past, the Trump administration has offered to provide relief from these sanctions only if Pyongyang completely denuclearizes, an outcome that has looked increasingly unlikely as Kim Jong Un has in recent days threatened to restart nuclear testing.
So although some lawmakers have criticized Trump’s decision to embrace diplomacy with the brutal North Korean leader while extracting no concessions, loosening sanctions has not been part of this administration’s policy toward Pyongyang.
– Sarah Westwood and Zachary Cohen
Warren on female electability
During an exchange about electability and whether a woman can win the presidency, Warren compared the political careers of the men on the debate stage with the women.
“Can a woman beat Donald Trump?” Warren said. “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women. Amy and me.”
Facts First: Warren has the facts right. She and Klobuchar are undefeated, and their male opponents have lost a total of 10 elections during their political careers. But Warren’s talking point ignores the fact that Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg have also prevailed in more than two dozen elections since 1970.
It’s true that Warren and Klobuchar have won all their races. The statistics are more impressive for Klobuchar — she’s been in politics since 1998, while Warren has only competed in two races since 2012.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Sanders waged several third-party and independent campaigns for governor and for US Senate. He also lost the Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton in 2016. But in addition to these losses, Sanders has won more than a dozen political campaigns, including successful campaign for mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and representing the state in the US House and Senate.
Biden waged two unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008. But he also had a successful career in the Senate — winning elections 7 times starting in 1972 — and two victorious national campaigns alongside Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Some of these campaigns were waged before Buttigieg was born. During his political career, he won two campaigns for mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and lost a statewide race for treasurer of Indiana in 2010.
The only other man on the race, Steyer, has never been a candidate for public office.
The bottom line is that Warren’s talking point was accurate. But the men on the stage actually won more elections than they’ve lost over the years, undercutting Warren’s electability argument. And some of their losses at the polls were decades ago, so it’s not clear how relevant they are to the 2020 race.
Later in the debate, Sanders followed up another comment from Warren, where she said she was the only candidate who defeated a Republican incumbent in the past three decades. Sanders touted his 1990 campaign for US House, exactly 30 years ago, when he unseated Republican Rep. Peter Smith.
– Marshall Cohen
Buttigieg on Trump administration admitting Iran deal worked
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg asserted during the debate on Tuesday that the Trump administration admitted that the Iran nuclear deal was working before pulling out of it.
Buttigieg said, “By gutting the Iran nuclear deal, one that, by the way, the Trump administration itself admitted was working, certified that it was preventing progress toward a nuclear Iran, by gutting that, they have made the region more dangerous and set off the chain of events that we are now dealing with as it escalates even closer to the brink of outright war.”
Facts First: This is basically true. By repeatedly recertifying the nuclear deal and waiving sanctions against Tehran as a result, the Trump administration effectively acknowledged that Iran was abiding by the terms of the deal even as the President publicly criticized it.
The terms of the nuclear deal required the US president to reauthorize it every 120 days to keep sanctions from kicking in. Trump didn’t leave the deal until May 2018 and reauthorized it a handful of times after taking office.
CNN previously reported that the President promised to kill the deal on the campaign trail but was persuaded by cabinet members and allies several times to recertify Iran’s compliance. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services committee in April 2018 that the verification provisions in the pact were “pretty robust” though he did not publicly back the deal. Despite his criticism of the deal, neither Trump nor his aides had been able to say that Iran was violating the terms of the agreement.
– Caroline Kelly and Zachary Cohen
Sanders on cost of NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China
Sanders repeated his claim that NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China have cost the US “some 4 million jobs.”
“I am sick and tired,” said Sanders as he drew a contrast with former Vice President Joe Biden, pointing to large multinational corporations that he says have reaped the benefits.
Facts First: This is likely an overestimate of the impact trade agreements can have on the country’s employment.
It’s difficult to measure the overall economic impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement since trade and investment trends can be affected by a number of factors, including economic growth, inflation and even a weakening dollar, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Most estimates find that NAFTA had little if any impact on national employment levels, though the effect was uneven across regions and industries.
The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that between 1993 and 2013, the US trade deficit with Mexico and Canada increased from $17 billion to $177.2 billion and displaced 851,700 US jobs.
By contrast, the entry of China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 likely had a much larger impact because of sudden competition from cheaper imports. But even the high end of job loss estimates from EPI found that the change in trade status for China caused a loss of 3.4 million jobs between 2001 and 2017.
Another estimate, from a 2016 study by economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that normalizing trade relations with China cost the US between 2 million and 2.4 million jobs between 1999 and 2011.
– Donna Borak
Biden on Iraq War stance
Biden repeated his false claim that he opposed the war in Iraq from the moment the war began.
Biden said he made a “mistake” in casting a 2002 vote, as a senator from Delaware, to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. But he said he cast the vote because the Bush administration had said “they were just going to get inspectors” into Iraq to check for weapons of mass destruction — and that, once Bush actually went to war, he became immediately opposed: “From that point on, I was in the position of making the case that it was a big, big mistake.”
Facts First: As fact checkers have repeatedly noted, Biden did not oppose the war in Iraq from the point it started in March 2003. He did begin calling his 2002 vote a “mistake” in 2005, two years into the war, but he was a vocal public supporter of the war in 2003 and 2004. And he made clear in 2002 and 2003, both before and after the war started, that he had known he was voting to authorize a possible war, not only to try to get inspectors into Iraq.
Here are a few representative Biden quotes. In a February 2003 speech in Delaware, he said, “Let everyone here be absolutely clear: I supported the resolution to go to war. I am NOT opposed to war to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. I am NOT opposed to war to remove Saddam from those weapons if it comes to that.”
It’s true that Biden criticized Bush’s approach to diplomacy in the lead-up to the war, warned in the lead-up to the war that Bush was not being honest about how hard the war would be, and he criticized Bush’s handling of the war from its first weeks on. But Biden made clear that he supported the war despite that criticism.
In a July 2003 speech at the Brookings Institution, Biden said: “Nine months ago, I voted with my colleagues to give the president of the United States of America the authority to use force and I would vote that way again today. It was the right vote then and would be a correct vote today.”
During the debate on Tuesday, Biden also offered a confusing timeline of his positions on the war, saying, “I said 13 years ago it was a mistake to give the president the authority to go to war if, in fact, he couldn’t get inspectors into Iraq to stop — what thought to be — the attempt to get a nuclear weapon. It was a mistake. And I acknowledged that.”
When Biden said “13 years ago,” he appeared to be referring to how, in 2006 and 2007, he was calling his 2002 vote a mistake. The vote itself was more than 17 years ago.
– Daniel Dale and Nate McDermott
Biden on threat to US embassies
Biden said that President Donald Trump “flat-out lied” when he claimed the US killed Iran’s top military general because he was targeting four US embassies.
“Quite frankly, I think he’s flat-out lied about saying that the reason he went after — the reason he made the strike was because our embassies were about to be bombed,” Biden said.
Facts First: Trump has yet to provide evidence backing up his claim that Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was actively planning new attacks against four US embassies and top administration officials have struggled to defend the President’s comments. But there is no way to know if Trump “flat-out lied” without seeing the underlying intelligence, which remains classified.
Trump claimed at an Ohio rally last week that Soleimani “was actively planning new attacks.” He later told Fox News, “I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” naming Baghdad as one.
Senior administration officials have repeatedly pointed to danger facing US embassies in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this past weekend he “didn’t see” a specific threat against four embassies in the intelligence.
“What the President said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well. He said that he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region,” Esper added.
Similarly, Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in an interview on Sunday with ABC’s “This Week” that it was unclear whether embassies or US military bases would be targeted, but insisted Trump’s claim about four embassies being threatened was “consistent with the intelligence.”
Citing two State Department officials, CNN reported on Monday that State Department officials involved in US embassy security were not made aware of imminent threats to four specific US embassies and didn’t issue warnings about specific dangers to any US embassy before the administration targeted Soleimani.
The State Department sent a global warning to all US embassies before the strike occurred, a senior State Department official said and the department spokesperson confirmed, but it was not directed at specific embassies and did not warn of an imminent attack.
– Zachary Cohen
This is a breaking story and will be updated.