by James D. Agresti
Two days after airing a Super Bowl commercial that depicts journalists as people of great importance and integrity, the Washington Post published an error-ridden fact check of President Trump’s State of the Union address. Written by Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, it contains an array of half-truths, straw men, and outright falsehoods.
The State of the Southern Border
During his address, Trump said: “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial wellbeing of all America.” In retort, the Post writes: “By any available measure, there is no new security crisis at the border.”
That is a straw man argument, or a rebuttal to a point that wasn’t made. Trump did not say this is a “new” crisis. In fact, he portrayed it as a longstanding problem by saying, “Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.”
Trump’s claim is correct. A 2011 Government Accountability Office study of 249,000 non-citizens in U.S. prisons and jails during 2003 to 2009 found that they had been arrested for 25,064 homicide-related crimes committed in the U.S. throughout their criminal careers. This isn’t even a full count because the study:
- examined only “a portion of the total population of criminal aliens who may be incarcerated” in the U.S.
- doesn’t include homicides that didn’t result in arrests, which comprise about 40% of all murders in the U.S. and higher rates for murders by minorities.
Like most government crime data, the study doesn’t isolate legal non-citizens from illegal ones, but legal immigrants must pass full criminal background checks and are very law-abiding. Thus, the vast bulk of these murderers were undoubtedly in the U.S. illegally.
The Post also tries to refute Trump’s statement about the dangers of open borders by implying that visa overstays are a greater threat. According to the Post, border barriers won’t stop “travelers overstaying their visas,” and these are “far more” common “than southern border apprehensions.” That argument is often used by activists and the media, but it is a classic half-truth. This is because it ignores the crucial fact that visa entrants are screened for criminality and other risks, while illegal border crossers are not.
Under federal law, “aliens” who pose threats to the public are “ineligible to receive visas and ineligible to be admitted to the United States.” This includes, for example, foreigners who:
- have committed serious crimes.
- are drug abusers or addicts.
- have dangerous communicable diseases or mental disorders.
- are “likely … to become primarily dependent on” government welfare.
In stark contrast, illegal border crossers evade all of these standards and the vetting that is done to enforce them. Hence, the Post’s comparison of the numbers of illegal border crossers to visa overstays is irrelevant to the point that Trump raised, which is the safety and wellbeing of Americans.
Moreover, the Post’s numbers are deceitful. First, they downplay the scale of illegal border crossings by counting only “apprehensions.” This overlooks all illegal border crossers who are not caught. Second, they exaggerate visa overstays by failing to account for visitors who leave the U.S. after their visas expire.
Correcting just the second of these figures overturns the Post’s claim that overstays are “twice the number of southern border apprehensions.” The Post writes: “In fiscal 2017, the Department of Homeland Security reported 606,926 suspected in-country overstays, or twice the number of southern border apprehensions.” What the Post neglects to reveal is that hundreds of thousands of these visitors left in the following months.
The Department of Homeland Security hasn’t yet published the full data for 2017, but the same report containing the Post’s figure of 606,926 provides data from 2016 that proves the point. At the end of that fiscal year, 628,799 people who were supposed to leave the U.S. had not. However, by May of 2018, only 340,377 or about half of these people remained. This is lower than the “408,870 southern border apprehensions” reported by the Post, thus obliterating their entire narrative.
Notably, visitors who temporarily overstay their visas are not immigrants, who by definition, are people who leave “one country to settle permanently in another.”
In summary, Trump’s statements about lawlessness at the border are consistent with the facts. Yet, the Post’s fact checkers have turned reality on its head by misrepresenting his words, using fallacious arguments, and misconstruing data.
New York’s Late-Term Abortion Law
In his speech, Trump said: “Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth.” The lawmakers did cheer with delight, but the Post claims this law “would not” permit such abortions because the bill states:
that a health-care practitioner “may perform an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”
Contrary to the Post, the law’s language accords with Trump’s statement. This is because its final provision permits abortions at any stage if “necessary to protect” a woman’s “health.” As defined by the Supreme Court’s rulings in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, “health” includes “physical, emotional, psychological, familial” factors, including the “stigma of unwed motherhood,” the work of “child care,” and “the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child.” This expansive and subjective definition of health provides broad leeway to perform abortions in practically every case.
Like Roe and Doe, the New York law leaves the determination of “health” to anyone licensed to perform abortions. The implication of this is clear from the following words of abortionist Warren Hern, author of “the nation’s most widely used textbook on abortion standards and procedures.” He declared: “I say every pregnancy carries a risk of death,” and “I will certify that any pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s life and could cause grievous injury to her physical health.”
Again, Trump’s statement is true, and the Post’s is false.
The Rise and Fall of ISIS
Trump also stated: “When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria—just two years ago. Today, we have liberated virtually all of the territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters.” According to the Post, this is “technically correct” but:
“The group was far weaker a decade ago when U.S. forces last withdrew from Iraq.”
“Obama set up virtually all the structure that did the key fighting against the Islamic State under Trump, and more fighters trained and munitions dropped under Obama than under Trump.”
“The basic plan of attack in 2017 was also developed under Obama, though Trump sped up the tempo by changing the rules of engagement.”
Those cherry-picked “facts” paint a distorted picture that comes into focus when paired with the following facts that the Post neglected to mention:
- ISIS rose to power after Obama pulled all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 against the advice of Iraq’s top army officer and U.S. military officials.
- Obama then analogized ISIS to “a jayvee team“ and repeatedly bragged about removing the troops from Iraq until ISIS swept through the nation executing, raping, and enslaving the Iraqi people. After that, Obama began blaming his decision to withdraw on George W. Bush.
- Within a week of taking office, Trump ordered the Secretary of Defense to “develop a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS.” As a result of this, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis explained that Trump made “two significant changes” to Obama’s policies:
First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities. … [N]o longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington D.C. has to authorize tactical movements on the ground.
Secondly, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.
Obama, on the other hand, micromanaged the battle against ISIS, thus impeding the effort. As the Daily Beast reported in a December 2015 article entitled “Pentagon Insiders: ISIS War Plan is ‘Not Working’,” a defense official explained, “Our hands are tied. You want us to do more, then go talk to those guys across the river,” meaning the White House. Likewise, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2017:
- “President Obama was so deeply involved in military operations that his first three Defense secretaries all complained, sometimes bitterly, about what they considered White House micromanagement.”
- “Senior Pentagon officials and military officers who often chafed under Obama’s centralized decision making have welcomed the shift [to Trump], saying it has freed them to carry out operations based on military, and not political, considerations.”
- Retired admiral and NATO commander James Stavridis stated: “The idea of the 10,000-mile screwdriver from Washington making decisions for a field commander, as has been the case over the past decade, is flawed.”
- Obama’s former defense secretary Robert M. Gates wrote: “The controlling nature of the Obama White House and the staff took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level.”
Yet, the Post creates a misleading impression that Obama is mainly responsible for decimating ISIS, when in fact, he played a major role in allowing their rise to power and sometimes hampered progress in the fight against them.
In numerous ways, the Post’s fact check fails to meet the paper’s own “Standards and Ethics,” which declare:
- “No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness.”
- “No story is fair if it includes essentially irrelevant information at the expense of significant facts. Fairness includes relevance.”
- “No story is fair if it consciously or unconsciously misleads or even deceives the reader. Fairness includes honesty—leveling with the reader.”
In short, a multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad is a poor substitute for quality journalism.
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James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a think tank dedicated to publishing rigorously documented facts about public policy issues.