Don’t ask me why, but I’ve spent the past week fact-checking a list of Donald Trump’s accomplishments, as compiled by one of his loyal supporters. OK, if you must know: A friend asked me to because she didn’t believe this list could be true, and she was upset that someone she respected had posted it.
She wanted me to help her write a rebuttal.
“What has Trump actually done in the last three years?” was the headline. It has been shared more than 100,000 times, which most likely translates to millions of views.
You can read the complete list with my annotations here.
“Since the liberal media won’t tell you, we will” the list author declared. Here’s what it looked like:
46. More than 400,000 manufacturing jobs created since his election.
47. Trump appointed 5 openly gay ambassadors. 👀 👀
10. Trump signed a bill to require airports to provide spaces for breastfeeding Moms.
One by one, I researched the claims, reaching out to people and institutions for a better understanding. At times, I wondered why I was even bothering. Studies suggest that fact-checks only matter on the margins, changing minds between 10 and 20 percent of the time. That’s because we live in such a polarized era that political party affiliation is as strong as religious identity. “You’re not going to change your religion if somebody tells you that Moses didn’t actually have the Ten Commandments,” Dr. Leticia Bode, an associate professor at Georgetown who researches the impact of fact checks, told me.
I pressed on anyway. Facts should matter, shouldn’t they? There were few outright lies on the list. I found that disorienting, and, ultimately, comforting. At a time when a hot mess of a conspiracy theory called QAnon has so many believers that it is on the verge of sending one to Congress, any fact-based argument should be seen as a good thing.
And yet, the more I delved into the list, the more I understood the limitations of a simple fact check. This particular list of pro-Trump facts cherry-picked information that paints Mr. Trump as a liberal. Item No. 13 notes that he signed “the biggest wilderness protection & conservation bill in a decade.” Item No. 12 says, “Low-wage workers are benefiting from higher minimum wages.”
There is something to celebrate in this tacit admission that clean water and decent pay are widely popular, even in that alternate universe of alternative facts where Trump supporters are said to reside. Maybe we aren’t so different after all.
But those two facts don’t really reflect the administration’s record on those issues. It’s true that Mr. Trump signed a landmark conservation bill. But he has also stripped protections from more land and water than he has preserved, notably the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. And it’s true that workers are enjoying higher minimum wages. But that’s because activists have fought for state laws that raised the minimum wage, not because Mr. Trump did it. The federal minimum wage hasn’t budged in over a decade.
Facts are vital. But they are insufficient. A bit of context is usually required to produce the truth. For instance, Item No. 44 — “More than seven million jobs created since the election.” It’s true that the country had seven million more jobs in January of 2020 than existed in 2017, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But anyone who credits Mr. Trump for creating seven million jobs ought to credit President Barack Obama with the eight million jobs created during the last three years of his administration.
A large swath of items on the list credit Mr. Trump for the booming economy, which is no longer booming, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Items No. 88 through No. 93 all relate to “lowest-ever unemployment” numbers — a stark illustration of just how much of the case for a Trump second term rested on cheerful economic figures that are no longer valid.
About a quarter of the items on the list relate to Mr. Trump signing bills that Congress passed, many of which he had nothing to do with. For instance, item No. 5 praises him for signing a law that legalized hemp. That’s true, but it was one small provision in a giant farm bill. How much credit does the president really deserve for that?
Item No. 1 lauds the president for giving federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Montana, a designation they have sought for more than a century. But when I called up Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe, he told me that the credit goes to the two Montana senators, Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, who managed to tuck the tribal designation provision into a massive military spending bill.
Item No. 15 lauds the administration’s efforts to make it possible for states to import cheaper medicine from Canada. Mr. Trump does deserve credit for using the bully pulpit of the presidency to highlight the unacceptably high cost of lifesaving medicine that Americans are forced to pay, compared to people in other countries. But what ever happened to his bold promise in 2016 to use the power of the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare patients? That was a great idea, which would have saved the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars. But he simply hasn’t done it. Despite tough tweets against drug companies, Mr. Trump hasn’t really taken them on. If he were serious about it, he would push Republicans in the Senate to support the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which Democrats in the House passed last year.
As I went down the list, I found genuine accomplishments. Several items related to the First Step Act criminal justice reform — a meaningful piece of legislation that shortens mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, putting a dent in mass incarceration. The administration deserves credit for championing it, as does the bipartisan group of criminal justice reform advocates who have pushed for it for years.
Item No. 113 relates to the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on China for the theft of intellectual property, and other unfair trade practices. Privately, I have heard American businessmen say this needed to be done. But the jury is still out on how it ends. Even Trump supporters don’t want a prolonged trade war with China. (Case in point: Item No. 71 of the list notably touts “$250 billion in new trade and investment deals in China.”)
Another big accomplishment? A massive tax cut for the wealthy and for corporations, if you are into that kind of thing. Item No. 59 refers to “529 college savings plans for elementary and secondary education” — a tax subsidy for the wealthy to send their kids to private schools. Item No. 84 relates to companies that brought back about a trillion dollars from overseas. That’s true. It is also true that the bill will increase the U.S. debt by at least $1.5 trillion, a shocking amount during prosperous times.
Once you strip away the misleading claims from this list of accomplishments, you are left with what Mr. Trump has delivered: tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations — No. 84. Deregulation for banks and businessmen — No. 97. Judges for the evangelicals — No. 109. Tariffs on Chinese steel for the steelworkers — No. 113. And after those tariffs sparked a trade war, bailouts for farmers — No. 72. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem, for conservative Jews and evangelicals — No. 110.
To Mr. Trump’s supporters, those are real accomplishments. But are they worth more than Mr. Trump’s failures, during a deadly pandemic? More than his broken promises? More than what he has destroyed? That’s the question facing voters in November. Maybe this list of his true accomplishments needs to be weighed against a list of what he has dismantled over these last four years. Anybody got one? I’d be happy to fact-check it.