It’s time for our annual roundup of the Biggest Pinocchios of the year.
Just before the presidential election, we highlighted the most outlandish statements of the entire campaign. This list is limited to claims we checked in 2016. We also decided to keep the focus on whoppers that the candidates said about themselves or about policy issues, not political attacks.
In the past, we have tried to assemble a relatively equal number of claims by Democrats and Republicans, but we find that impossible this year. President-elect Donald Trump earned five of the “Biggest Pinocchio” ratings; the previous record was three (President Barack Obama in 2013 and Trump in 2015).
There has never been a serial exaggerator in recent American politics like Trump. He not only consistently makes false claims, but he also repeats them, even though they have been proven wrong. He always insists he is right, no matter how little evidence he has for his claim or how easily his statement is debunked. Unfortunately, we see little indication that this pattern will change during his presidency.
We also highlighted two especially pernicious trends this year: the rise of bogus statistics and fake news, spread through social media. It’s bad enough when leading politicians traffic in false information. But readers also need to be more skeptical about the information they find on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. All too often, the corrective report is shared less frequently than the initial unsettling bogus information.
In compiling this list, which has no particular order, we primarily focused on claims that had earned Four Pinocchios during the year. To keep it simple, in some cases we have shortened the quotes in the headlines.
– “Director Comey said my answers were truthful”
If there was any issue that caused Hillary Clinton to narrowly lose an election that many expected she would win, it was the controversy over her private email server. In this statement, Clinton cherry-picked statements by FBI Director James B. Comey to skirt more disturbing findings about the FBI investigation. He said there was no evidence she lied to the FBI, but he declined to say whether she told the truth to the American people. Clinton later admitted she had “short-circuited” her answer.
– “I won in a landslide – and millions of people voted illegally for Clinton”
Trump has proven to be a sore winner. Rather than tout the fact that he was a dramatic surprise victor, Trump instead has falsely claimed he won in an electoral college landslide. He also falsely said that Clinton only won the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally. Neither is true. In terms of electoral college margin of victory, Trump ranks just 46th of 58 electoral college results. A shift of 40,000 votes in three states would have cost him the presidency. There is also no evidence of massive voter fraud, a notion that Trump apparently obtained from a website that traffics in conspiracy theories.
– “We save $300 billion a year on prescription drugs in Medicare”
This is our favorite example of why it is often boring to fact-check Trump’s statements. He claimed he could control the cost of prescription drugs by negotiating prices in the Medicare system – and repeatedly said the savings would be as high as $300 billion. But total spending on prescription drugs in Medicare is just $78 billion. Trump later said he was referring to savings he would get for negotiating a range of products in Medicare. But Medicare spending is $560 billion, so his claim that he would cut nearly 55 percent through better negotiations was still unrealistic.
– “We have fired a whole bunch of people who are in charge of these (VA) facilities.”
Obama misled the public about the number of people held accountable for the 2014 scandal over manipulated wait-time data at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which contributed to patient deaths. Congress responded by passing a law that sped up disciplinary actions for senior executive service employees. But when Obama made his statement in September, only one senior executive had been removed for a case involving wait time (though the actual firing was for an ethics violation).
– “Trump sent his own plane to rescue 200 Gulf War Marines who had been stranded”
Sean Hannity, the Fox News personality, promoted this story when Trump was under fire for not having fulfilled a pledge to make a $1 million donation to a military charity. But Trump had nothing to do with helping the Marines; the jet was provided by the Trump Shuttle, under contract with the military, at a time when it had been seized by Trump’s bankers for failing to pay loans. Months after we exposed this as a sham, Hannity continues to display this false claim on his website.
– “I was totally against the war in Iraq”
It’s likely that no single claim was uttered more often by Trump – and none could be more untrue. Trump was a supporter of the war in Iraq, though perhaps not as enthusiastic as some Republicans. He certainly expressed no public opposition until more than a year after the invasion – when the war had started to go poorly and most Americans had begun to sour on it.
– “CNN has never provided me with questions, absolutely ever.”
Donna Brazile, interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, made this comment during a contentious interview with Megyn Kelly of Fox News. A hack of the email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had indicated she had given inside dope on a question that Clinton might face during a CNN town hall. Then after her confrontation with Kelly, another email was leaked that showed she passed on a question during a CNN-hosted primary debate. So her denials to Kelly were clearly false and misleading.
– “My father gave me a small loan. I started a business.”
Trump offered a version of this claim many times, part of the mythology that he built a real estate empire by himself. But his father was one of the richest men in America and also in the real estate business. His money and connections – and substantial loan guarantees – helped fuel Trump’s rise as a young man. Trump’s father left a substantial inheritance, worth tens of millions of dollars, that Trump borrowed from when he got in financial difficulty in the early 1990s.
– “Anyway you spin it, the truth about Sestak is gonna hurt.”
Women Vote, an arm of Emily’s List, a political action committee, ran a television ad that illustrates a particularly pernicious trend – the weaponization of fact-checking. In support of Democrat Katie McGinty, the group produced an ad that used the words “true” and “truth” and even cited a fact-checking organization to advance a deeply misleading claim against former congressman Joe Sestak, D-Pa. Sadly, the group got away with such tactics because television stations in Pennsylvania kept running the ad even though the Sestak campaign provided ample evidence showing it was false.
– “92 million Americans represent a silent nation of jobless Americans”
Trump has maintained the official unemployment rate – now 4.6 percent – is “fiction” and claimed that it was really 23 percent or even 42 percent. He produces these numbers by counting every single person not working as “unemployed.” At one point, he said 92 million Americans are “on the sideline outside of the workforce, and they’re not a part of our economy.” But in reality, 93 percent of those people do not want a job at all, according to the Labor Department. In any case, people in retirement, on disability or in school are still part of the economy, as they buy goods and services with their Social Security checks, disability payments, tuition payments and so forth.
– “300,000 children are used as soldiers worldwide”
Twitter is a vehicle for getting information out quickly, but social media can also spread falsehoods. An arm of UNICEF tweeted out this statistic in early January. Upon investigation, it turned out the number was concocted more than two decades ago and was very shaky – an estimate based on other estimates. Experts in the field had decided in 2007 that the figure should no longer be used. This is a good example of a statistic concocted with good intentions, but which continues to circulate long after it has been discredited.
– “Monica Petersen was killed in Haiti while investigating links between the Clinton Foundation and human trafficking”
In a classic of the “fake news” genre, so-called citizen journalists and bloggers seized on the tragic suicide of a 32-year-old woman in Haiti and speculated, without evidence, that she was killed for probing links between Clinton and the faux human trafficking ring supposedly run out of the “Pizzagate” restaurant in Washington. Petersen was actually an advocate for sex-worker rights and was not investigating Clinton or human trafficking in Haiti. But that did not stop people from sharing this fake news on social media.