President Trump’s 90-minute Cabinet session was a fact-checking nightmare, with sentence after sentence uttered by the president false or misleading. We will eventually cover every line in our comprehensive database, which now has 7,645 claims, but many of his lines are simply golden oldies we have fact-checked before. So here we will focus mainly on the newly wrong things he said, in the order in which he said them.
“Every day, Border Patrol encounters roughly 2,000 illegal immigrants — we have to talk about this — trying to enter our country. Two thousand a day, and that’s a minimum.”
This is misleading. Trump is conflating two different numbers reported monthly by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
First, there’s the figure for Southwest border apprehensions. Anyone caught trying to cross the border illegally is tallied in this column. For fiscal 2018, CBP reported 396,579 apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border. So far in fiscal 2019, the number is 102,857.
There’s a separate figure for what CBP calls “inadmissibles.” It’s incorrect to describe these individuals as illegal immigrants, as Trump did.
“Inadmissibles refers to individuals encountered at ports of entry who are seeking lawful admission into the United States but are determined to be inadmissible, individuals presenting themselves to seek humanitarian protection under our laws, and individuals who withdraw an application for admission and return to their countries of origin within a short timeframe,” according to CBP. All of this is legal.
In fiscal 2018, CBP reported 124,511 inadmissibles, and so far in fiscal 2019, the number is 20,371.
Adding up apprehensions and inadmissibles — as the Trump administration began to do in early 2018 on CBP’s website — produces a much higher total than simply reporting apprehensions. The combined total was above 60,000 in October and November each, which is “roughly 2,000” a day.
But “inadmissibles” are not illegal immigrants.
Using only the number for Southwest border apprehensions in fiscal 2018, the average is roughly 1,000 a day, or half what Trump claimed.
“Now, the Democrats of the bill want $12 billion additional for foreign aid. They want $12 billion more. It’s $54.4 billion, which is by itself a lot, but in foreign aid they want 12 billion over the $54 billion. Think of it. We give $54 billion, a lot of it because they want to give it. They don’t even know who they’re giving it to. In many cases, people don’t ever — don’t even know the name of the country. They know nothing about the country, and yet — so they’re going to give 54.4 billion in foreign aid but they want 12 billion more than that in foreign aid but they won’t approve $5.6 billion for a wall that’s going to pay for itself almost on a monthly basis.”
Trump mixes up a lot of things here. The fiscal 2018 budget for the State Department and foreign operations (including foreign aid) was $54 billion. The Trump administration proposed cutting it to $42 billion in fiscal 2019. The Senate Appropriations Committee, in a unanimous bipartisan vote, approved a budget of $54.4 billion. The Republicans control the Senate. So it was not just Democrats, it was not $12 billion over $54 billion and it was not all money for foreign aid but also money — about $12 billion — to keep the State Department running.
As we have noted before, the wall won’t pay for itself “on a monthly basis.”
“You know when a country sends us 200 soldiers to Iraq or sends us 100 soldiers from a big country to Syria or to Afghanistan and then they tell me 100 times we sent you soldiers, we sent you soldiers. And that’s 1/100 of the money that they are taking advantage of. They are just doing that to make me happy or to make past presidents happy. I’ve heard past presidents, well, they’re involved in the Afghanistan War because they sent us 100 soldiers and yet it’s costing us billions and billions of dollars.”
In Trump’s transactional view of the world, countries that he believes are doing better in one sphere (such as trade or receiving foreign aid) must pony up to settle accounts elsewhere. So, even though the United States is a large country with the most powerful military in the world, he mocks much smaller nations for contributing 100 or 200 soldiers to wars led by Americans.
Many of those contributions are indicative of political support for U.S. goals, a diplomatic achievement that previous administrations have touted as important. The initial invasion of Iraq was largely a U.S.-British effort, but the Bush administration worked hard to persuade countries as small as Albania (1,340 troops over five years), Estonia (240 troops over six years) and Mongolia (1,128 troops over five years) to contribute to the post-invasion force.
In Afghanistan, NATO took the lead of the International Security Assistance Force, which at one point topped 130,000 troops. The United States contributed 90,000 of those troops, but it was still important diplomatically that countries as small as Montenegro and Luxembourg contributed to the effort. The United Kingdom had more than 450 soldiers killed in Afghanistan, including more than 400 in hostile action.
“So we are killing and then I read when we pull out Russia’s thrilled. Russia is not happy. You know why they’re not happy? Because they like it when we’re killing ISIS because we are killing them for them and we are killing them for Assad and we are killing ISIS also for Iran and just while we’re on Iran because you know people don’t like to write the facts.”
Trump distorts some of the basics of the Syrian civil war. There are many sides to this conflict. Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while the United States supports Kurdish opposition groups and anti-Assad forces. The Islamic State terrorist group is another faction.
Because Russia and the United States are on different sides, it’s no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw nearly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. In a news conference Dec. 20, Putin gave extended remarks clearly in support of Trump’s move.
“Is the presence of American troops required there? I do not think it is,” Putin said. “However, let us not forget that their presence, the presence of your troops, is illegitimate as it was not approved by a U.N. Security Council Resolution. The military contingent can only be there under a resolution of the U.N. Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government. Russian troops were invited by the Syrian government. The United States did not get either of these, so if they decide to withdraw their troops, it is the right decision.”
Russian officials have long contended that the presence of U.S. forces in Syria is illegal. There’s simply no debate that Russia was happy with Trump’s decision to withdraw. Even if both countries are fighting the Islamic State, they nonetheless have a range of competing interests in the region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Dec. 24 that the U.S. presence was “destabilizing” Syria. His spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said Dec. 26: “In our opinion, this decision [by Trump] is important in that it can promote a comprehensive settlement of the situation. We have pointed out more than once that the U.S. occupation of a considerable part of Syrian territory is a major obstacle to such a settlement.”
“I could give you an example where I get along very well with India and Prime Minister Modi but he’s constantly telling me he built the library in Afghanistan. Okay, a library. That’s like, you know what that is? That’s like five hours of what we spend. And he tells it and he’s very smart and we are supposed to say thank you for the library. I don’t know who’s using it in Afghanistan but one of those things.”
Trump’s remarks set off a firestorm in India, where officials indignantly noted that India is the “largest donor in the region” and has contributed more than $3 billion in postwar reconstruction, including a 135-mile road, a dam providing irrigation to farmers and training programs for more than 3,500 Afghans in India. New Delhi has also provided 1.1 million tons of wheat to Afghanistan as well as a 400-bed children’s hospital. Officials said that small libraries have been built as part of community development projects, but were puzzled why Trump focused on a single library.
“So with all of that, with all of that being said I did something called terminate the horrible Iran Nuclear Deal, which by the way in eight years gives Iran the legal right to have nuclear weapons, okay? I did it.”
Trump in May withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), what’s known as the Iran nuclear deal, and has been defending his decision ever since with false or misleading claims.
We gave the president Four Pinocchios for claiming that the international accord would have allowed Iran to build nuclear weapons in seven years. (He now says eight years, but that’s just as false.)
Although some parts of the JCPOA sunset over time, gradually allowing Iran to pursue more nuclear energy research, the deal includes this permanent restriction: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
Other international agreements to which Iran has committed itself also prohibit the development of such weapons. Iran also has agreed to let international monitors peer closely into its nuclear activities. The Trump and Obama administrations have both certified that Iran was meeting its JCPOA commitments.
However, critics of the JCPOA have voiced concerns that — despite these strictures — Iran could keep working toward nuclear weapons capability under the guise of pursuing peaceful goals, such as a nuclear energy program.
Trump is alluding to the fact that the JCPOA gradually lifts restrictions on the types of nuclear activities and the level of uranium enrichment Iran may conduct. These and other provisions sunset over 10, 15, 20 or 25 years.
The president argues that easing these restrictions over time would open the door to Iran’s attaining nuclear weapons capability, rendering the JCPOA ultimately ineffective. But supporters of the Iran deal dispute that and say the JCPOA at least buys time, subjecting Iran to strong constraints on its nuclear activities for 10 to 25 years. Without the JCPOA, Iran could hasten its development of nuclear weapons on an even shorter timeline than the one Trump found unacceptable, they say.
“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan, Russia. So you take a look at other countries, Pakistan is there. They should be fighting but Russia should be fighting. The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia, they were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight and literally they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again as opposed to the Soviet Union.”
There has already been a lot of commentary about Trump’s mystifying remarks justifying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His comments appear to mirror an effort by lawmakers from Putin’s party to overturn a resolution passed in the waning days of the Soviet Union, signed by Mikhail Gorbachev, that the Soviet invasion deserved “moral and political condemnation.”
Just about every statement by Trump here is wrong. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a Communist government that had seized power before it was toppled by political unrest; there were no terrorists going into Russia. (Perhaps the president is thinking of Chechnya?) The United States secretly funded Afghan insurgents who helped make the war a quagmire for the Soviets — what the State Department says became “the longest and largest [covert action] in U.S. history to that point.” The Afghan war might have been a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s collapse but it was certainly not the only factor. The biggest factor likely was a collapse in oil prices after Saudi Arabia altered its oil policy in 1985, which led to massive borrowing by the government and then an effective bankruptcy of the country.
As it happens, the State Department on Dec. 20 released an official history of U.S. policy in Afghanistan between 1977-80 that contrasts sharply with Trump’s explanation:
By the end of 1979 the insurgency was threatening to depose the central government in Kabul, and the Kremlin had lost confidence in the recently ascended Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin. Citing the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that once a country had turned communist, Moscow would resolve to keep it in the “revolutionary” camp, the Soviet leadership decided to execute a full political and military takeover of Afghanistan. On December 25, 1979, Soviet forces invaded the country and killed Amin in Kabul at the Presidential Palace. Two days later President Carter approved a new covert action to send lethal aid to the Afghan Mujahidin insurgents, rebuked the invasion in a strongly worded letter to Brezhnev, and undertook an array of diplomatic and economic sanctions in consultation with U.S. allies to protest Soviet policy.
“India, Russia, you look at some of the satellite countries that are extremely wealthy with oil surrounding. I spoke to some of this. I said to them a certain country, very rich country, what would you do if the United States pulled out? ‘Oh, we’d be taken over by the Taliban and terrorists.’ I said then why are you charging us when we have to use your country to send product through? Why are you charging us when we send airplanes over your country? We are doing the job for you. Why are you charging us? He said to me, very great gentleman, smart, he said to me: ‘Well, nobody ever asked me not to.’ I said, ‘I’m asking you not to.’ He said we will not charge you, and I am talking about millions and millions of dollars. Flights over his country. But I say to him what would happen if we weren’t here and he looks at me and he goes, ‘We would be overrun, we could not defend ourselves,’ and yet he charges us, but he doesn’t charge us anymore.”
This remains a mystery. Trump has a habit of suggesting he’s able to pull off a quick deal with foreign leaders because no one previously had made the right demands. So we take this tale with a large grain of salt; the White House did not respond to a query.
After considering various options, we believe he may be talking about a conversation with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan. Trump has met twice with Nazarbayev, including once at the White House. The Kazakhstan government in 2018 approved an agreement to allow the United States to use two of its ports for shipping nonmilitary material to Afghanistan and has allowed overflights since 2010. But the text of the agreement (see Article 18) says that U.S. military transport aircraft “would not be subject to payment of air navigation fees,” only nonmilitary aircraft. There could be “reasonable airport fees” assessed if any planes landed at airports.
So Trump says the United States was charged “millions and millions of dollars” for “flights over his country” and claims the other leader says he won’t charge the country. But in the case of Kazakhstan, the agreement already says the United States will not be charged.
But maybe Trump did not know that and Nazarbayev just restated the existing agreement? Trump has previously claimed he got China’s president to reopen its market to American beef even though the deal had already been reached during the Obama administration.
Another problem: Trump says the country’s leader said the Taliban would overrun them without U.S. protection, but that’s simply not the case with Kazakhstan.
We considered Turkmenistan, whose fees for allowing overflights was disclosed through WikiLeaks, but can find no evidence that Trump has spoken to its leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. The White House now rarely discloses when the president speaks with a foreign leader but presumably Turkmenistan would have touted such an interaction. Turkmenistan, having a border with Afghanistan, would potentially face more of threat from the Taliban, but that’s still a stretch.
So there’s no evidence to back up Trump’s story. Given his track record, we are pretty sure elements of it are false or exaggerated.
“I was here on Christmas evening, I was all by myself in the White House. That’s a big, big house except for all of the guys out on the lawn with machine guns.”
Trump was not alone in the White House on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas. First lady Melania Trump cut short a trip to Florida to join the president in Washington from Christmas Eve onward.
“People see that gasoline is way down and the reason it’s way down is because I called up some of the OPEC people. I say, ‘Don’t do it.’ You know, if you look back a few months, gasoline was at $83 a barrel, that was going to be bad and it was going to $100 and some people were saying $125, Rick. And I made calls. I say, ‘You’d better let that oil — that gasoline flow,’ and they did and now it’s down to $44, and I put out a social media statement yesterday. I said, ‘Do you think it’s luck that that happened?’ It’s not luck. It’s not luck. I called up certain people and I said, ‘Let that damn oil and gasoline, you let it flow, the oil!’ It was going up to $125. If that would have happened then you would have had a recession, depression like we’ve had in the past when that happened.”
The president has little power to move prices at the gas pump in any direction because they depend on market forces beyond his control. A variety of market factors has contributed to the falling price of gasoline. None of them involves Trump’s phone calls to foreign leaders in oil-rich countries.
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