February 28, 2017

Here We Go Again: Politifact Rates Trump’s Obvious Facts About the National Debt ‘Mostly False’

On Saturday, President Donald Trump tweeted that “The media has not reported that the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo.” Demonstrating that “fact checking” by the partisan press is a sick joke which has instead turned into a vehicle to make cheap political points, Politifact rated Trump’s utterly true statement “Mostly False.”

As to the tweet:

  • It is beyond dispute that the media did not cover the change in the national debt during Trump’s first month.
  • It is beyond dispute that the national debt fell during Trump’s first month by $12 billion

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  • It is beyond dispute that the national debt rose during Barack Obama’s first month in office by $212 billion.

That’s it. All the facts are there. They all check out. From a fact-checking standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with what Trump tweeted. Politifact’s only rational evaluation should have been “True.”

But as I said in the opening paragraph, fact-checking is now a sick joke and long ago ceased being a genuine enterprise in objective evaluation.

Here’s why Politifact’s Aaron Sharockman, after headlining that Trump’s statement is “highly misleading,” wrote that Trump’s statement is “Mostly False”:

Trump tweeted, “The National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion.”

Trump would be wise to not read too much into this figure, which sounds more noteworthy than it actually is. The national debt fluctuates up and down depending on the day. While the debt is “down” after one month, experts say that trend will reverse and the debt will continue to rise.

This factoid is a gross misrepresentation of the state of the debt and the role the new president had in shaping the figure.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Horse manure:

  • Trump didn’t publicly “read anything” into the $12 billion figure except to note its existence.
  • The future path of the debt is irrelevant, because Trump didn’t say anything about it.
  • Trump didn’t “misrepresent anything.” He stated three absolutely true facts.
  • Although one can surely question why he bothered publishing the tweet at all, Trump never said he “had a role in shaping the figure.”

Though the national debt reduction is interesting, unusual and unexpected — increases during the same period during previous eight years have averaged $128 billion, ranging from $54 billion to the just-cited $212 billion – Trump’s implied contention (and it’s only implied) that the press should have covered the change as a story is weak.

As a Treasury Department spokesperson told me today, there can be any number of reasons why the national debt fell by $12 billion, and virtually none of them would have any relationship to White House actions taken during Trump’s first 30 days. This spokesperson also confirmed that Treasury is taking no extraordinary actions to keep the national debt balance low in advance of the debt-limit situation which has to be addressed by March 15, when Congress’s debt ceiling suspension expires.

My own investigation leads me to believe that a major contributor to what appears to be a positive development isn’t positive at all.

Through Monday, February 22, 2016, the government issued about $105 billion in tax refunds during February (scroll down to Table 6 at link). Through Tuesday, February 21, 2016, the government issued about $34 billion in tax refunds during February (again, Table 6). That’s a $71 billion difference during three weeks of Trump’s first month. A year ago, the national debt grew by $111 billion during the analogous period. Slowing down payments prevents the government from having to borrow more money. This factor, which appears to explain about 60 percent of the improvement between this year and last year of $123 billion (this year’s $12 billion reduction compared to last year’s $111 billion increase) certainly isn’t a sign that federal finances are improving.

Trump’s tweet was at best unusual, given that — unless he knows something we don’t know and isn’t telling us, which seems highly unlikely — his actions during his first month in office had little if any impact on the result.

Additionally, without further detail, it’s also not credible to claim that there has been an alleged “Trump effect,” which would involve Americans who have known since November 8 that they have a president whose agenda, unlike his predecessor, is not about imposing ridiculous regulatory and other burdens on individuals, families, businesses and investors, changing their behavior in a way that positively influences federal finances. (Why hasn’t anyone in the press determined to “fact-check” Trump found and reported this very relevant information, which took all of 5 minutes to locate?)

If the press had merely said, “Fine, though all of this is true, it’s not a story, and here’s why,” and stopped there, Politifact wouldn’t have embarrassed itself (assuming it’s capable of being embarrassed) by “fact-checking” an obviously true statement and labeling it “Mostly False.” Others in the press could have made points which appear to be quite valid. One could even defensibly claim that Trump may be spending too much time reading center-right blogs which celebrated this non-event a day or two before Trump’s tweet instead of running the country.

But the press can’t help itself. Everything Donald Trump said must be disputed and (in their fevered minds) thoroughly discredited, with no exceptions allowed.

As long as this continues, sites like Politifact only further discredit themselves and, by associated, any others in the media (if there even are any) who are trying to take a more measured approach to covering this new administration.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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2 Comments

  1. I agree, except for two things:

    1. The press have made stories of things just as small (though I would dispute the notion that something occurring that has not occurred in 8 years is *completely* unnoteworthy) when they thought it would hurt a Republican or prop up a Dem. So an “Fine, though all of this is true, it’s not a story” response would have been hypocritical at best. They should have just let it alone, instead of making fools of themselves like Politifact did.

    2. I find your seeming accepting of the charge of the President not spending enough time running the country as being defensible very troubling. The man is out there constantly trying to make the country better, from meeting with business leaders, to signing executive orders, to building rapports with our allies, etc. Unless someone has some very deep inside eyewitness information that Trump is reading hours of center right blogs in his office every day the accusation is not defensible at all. As for the info, someone may have mentioned it in passing as he was going about his business and he then later tweeted it to tweak the media. (Which Politifact fell for.) To suggest that the tweet can only be a result of Trump reading too many center right blogs while not running the country is absurd.

    Comment by zf — February 28, 2017 @ 9:32 pm

  2. I happen to believe that Trump somtimes needs to think a bit more before he tweets. This was not his finest hour, especially given one of the major reasons for the debt drop (huge decrease in IRS refunds), and he can’t credibly claim to have influenced it. He got lucky on this one that his media opponents are so possessed that they didn’t find and report what I found.

    Comment by Tom — March 1, 2017 @ 2:56 am

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