WASHINGTON >> Playing defense, President Donald Trump made up facts in the aftermath of two mass shootings and as U.S. businesses braced for a potentially devastating trade war with China.
Trump distorted science in seeking to assign blame on video games for the deadly shootings in Texas and Ohio, rather than on his own words that critics say contributed to a combustible racial climate spawning violence. He also pointed to an imminent magic solution in the form of legislation on background checks that was far from certain and misrepresented his record on gun control.
On trade, Trump repeatedly exaggerated the benefits of tariffs and sought unfairly to fault the Federal Reserve — not his own policies — for any weakness in the U.S. economy. Trump says he will impose new taxes on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports on Sept. 1 that are almost certain to inflict pain on American consumers.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden claimed Trump did nothing on gun control, but in fact Trump banned bump stocks, a gun attachment deemed legal during the Obama-Biden administration.
A look at recent claims and reality:
TRUMP: “China wants to make a deal so badly. Thousands of companies are leaving because of the Tariffs, they must stem the flow.” — tweet Saturday.
TRUMP: “China is losing so many — they’re losing — thousands and thousands of companies are leaving China now because of the tariffs.” — remarks to reporters Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Not so fast. It’s true that many companies are rethinking their supply chains in an effort to dodge Trump’s tariffs on goods from China. Some are moving production to other countries such as Vietnam and Mexico. But there’s no evidence of a mass exodus. For one thing, relocating factories takes time — often 12 to 18 months. For another, it will be hard for multinationals to duplicate what they have in China — long-standing relationships with Chinese contractors and access to a vast array of specialized suppliers who can quickly deliver niche components.
Trump is seeking to intensify pressure on China to reach a trade deal by saying he will impose 10% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion in Chinese imports he hasn’t already taxed.
TRUMP: “China dropped the price of their currency to an almost a historic low. It’s called ‘currency manipulation.’ Are you listening Federal Reserve? This is a major violation which will greatly weaken China over time!” — tweet on Aug. 5.
TRUMP: “China is intent on continuing to receive the hundreds of Billions of Dollars they have been taking from the U.S. with unfair trade practices and currency manipulation. So one-sided, it should have been stopped many years ago!” — tweet on Aug. 5.
THE FACTS: He’s misrepresenting the facts.
Trump is correct to be worried that China may decide to use its currency as a weapon in its ongoing trade war with the United States. But it is Trump’s own Treasury Department that had failed to cite China as a currency manipulator in five reports it had issued since Trump took office in January 2017, even though Trump promised in the 2016 campaign to do so right away. Treasury’s surprise move to formally label China a currency manipulator last Monday came after China allowed its currency, the yuan, to fall below the seven yuan-to-$1 level for the first time in 11 years. In the following days, China continued to lower the trading range for the yuan, showing the potential to use its currency as a weapon in the trade war with the United States.
A weaker yuan would make Chinese goods less expensive in the United States, potentially offsetting some of the impact of the tariffs Trump has already imposed on $250 billion in Chinese goods and is threatening to widen to an additional $300 billion in goods next month. Those U.S. tariffs drive up the cost of Chinese imports to American consumers.
Trump appeared to blame the Federal Reserve for not taking action against China in the currency area. In reality, the Treasury’s previous reports had repeatedly said that China did not meet the requirements established in U.S. law to be branded a currency manipulator. Under U.S. law, the Federal Reserve plays no role in deciding whether countries are unfairly manipulating their currencies.
In its announcement, the Treasury Department contended that the real purpose of “China’s currency devaluation is to gain unfair competitive advantage in international trade.” It was the first time Treasury put China on the currency blacklist since 1994.
The administration’s surprise announcement raised questions about what exactly had changed from the Treasury’s last report issued in May that said China did not meet the criteria to be labeled a currency manipulator.
TRUMP: “As your President, one would think that I would be thrilled with our very strong dollar. I am not!” — tweet Thursday.
TRUMP: “The Fed’s high interest rate level, in comparison to other countries, is keeping the dollar high, making it more difficult for our great manufacturers like Caterpillar, Boeing …. John Deere, our car companies, & others, to compete on a level playing field. With substantial Fed Cuts (there is no inflation) and no quantitative tightening, the dollar will make it possible for our companies to win against competition.” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: The president is oversimplifying the Fed’s role in determining the dollar’s value and failing to take into account possible threats to the country from a weaker dollar.
Trump is correct that U.S. interest rates play a role in determining the value of the dollar against other currencies. Higher U.S. rates tend to attract foreign investors who want to earn higher rates of return on dollar-denominated investments and this does push the dollar’s value higher.
The Fed cut its key short-term rate by a quarter-point last week, its first reduction in more than a decade. But the Fed’s action in setting its short-term rate is only one factor influencing the dollar’s value.
U.S. economic growth also plays a major role. Investors have pushed up the value of the dollar because they are attracted to U.S. assets since America’s economy is growing faster than most other major economies.
And Trump’s drumbeat for a lower dollar ignores the threats that could be posed if the dollar were to weaken significantly. That could spark higher inflation in this country and push interest rates up as foreign buyers of Treasury bonds to fund the government’s $22 trillion debt demand a higher return to guard against the devaluation of the dollar.
TRUMP: “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.” — remarks on Aug. 5.
THE FACTS: There is no scientific link between video games and mass violence.
Some studies show a short-term increase in aggressive thoughts and feelings after playing video games, but nothing that rises to the level of violence.
In 2006, a small study by Indiana University researchers found that teenagers who played violent video games showed higher levels of emotional arousal but less activity in the parts of the brain associated with the ability to plan, control and direct thoughts and behavior.
“Plenty of gamers and get upset when they lose or feel the game was ‘cheating,’ but it doesn’t lead to violent outputs,” said Benjamin Burroughs, a professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Patrick Markey, a psychology professor at Villanova University who focuses on video games, found in his research that men who commit severe acts of violence actually play violent video games less than the average male. About 20% were interested in violent video games, compared with 70% of the general population, he said.
Another study by Markey and his colleagues showed that violence tends to dip when a new violent movie or video game comes out, possibly because people are at home playing the game or in theaters watching the movie.
Trump’s recent statements assigning blame to the video game industry were more reserved compared with his last brush with the subject in 2018, when he called video games “vicious” and summoned game-industry executives to meet at the White House, to little lasting effect.
TRUMP, on prospects for gun control legislation: “There’s a great appetite — and I mean a very strong appetite — for background checks. And I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before. I think both Republican and Democrat are getting close to a bill on — they’re doing something on background checks.” — remarks to reporters Wednesday before departing for Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas.
THE FACTS: He’s overstating the level of political will for gun control measures.
Passage of a background checks bill in the Senate remains far from certain. Support for a bipartisan background checks measure co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia reached a high point with a 2013 vote after the Sandy Hook shooting, but it fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, under pressure to call senators back to Washington from their summer recess to work on gun measures, said Thursday that he hopes to consider legislation to expand federal background checks when Congress returns in the fall. He said he wants to spend the August recess talking with senators to see what’s possible.
Two other gun bills have passed the House this year but languished in the Republican-controlled Senate. One of them would require federal background checks for all firearms sales and transfers, including those online or at gun shows. The second bill allows an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases.
With gun control legislation stalled, some senators have pushed for a bipartisan proposal to create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt “red flag” laws to take guns away from people believed to be a danger to themselves or others. But it remains to be seen if such a law could pass Congress.
BIDEN, Democratic presidential candidate: Trump is “doing nothing — nothing about the endemic and epidemic of guns that is fueling a literal carnage in America.” — remarks Wednesday in Burlington, Iowa.
THE FACTS: He’s wrong that Trump did absolutely nothing on gun control
A nationwide ban took effect in March on bump stocks, the attachment used by the gunman in the 2017 Las Vegas massacre to make his weapons fire rapidly like machine guns.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives outlawed the attachments at Trump’s direction after the shootings killed more than 50 people in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. It is the only major gun restriction imposed by the federal government in the past few years.
The Trump administration’s move was an about-face for the bureau. In 2010, under the Obama-Biden administration, it found that the devices were legal. But under the Trump administration, officials revisited that determination and found it incorrect.
After the Las Vegas shootings, the National Rifle Association initially said “devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.” After the bureau’s ruling banning the devices, however, the gun lobby called it “disappointing” and said it should have provided amnesty for gun owners who already have bump stocks.
The government estimates that more than 500,000 bump stocks were sold after they were legalized in 2010.
TRUMP, on gun restrictions: “We have done much more than most administrations. …We’ve done, actually, a lot.” — remarks on Aug. 4 to reporters.
THE FACTS: Trump’s record on gun control is not groundbreaking.
Congress has proved unable to pass substantial gun violence legislation, despite the frequency of mass shootings, in large part because of resistance from Republicans, particularly in the GOP-controlled Senate. That political dynamic seems difficult to change.
It’s true that after other mass shootings Trump called for strengthening the federal background check system, and in 2018, he signed legislation to increase federal agency data sharing. In December 2018, the Trump administration also banned bump stocks.
But he has rolled back restrictions, reneged on pledges and resisted Democratic calls to toughen other gun control laws.
Within weeks of taking office, Trump scrapped a federal rule imposed by Obama that could have made it harder for some mentally ill people to own guns. Under the rule, the Social Security Administration was supposed to provide information to the gun-buying background check system on recipients with a mental disorder so severe they cannot work or handle their own benefit checks. The rule didn’t make certain people ineligible to buy a firearm but was designed to ensure the background check system was comprehensive.
In February, the House approved bipartisan legislation to require federal background checks for all gun sales and transfers and approved legislation to allow a review period of up to 10 days for background checks on firearms purchases. The White House threatened a presidential veto if those measures passed Congress.
At a February meeting with survivors and family members of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting in which 17 people died, Trump promised to be “very strong on background checks.” Trump claimed he would stand up to the gun lobby and finally get results in quelling gun violence. But he later retreated, expressing support for modest changes to the federal background check system and for arming teachers.
Some Democrats have called for stronger measures such as renewing a federal ban on assault weapons, which was put in place during the Clinton administration before it expired under President George W. Bush. Trump has shown no interest in embracing that issue.
TRUMP: “We must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment, but, when necessary, involuntary confinement.” — remarks on Aug. 5.
THE FACTS: His words don’t match his past actions.
Trump’s budgets would have slashed the federal-state Medicaid program, which provides health insurance for more than 70 million low-income and disabled people and is also the major source of public funds for mental health treatment.
Such proposals failed to advance in Congress, even when both chambers were under Republican control.
The president’s 2020 budget does call for some spending increases on smaller mental health programs, including an increase of $15 million, for a total of $107 million, to expand school-based programs. The Parkland shootings last year at a Florida high school heightened sensitivity to the mental health needs of students.
But such increases for specific programs pale in comparison with the impact of Medicaid cuts. This year Trump again proposed to turn the program over to the states, limiting future federal financing. That would have led to a cut of about $1.4 trillion over 10 years from currently projected levels of federal spending.
The administration says that’s not really a cut, since spending would have continued to grow, just more slowly. But limits on federal financing would have forced states to confront hard choices over competing priorities like mental health or addiction treatment, nursing home costs or prenatal care for low-income women.
As a candidate, Trump had originally promised that he would not cut Medicaid.
TRUMP: “I am the least racist person. Black … Unemployment is the lowest (BEST) in the history of the United States!” — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Trump is seeking credit he doesn’t deserve for black job growth.
It’s true that black unemployment did reach a record low during the Trump administration: 5.9% in May 2018. It currently stands at 6%.
But many economists view the continued economic growth since the middle of 2009, when Obama was in office, as the primary explanation for hiring. More important, there are multiple signs that the racial wealth gap is now worsening and the administration appears to have done little, if anything, to specifically address this challenge.
The most dramatic drop in black unemployment came under Obama, when it fell from a recession high of 16.8% in March 2010 to 7.8% in January 2017.