Fact checking Saturday's GOP debate

Fact checking Saturday's GOP debate
Posted at 11:44 PM, Feb 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-14 00:44:58-05

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PolitiFact's reporters and editors fact-check statements from the White House, Congress, candidates, advocacy groups and more, rating claims for accuracy on its Truth-O-Meter.

The meter rates statements as true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and even ‘pants on fire’ for what PolitiFact deems are big lies. Every fact-check includes analysis of the claim and an explanation of its reasoning.

Reporters and editors at PolitiFact watched and listened closely Saturday night as six candidates laid out their positions in the ninth Republican presidential debate ahead of the 2016 election.

Here is what the fact-checkers had to say about some of the claims made during the debate:

Donald Trump: On the Iraq war, "I said it loud and clear, 'You'll destabilize the Middle East.'"

In one of the most heated and personal back-and-forths from a debate this cycle, Donald Trump eviscerated former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for supporting his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Trump stood by his comment in 2008 that Democrats should have impeached President George W. Bush over the invasion when asked about it in the Feb. 13 CBS debate in South Carolina. Trump vigorously refuted Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio’s statements hailing the former president’s leadership, saying, "The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe."

Again, Trump said he was against the war from the very beginning.

"I'm the only one on this stage that said, ‘Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq,’ " Trump said. "Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn't a politician, fortunately. But I said it, and I said it loud and clear, ‘You'll destabilize the Middle East.’ "

Trump often repeats this line, and we’ve rated a similar Trump claim Mostly False, because he didn’t appear to take any public position on the war until after the March 2003 invasion. In this more recent version of the statement, he also said he stated his opposition to the war "loud and clear." But the public record of his positions is thin.

Let’s revisit the facts.

We searched newspaper articles and television transcripts from 2002 and 2003, during the debate leading up to the Iraq War. We didn’t find any examples of Trump unequivocally denouncing the war until a year after the war began.

Trump’s comments

We only found one instance where Trump discussed the war before it started. On Jan. 28, 2003, just under three months before the invasion, Fox News’ Neil Cavuto asked Trump whether President Bush should be more focused on Iraq or the economy.

Speaking of Iraq, Trump said, "Well, he has either got to do something or not do something, perhaps, because perhaps shouldn't be doing it yet and perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations, you know. He's under a lot of pressure. I think he's doing a very good job. But, of course, if you look at the polls, a lot of people are getting a little tired. I think the Iraqi situation is a problem. And I think the economy is a much bigger problem as far as the president is concerned."

Trump seems to be skeptical of the mission in Iraq here, and he said the economy should be a higher priority. But he did not say anything that resembles his claim that Bush should not proceed because a war would  "destabilize the Middle East."

A single, squishy comment about the looming war does not qualify as "loud and clear" opposition.

The United States invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003.

A week later Trump gave differing takes. At an Academy Awards after-party, Trump said that "the war’s a mess," according to the Washington Post. He told Fox News that because of the war, "The market’s going to go up like a rocket."

Trump’s harshest criticism came more than a year into the war, in an August 2004 article in Esquire:

"Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we're in. I would never have handled it that way. Does anybody really believe that Iraq is going to be a wonderful democracy where people are going to run down to the voting box and gently put in their ballot and the winner is happily going to step up to lead the country? C'mon. Two minutes after we leave, there's going to be a revolution, and the meanest, toughest, smartest, most vicious guy will take over. And he'll have weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam didn't have.

"What was the purpose of this whole thing? Hundreds and hundreds of young people killed. And what about the people coming back with no arms and legs? Not to mention the other side. All those Iraqi kids who've been blown to pieces. And it turns out that all of the reasons for the war were blatantly wrong. All this for nothing!"

He told CNN’s Larry King in November 2004, "I do not believe that we made the right decision going into Iraq, but, you know, hopefully, we'll be getting out."

Clearly Trump opposed the Iraq War in its early years. There’s no evidence, though, that he advocated against the war in the first place, or that he was especially vocal about it destabilizing the Middle East.

Our ruling

On the Iraq war, Trump said, "I said it loud and clear, 'You'll destabilize the Middle East.' "

Maybe Trump felt this way privately, but he made no publicly reported comments in the lead-up to the Iraq War that reflect this sentiment. He certainly did not say it "loud and clear."

We could only find one example of Trump commenting on the Iraq War before the invasion, and he seemed apprehensive but not vehemently opposed to the operation. He only started publicly denouncing the war after it started.

Because he far overstated how loudly he declared his position on the Iraq War, we’re cranking the rating on this statement up to False.

Marco Rubio: "It has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president appointed a Supreme Court justice."

The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a key topic at the start of the Republican presidential debate in South Carolina Saturday night.

Some of the candidates, including Sen. Marco Rubio, called on President Barack Obama to hold back on his replacement and leave the decision to the next president.

"I do not believe the president should appoint someone," said Rubio, a Florida senator. "And it's not unprecedented. In fact, it has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice."

Let’s see what history shows about lame-duck presidential picks to the Supreme Court. We emailed spokespersons for Rubio and did not hear back.


Technically presidents don’t "appoint" a justice to the Supreme Court. They nominate someone who is then confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

There’s also the problem of whether Obama should be considered a lame duck or not. Some would say Obama isn’t a lame duck until after Election Day in November when his successor is chosen. Others might say all second-term presidents are lame ducks because they know they won’t serve again.

"The definition has evolved," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Decades ago, the lame-duck label was applied to a president after an election, but the term has changed over time to include any officeholder in his or her last term.

Either way, election-year Supreme Court nominations are rare.

Rubio’s statement prompted several comments on Twitter from those who noted a specific exception to his claim: the nomination of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The Senate confirmed Kennedy 97-0 on Feb. 4, 1988. That was about 18 years ago -- not 80.

Kennedy replaced Justice Lewis Powell, who retired, and was Reagan’s third nomination for the opening, after Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg. Powell announced his retirement in June 1987.

Reagan, who was in his second term, nominated Kennedy in November 1987. Kennedy was confirmed in February 1988. In November 1988, Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush won the presidency.

"The nomination actually wasn't in the election year, although the confirmation vote was," said Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet.

This came up minutes later in the debate, when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said, "We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year." Debate moderator John Dickerson of CBS News corrected Cruz by noting that Kennedy was confirmed in 1988.

We’re not certain which nomination Rubio was referring to 80 years ago. One possibility is when President Herbert Hoover nominated Benjamin Nathan Cardozo to fill a vacancy in February 1932, and Cardozo was confirmed that same month. Hoover then went on to lose re-election later that year.

"But Hoover was not a lame duck; he was eligible for re-election even though he lost," said Russell Wheeler, an expert on the courts at the Brookings Institution and former deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center.

As of 2010, the Senate has rejected 16 of 34 Supreme Court nominations because of opposition to the nominating president, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report. Seven of the rejected nominations were put forward by presidents in their final year in office after a new president had been elected but before the successor took over. But those were more than 80 years ago.

"Each of these ‘lame duck’ nominations transpired under 19th century presidents when the post-election period lasted from early November until early March," the report states.

Our ruling

Rubio said, "It has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president appointed a Supreme Court justice."

The most recent contradiction of this claim would be Reagan’s nomination of Kennedy. Kennedy was nominated in November 1987 and confirmed during Reagan’s final year of office in February 1988.

Reagan’s timeline doesn’t exactly line up with what Obama faces; Reagan had more time between his nomination and the end of his presidency. But it’s hard for us to see how Obama can be considered a lame duck but not Reagan. Both were second-term presidents who knew they would not serve again but did not yet know who their successor would be.

We rate this claim Mostly False.