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Fact Checking Trump's Claims on the Economy and 2020 Election

Hope Yen

An eye toward his 2020 campaign, President Donald Trump is turning to a familiar playbook of exaggerated boasts about economic performance and overdrawn complaints about a race tilted against him.

He insisted the Electoral College gives Democrats a “big advantage” in U.S. presidential elections, making it difficult for Republicans like himself to win. That’s wrong. Though in 2016 he often described the election as “rigged” against him, Trump, in fact, wouldn’t have won the presidency without the Electoral College system in which the votes of smaller rural states that tend to vote Republican are weighted more heavily than big, Democratic-leaning states like New York and California.

Trump also claimed over the weekend that he’s presided over one of the best U.S. economies ever. He’s wrong about that, too.

The misleading rhetoric over the past week came as the president prepared to kick off his re-election campaign Tuesday in Florida.

In Trump’s reckoning, an Iran tamed by him no longer cries “death to America,” the border wall with Mexico is proceeding apace, the estate tax has been lifted off the backs of farmers, the remains of U.S. soldiers from North Korea are coming home and China is opening its wallet to the U.S. treasury for the first time in history. These claims range from flatly false to mostly so.

Here’s a look:

Electoral college

TRUMP, in part addressing polls finding him lagging some of the 2020 Democratic candidates: “It’s always tougher for the Republican because, you know, I don’t know, people — people never cover this, but the Electoral College is very much steered to the Democrats. It’s a big advantage for the Democrats. It’s very much harder for the Republicans to win.” — Fox News interview Friday.

THE FACTS: Actually, the Electoral College’s unique system of electing presidents is a big reason why Trump won the presidency. Four candidates in history, including Al Gore in 2000, have won a majority of the popular vote only to be denied the presidency by the Electoral College. All were Democrats.

In the 2016 election, Democrat Hillary Clinton received nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump after racking up more lopsided victories in big states such as New York and California, according to election data compiled by The Associated Press. But she lost the presidency due to Trump’s winning margin in the Electoral College, which came after he narrowly won less populous Midwestern states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

Unlike the popular vote, Electoral College votes are set equal to the number of U.S. representatives in each state plus its two senators. That means more weight is given to a single vote in a small state than the vote of someone in a large state.

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Economy and taxes

TRUMP: “No President has done what I have in … the first 2 1/2 years of his Presidency, including the fact that we have one of the best Economies in the history of our Country.” — tweets Saturday.

THE FACTS: This is one of Trump’s most frequent falsehoods. The economy is solid but it’s not one of the best in the country’s history. Trump is also claiming full credit for an economic expansion that began under President Barack Obama in mid-2009.

The economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. That growth was the highest in just four years for the first quarter.

In the late 1990s, growth topped 4 percent for four straight years, a level it has not yet reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth even reached 7.2 percent in 1984.

While the economy has shown strength, it grew 2.9% in 2018 — the same pace it reached in 2015 — and simply hasn’t hit historically high growth rates.

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TRUMP: “Wages are growing, and they are growing at the fastest rate for — this is something so wonderful — for blue-collar workers. The biggest percentage increase — blue-collar workers.” — remarks Tuesday in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

THE FACTS: He’s claiming credit for a trend of rising wages for lower-income blue-collar workers that predates his presidency.

Some of the gains also reflect higher minimum wages passed at the state and local level; the Trump administration opposes an increase to the federal minimum wage.

With the unemployment rate at 3.6%, the lowest since December 1969, employers are struggling to fill jobs. Despite all the talk of robots and automation, thousands of restaurants, warehouses, and retail stores still need workers.

They are offering higher wages and have pushed up pay for the lowest-paid one-quarter of workers more quickly than for everyone else since 2015. In April, the poorest 25% saw their paychecks increase 4.4% from a year earlier, compared with 3.1% for the richest one-quarter.

Those gains are not necessarily flowing to the “blue collar” workers Trump cited. Instead, when measured by industry, wages are rising more quickly for lower-paid service workers. Hourly pay for retail workers has risen 4.1% in the past year and 3.8% for hotel and restaurant employees. Manufacturing workers — the blue collars — have seen pay rise just 2.2% and construction workers, 3.2%.

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TRUMP: “And to keep your family farms and ranches in the family, we eliminated the estate tax, also known as the ‘death tax,’ on the small farms and ranches and other businesses. That was a big one. … People were having a farm, they loved their children, and they want to leave it to their children. … And the estate tax was so much, the children would have to go out and borrow a lot of money from unfriendly bankers, in many cases. And they’d end up losing the farm, and it was a horrible situation.” — remarks in Council Bluffs.

THE FACTS: There still is an estate tax. More small farms may be off the hook for it as a result of changes by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2017 but very few farms or small businesses were subject to the tax even before that happened.

Congress increased the tax exemption — temporarily — so fewer people will be subject to those taxes.

Previously, any assets from estates valued at more than $5.49 million, or nearly $11 million for couples, were subject to the estate tax in 2017. The new law doubled that minimum for 2018 to $11.2 million, or $22.4 million for couples. For 2019, the minimums rose to $11.4 million, or $22.8 million for couples. Those increased minimums will expire at the end of 2025.

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, only about 80 small farms and closely held businesses were subject to the estate tax in 2017. Those estates represent about 1 percent of all taxable estate tax returns.

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