AP FACT CHECK: Trump skews facts on EPA ethics woes, tariffs

Friday, April 6, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 14

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is sidestepping facts when it comes to the ethical questions swirling around Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt.

Trump declares that a Capitol Hill condominium rented by Pruitt that had ties to a Washington lobbyist was appropriately priced at "market rate" — even though an EPA ethics attorney now acknowledges he wasn't given the full information when he reviewed the deal. Trump's statement that Pruitt's security spending was "somewhat more" than his Democratic predecessor glosses over the reality of a 20-member full-time detail that is three times bigger than was assigned to EPA's chief in the Obama administration.

These were among a variety of questionable claims by Trump and the White House in the last week, according to an Associated Press review.

Meanwhile, on border policy, Trump played it both ways by portraying a "crisis" at the Mexico border that demands the use of National Guard troops while boasting of a huge drop in illegal border crossings there. A border crisis is in the eye of the beholder, but his claims about illegal entry into the U.S. were off.

Trump also misrepresented his tax package's place in history and the size of the U.S. trade deficit with China, a number at the heart of an intensifying trade clash between economic superpowers.

A look at the claims:

TRUMP: "While Security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA. Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars. Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK. Scott is doing a great job!" — tweet Saturday.

THE FACTS: Trump minimizes the impact of Pruitt's security spending when he says it is only "somewhat more" than before.

AP reported last week that Pruitt's concern for his safety led to a ballooning security detail that blew through overtime budgets. New procedures let Pruitt fly first-class on commercial airliners, with the security chief typically sitting next to him with other security staff farther back in the plane.

Pruitt's predecessor, Gina McCarthy, had a security detail that numbered about a half dozen, less than a third the size of Pruitt's 20-member full-time detail. She flew coach and was not accompanied by security during her off hours.

Pruitt's detail racked up so much overtime, due to his ambitious domestic and international travel, that many personnel hit annual salary caps of about $160,000. The demands of providing 24-hour coverage even meant taking some investigators away from field work, such as when Pruitt traveled to California for a family vacation.

An EPA official told AP that total security costs for Pruitt approached $3 million when pay is added to travel expenses. The EPA official spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

On Pruitt's living arrangements, Trump omits key details in asserting that the EPA chief's rental payments were "about market rate." Trump is referring to public criticism following reports of Pruitt's use of the condo owned by the wife of prominent Washington lobbyist Steven Hart.

It's true that a memo signed by EPA ethics official Kevin Minoli contends that Pruitt's $50-a-night rental payments constitute a fair market rate. Pruitt's lease, however, required him to pay just for nights he occupied in the unit. Media reports later disclosed that Pruitt's college-aged daughter occupied a second bedroom in the unit while she interned at the White House last summer.

Last week, Minoli said he wasn't provided the full facts when he ruled there was no ethics violation. In a letter obtained by AP, Minoli said he did not consider the value of a second room in his analysis.


TRUMP: "The United States hasn't had a Trade Surplus with China in 40 years. They must end unfair trade, take down barriers and charge only Reciprocal Tariffs. The U.S. is losing $500 Billion a year, and has been losing Billions of Dollars for decades. Cannot continue!" — tweet Saturday.

TRUMP: "We are not in a trade war with China, that war was lost many years ago by the foolish, or incompetent, people who represented the U.S. Now we have a Trade Deficit of $500 Billion a year, with Intellectual Property Theft of another $300 Billion. We cannot let this continue!" And: "When you're already $500 Billion DOWN, you can't lose!" — tweets Wednesday.

THE FACTS: He overstates the trade deficit with China by $163 billion.

He does this by counting Americans' purchases of goods from China as a loss for the U.S., while ignoring what China buys from the U.S. He also ignores another big part of the equation — trade in services.

Last year, Americans bought about $505.6 billion in goods from China while China bought about $130.4 billion in goods from the U.S. So the actual trade deficit in goods was just over $375 billion.

Factor in trade in services and the actual U.S trade deficit with China was $337 billion.

As for intellectual property theft, it's not clear where Trump gets his figure of $300 billion and it's not possible to be precise about illicit activity such as counterfeit goods, pirated software, theft of trade secrets and so on. But various analyses suggest his estimate is plausible.

An independent bipartisan U.S. commission estimated in 2017 that U.S. interests lost $225 billion to $600 billion from worldwide intellectual property theft, with "thousands of Chinese actors" the main culprits.


TRUMP: "Because of the Trump Administrations actions, Border crossings are at a still UNACCEPTABLE 46 year low. Stop drugs!" - tweet Thursday.

THE FACTS: Trump's numbers are dated. He's taking credit for a reduction in apprehensions at the Southwest border that began before he took office. The numbers have since risen to typical arrest rates seen during the Obama administration.

Arrests tend to follow a pattern. The numbers begin to rise late in winter, peak in the spring and dip as the Southwest heat becomes insufferable.

That pattern broke after Trump's election. Arrests dipped after the election and plunged after Trump took office. April 2017 logged the fewest arrests in a single month since the Homeland Security Department was created in 2003. Indeed, thanks to that drop, the 2017 budget year logged the fewest Border Patrol arrests in 45 years.

But after April 2017, the numbers ticked up. In the autumn they returned to rates seen during Obama's second term. New federal statistics show 50,308 arrests in March — a 203 percent increase from March 2017, when there were only 16,588 arrests, and 37 percent more than the previous month.

Trump called the numbers a "point of crisis" in his proclamation seeking National Guard deployment to the Southern border.

Apprehensions at the border are a useful gauge of illegal crossings but an imperfect one because nobody knows exactly how many people cross without being detected.


TRUMP: "For 40 years, they couldn't pass anything and they didn't know why. I said, 'How is it hard to pass tax cuts?'" — remarks Thursday in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

THE FACTS: It's not even close to true that Trump is the first president in 40 years to achieve tax cuts. Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the 2000s each achieved several rounds of historically significant tax cuts, some bigger than Trump's.


WHITE HOUSE: "President Trump's tax cuts are the biggest gross tax cuts in American history, with $5.5 trillion in gross tax cuts over ten years and $4.5 trillion in reforms." — news release Thursday.

THE FACTS: What's notable about this statement is that the White House is edging away from Trump's frequent and false boast that the tax cuts are the largest ever, period. The new statement asserts that the "gross" tax cuts are the largest in history. But that's still shoddy accounting.

The gross value of tax cuts is only one side of the ledger. The other side consists of "offsets" — various increases in certain taxes and fees, taxes created and reductions or eliminations of current tax breaks — that are used to pay for the cuts.

Economists, historians and lawmakers judge the significance of a tax package by its net effect. They measure or estimate the cost of net tax cuts to the treasury and compare that with the size of the overall economy — the gross domestic product.

By that measure, Trump's package — "reforms" and all — considerably trails Reagan's 1981 tax cuts, Obama's 2013 extension of Bush's tax cuts, and more.

The estimated cost of Trump's package is $1.5 trillion over 10 years. In October, before the details were complete, the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget assumed a higher value to the package — $2.2 trillion. Even that more significant plan ranked as only the eighth largest in history as a percentage of GDP and fourth largest by another measure — inflation-adjusted dollars.


TRUMP: "In many places like California the same person votes many times. ... They always like to say, 'Oh, that's a conspiracy theory.' Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people. And it's very hard because the state guards their records. They don't want to see it."— remarks Thursday in West Virginia.

THE FACTS: Trump is repeating a claim, without evidence, that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election, delivering the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump won the Electoral College.

Studies have found only isolated cases of voter fraud in recent U.S. elections and no evidence that election results were affected. Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found 31 cases of impersonation fraud, for example, in about 1 billion votes cast in elections from 2000 to 2014.

Trump hoped to come up with evidence of widespread fraud when he appointed a commission to study the issue. But he abandoned the effort because of infighting by the panel and lawsuits as states refused to cooperate. More than a dozen states balked at the commission's demand for reams of personal voter data, including names, partial Social Security numbers, voting histories and party affiliations.


Tax cut analysis: https://tinyurl.com/y8ktlfn3

2017 U.S. trade statistics: https://tinyurl.com/y7kz4ckz

Intellectual property theft report: https://tinyurl.com/ydc4ayd2


Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker, Jill Colvin, Marcy Gordon and Christopher Rugaber in Washington and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.


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