Fact-checking the first GOP debate: Roundup from PolitiFact

ByRiley Hoffman ABCNews logo
Thursday, August 24, 2023

ABC News has compiled all of PolitiFact's fact-checking that took place during the first Republican debate Wednesday night for the 2024 election.

The two-hour event was hosted by Fox News Channel, with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderating.

Eight candidates qualified for a spot on the stage: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

Noticeably absent from the debate was former President Donald Trump, who instead released a pretaped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Carlson's X account as the debate got underway.

PolitiFact doesn't fact-check every candidate's claim but focuses on "claims that are particularly interesting, in the news or obviously potentially wrong," said Aaron Sharockman, PolitiFact's executive director.

Fact-checking DeSantis' claim: "We kept our state free and open"

DeSantis revels in his record of snubbing public health recommendations to curb the spread of COVID-19. But he largely omits the closures of schools and businesses that happened under his watch.

Seven states did not issue stay-at-home orders to their residents, but not Florida.

On April 1, 2020, DeSantis issued an executive order directing all Florida residents to "limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home." The order expired April 30, 2020, and Florida began a phased reopening in May.

Though he carved out an exception for religious services and some recreational activities, DeSantis didn't exempt in-person classroom instruction. DeSantis' Department of Education issued a March 13 recommendation that Florida schools close their facilities for an extended spring break before lengthening the closure through the end of the school year in early June.

Schools reopened in person in August 2020.

Fact-checking Vivek Ramaswamy's claim: "The climate change agenda is a hoax."

This is false.

More than 97% of the world's climate scientists and a majority of domestic and international scientific organizations agree that human activity is causing Earth to warm, causing long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns, which is known as climate change.

Increased levels of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, from human activity cause the Earth to warm by blocking heat from escaping the atmosphere and radiating it back toward Earth's surface. Changes to the Earth's climate have resulted in warmer temperatures, a rising sea level and more extreme weather events like flooding and wildfires.

"It is undeniable that human activities have produced the atmospheric gases that have trapped more of the Sun's energy in the Earth system," NASA's website says. "This extra energy has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land, and widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred."

Fact-checking Pence on public support for a 15-week abortion ban

During the abortion back-and-forth, Pence claimed that 70 percent of Americans support a 15-week abortion ban. He's cherry-picking the results from one poll.

A 2022 survey from the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University and The Harris Poll asked respondents, "Do you think your state should allow abortion...?"

Twenty-three percent said up to 15 weeks, 12% said up to six weeks, and 37% said only in cases of rape and incest. That's 72% all together. However, answers in surveys vary greatly depending on how the question is asked.

A 2022 Economist/YouGov poll asked specifically about a 15-week ban - 39% supported it, 46% opposed it. A 2023 PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll asked respondents whether abortion should be allowed until 24 weeks - 44 percent said yes.

Fact-checking Scott's claim that DOJ called parents 'domestic terrorists'

In talking about the weaponization of the Department of Justice, Scott trotted out a line he's used before - that parents at school board meetings, "they're called, under this DOJ, 'domestic terrorists.'"

That's false.

In 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI to address violent threats against school board members. The memo never called concerned parents "domestic terrorists" and maintained that "spirited debate" surrounding school policy is protected by the U.S. Constitution. A lawsuit against Garland also found that parents' rights had not been violated.

Fact-checking Nikki Haley's claim: Vivek Ramaswamy wants to 'defund Israel!'

Ramaswamy has expressed interest in cutting aid to Israel, but not immediately. In an August interview with actor Russell Brand, Ramaswamy said, "I believe in standing by commitments that we've already made." He referred to the 2016 agreement for the U.S. to provide Israel with $38 billion in military aid covering 2019 through 2028.

But Ramaswamy said he wants to negotiate "Abraham Accords 2.0" with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Indonesia to "get Israel on its own two feet." The Abraham Accords in 2020 normalized diplomatic relations among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

"Come 2028, that additional aid won't be necessary in order to still have the kind of stability that we would actually have in the Middle East by having Israel more integrated in with its partners," Ramaswamy said. "Then it puts us in a position, everybody's position, to say we don't have to meddle."

On Aug. 18, Ramaswamy posted that "we will not leave Israel hanging out to dry - ever."

Fact-checking DeSantis' claim that Florida eliminated critical race theory from schools

That's mostly false.

In checking previous instances when DeSantis made this same claim, PolitiFact found no evidence that critical race theory, a broad set of ideas about racism being woven into American systems, was being taught in Florida's K-12 schools in the first place. Educators, school officials and several Florida public school districts told us that critical race theory has never been part of the state curriculum.

PolitiFact found a few examples of state education officials objecting to textbooks and courses they said contained critical race theory teaching in recent years. They show the state's objections to prospective teaching materials and success in preventing content it deemed to be critical race theory-related. But, questions remain about its rationale and broad definition of the theory and other prohibited topics.

Fact-checking DeSantis on critical race theory

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he "eliminated critical race theory" in Florida's K-12 schools.

This is mostly false.

Florida rejected prospective materials that it said related to critical race theory, but questions remain about its rationale and broad definition. Educators, school officials and several school districts confirmed that critical race theory has never been part of the state's K-12 curriculum.

Are younger Americans less patriotic, as Vivek Ramaswamy said?

Recent polling shows there is a declining number of adults who describe themselves as "very proud" to be American. However, it's a pattern for all age groups, not just young people. Still, young Americans surveyed express some degree of national pride.

This is half true.

Vivek Ramaswamy has previously said that young Americans are no longer proud to be American.

Fact-checking Burgum's 87,000 IRS agent stat

This is ... what we call a zombie stat. It's mostly false.

The Biden administration never proposed hiring 87,000 additional or new IRS agents.

This 87,000 figure comes from a May 2021 Treasury Department assessment of how it would use $80 billion to improve IRS operations. The report said the IRS would add 86,852 new full-time positions.

But even in the 2021 plan, not all of the hires would be auditors or work in enforcement. The report said the money would go toward many things, including "hiring new specialized enforcement staff, modernizing antiquated information technology, and investing in meaningful taxpayer service."

Although the agency's staff would increase, it's key to note that over half of the IRS workforce is close to retirement. The plan was created with that exodus in mind and aims to hire thousands of people to simply maintain current levels. Today, the IRS has about 80,000 employees.

"The IRS will lose about 50,000 people over the next five or six years," said Natasha Sarin, Treasury's counselor for tax policy and implementation. "A lot of this hiring is about replacing those people."

This fact-checking was done by a team of more than 30 fact-checkers who watched Wednesday's debate. PolitiFact has been "been fact-checking presidential politics since 2007 using their Truth-O-Meter, which helps them rate claims based on their relative accuracy."

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