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Fact-Checking the First 2020 Presidential Debate, Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump

presidential debate stage
The first presidential debate on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP via PolitiFact)

VPM is publishing PolitiFact's fact checks of the first 2020 presidential debate. If you missed it live, you can still watch the entire debate - and all of the PBS pre-coverage - on our site.

President Donald Trump’s constant interruptions of both Democratic nominee Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace threw the first presidential debate of 2020 into a state of confusion. Biden began interrupting as well as the two candidates clashed over the coronavirus crisis, racial justice protests, the economy and Trump’s taxes. 

Trump used some of the falsehoods from his COVID-19 talking points, and Biden floated some inaccuracies about Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Many of the candidates’ claims needed a fact-check.

Trump: "We guaranteed preexisting conditions." 


President Trump signed an executive order on Sept. 24 that says those with preexisting conditions will be able to get affordable health care coverage. The executive order language was a response to criticisms about Trump’s efforts against the Affordable Care Act. However, legal and health policy experts said that the executive order guarantees nothing near the protections in the ACA. The experts said actual congressional legislation, not this type of order, is necessary to maintain these preexisting conditions protections if the ACA goes away.

Biden: "The president has no plan" for the coronavirus pandemic.

Needs context

The Trump administration has announced a plan on how it will distribute vaccines. The plan shows that the federal government aims to make the two-dose vaccine free of cost, for instance. 

However, public health experts have said that Trump and his administration did not have a plan to combat the pandemic or a national testing plan.

Trump: "If you had good forest management you wouldn’t be getting … calls (that California’s on fire)."

Rating: False

Forest maintenance does play a role in mitigating forest fires, but that doesn't negate the fact that climate change has made California’s environment much more flammable. Climatologists, ecologists and wildfire experts all told us that climate change has not only fueled the fires but also worsened their impact. 

The area affected by wildfires in California has expanded tenfold over the last four decades. Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, told us that "about half" of that increase is attributable to the effects of global warming. 

Trump: Says Biden "wants to shut down the country."

Needs context

In an interview with  CBS News, Biden was asked if he was prepared to shut down the country down to deal with the coronavirus.

"I would be prepared to do whatever it takes to save lives, because we cannot get the country moving until we control the virus,"  Biden said. "In order to keep the country running and moving and the economy growing, and people employed, you have to fix the virus, you have to deal with the virus."  

And then he said, "I would shut it down. I would listen to the scientists." 

Trump: "Why did (Hunter Biden) deserve three and a half million from Moscow?"

Limited and disputed evidence

Trump hit an unverified story about Biden’s son Hunter over and over again. "Why is it, just out of curiosity, the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son three and half million dollars," Trump said.

A Senate Republican report said the widow of the ex-mayor sent $3.5 million to an American account in 2014. 

Republicans tied Hunter Biden to the account, but refused to share any documents that might substantiate that. Hunter Biden’s lawyer said he had no connection to the account. Democratic Senate staff said they’ve seen the documents that Republicans have, and that they don’t tie Hunter Biden to the account.

Trump: "I’m getting (insulin) so cheap, it’s like water."

Rating: Mostly False

Trump signed an executive order on insulin at the end of July, but the scope was limited. It targeted a select group of health care providers that represent fewer than 2% of the relevant outlets for insulin. Between 2017 and 2018, insulin prices for seniors rose.

"The truth is that patients who need drugs like insulin are having a hard time affording them, particularly for the many who are now uninsured," said Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Stacie Dusetzina.

Trump: "I don't think you have any law enforcement (endorsements)."


Many police unions have endorsed Trump, the largest being the  Fraternal Order of Police representing about 355,000 officers. But he goes too far in saying Biden has no support.

The Biden campaign shared a list of over 190 current or former law enforcement officials who back him. It is mainly a mix of sheriffs and prosecutors at a variety of levels, from county to U.S. attorneys

Trump: "I have Florida, I have Texas, I have Ohio, I have, excuse me, Portland. The sheriff just came out today and he said I support President Trump."


Portland is in Multnomah County, and Sheriff Mike Reese  tweeted he doesn’t back Trump.

"As the Multnomah County Sheriff I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him," Reese said.

Trump: I paid "millions of dollars" in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.


This is countered by reporting from the New York Times, which obtained years of tax-return data for Trump and his businesses. The Times reported that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, and no taxes at all in 10 of the 15 years before that.

Trump has refused to release his tax returns, pending an audit, and he likely pays other types of taxes. But on federal income taxes, he has not provided evidence to refute the Times report. There’s "no evidence of millions in income taxes," said Edward McCaffery, a professor of law, economics and political science at the University of Southern California.

Trump: Says Joe Biden "said you went to Delaware State but you forgot the name of your college."

Rating: False

Trump’s claim was putting words in Biden’s mouth. The former vice president never said that he attended Delaware State. 

Trump appeared to be referring to a remark that Biden made at a  town hall in Florence, S.C., where he said that he got his "start" at DSU. In context, it’s clear that Biden wasn’t implying that he went to the university, but referencing the support he received from the school in 1972 when he announced his run for U.S. Senate on the campus. 

Biden: Says Trump suggested that "maybe you could inject some bleach in your arm and that would take care of (the coronavirus)."

Needs context

Trump did not explicitly suggest that people inject bleach in their arms. He did express interest in exploring whether disinfectants could be applied to the site of a coronavirus infection. The comment came after an administration official presented a study that found sun exposure and cleaning agents like bleach could kill the virus when it lingers on surfaces.

On disinfectant, Trump said: "And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that, so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me."

Trump: "Today there was a big problem in Philadelphia. They went into watch. They were called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren't allowed to watch."


Pennsylvania allows campaigns and parties to appoint two poll watchers per precinct to observe voting at polling places on Election Day, and if necessary file legal challenges. But starting this week, Philadelphia opened the first satellite office for a new form of early voting. These offices don’t allow poll watchers, according to the city. 

A woman showed up at a satellite office at an elementary school on Sept. 29 and said she was there to monitor the election but provided no proof she was a poll watcher. The woman told the Philadelphia Inquirer, a PolitiFact partner, that she was hired by the Trump campaign but would not provide her name.

Trump: "Take a look at West Virginia, mailmen selling the ballots."


A mail carrier in West Virginia pled guilty to charges related to attempted election fraud, but not for selling ballots. We found no evidence of mailmen selling ballots, and the Trump campaign did not provide backup for Trump’s claim.

The clerk of Pendleton County in April received primary election absentee ballot request forms from eight voters on which the voter's party-ballot request appeared to have been altered,  said the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of West Virginia.

An investigation found that five ballot requests had been altered from "Democrat" to "Republican." In three other requests, the party wasn’t changed, but the request was altered, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Thomas Cooper, 47, who held a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail in Pendleton County, admitted to altering some of the requests. He said it was a joke. Cooper pled guilty in July to one count of attempting to defraud West Virginia residents of "a fair election" and one count of "injury to the mail."

Trump: "I’m the one that brought back football. By the way, I’m the one that brought back Big Ten football." 


Trump did  push the Big Ten college football conference to reverse its decision to not play football this fall over COVID-19 concerns, and spoke with Kevin Warren, the conference’s commissioner.

But National Collegiate Athletic Association president, Mark Emmert, said he hadn’t talked with the White House since April, and Big Ten officials who voted to resume play in October said Trump’s position wasn’t significant in their reversal. 

An unidentified Big Ten member president  insisted that Trump's calls for fall football played no role in the conference’s decisions.

Trump: "I don’t think (Kellyanne Conway) said that" riots, chaos and violence helps Trump’s cause.

She did.

In an Aug. 27 interview with "Fox & Friends," former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was asked about former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg blaming Trump for unrest in cities. "I guess Mayor Pete knows full stop that the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order," Conway said.

Trump: Says his rallies were "outdoors."


Trump has held many outdoor rallies, but he did hold indoor rallies in Nevada and Oklahoma in recent months. Trump held a rally June 20 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. Arena officials, who scanned tickets, said the crowd totaled around 6,200.

On Sept. 13, about 5,600 supporters gathered to hear Trump speak at Xtreme Manufacturing, a warehouse, in Henderson, Nev., despite a state rule prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people. Many people in the crowd were not wearing masks. The company was fined by the city for multiple violations.

Trump: Says Biden called African Americans "superpredators" when he did the 1994 crime bill.

No evidence

In a Nov. 18, 1993, Senate floor speech, Biden spoke about doing something for young people who did not have supervision or structure and who did not have opportunities. He said the country needed to focus on them, because otherwise, a portion of them would "become the predators 15 years from now." Biden did not single out African Americans.

"Madam President, we have predators on our streets, and society has in fact, because of its neglect, created that," Biden said, according to the Congressional Record.

The term "superpredators" also came up during the 2016 presidential campaign between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. We found that Clinton in 1996 used the term "superpredator" when referring to "gangs of kids." Clinton did not specifically label superpredators as African American, but the context of her speech and her subsequent apology decades later suggests it was a reasonable inference.

Trump: Biden called members of the military "stupid bastards. He said it on tape. He said stupid bastards."

Rating: Half True

Biden used the term "stupid bastards" as part of a joke in addressing a group of airmen during a trip overseas in 2016. 

Biden’s presidential campaign confirmed that he called the service members in the audience "stupid bastards" and a "dull bunch," but said his remarks were made not in disrespect, but in jest to generate applause for a female lieutenant he was referencing. In his full speech, Biden repeatedly complimented the troops and spoke about his late son Beau, who served as a major in the Delaware Army National Guard.

Biden: Trump is "the only one defunding" police. His budget "calls for a $400 million cut in local law enforcement assistance."

Rating: Mostly True

Trump’s budget plan for FY 2021 sought to reduce spending on state and local law enforcement aid in two ways. He would cut $280 million from a broad range of assistance programs, and another $170 million from a community policing initiative, Community Oriented Policing Services, that dates back to the days of President Bill Clinton. 

The total is over $400 million. The caveat is most — but not all — of the affected programs provide direct aid to local police. There is some money aimed at teens who are at risk or have already broken the law, with the goal of keeping them out of prison.

Biden: "We have a higher deficit with China now than we did before."

Rating:  Mostly False

The most inclusive measurement of trade, which includes goods and services, shows that the U.S. trade deficit with China was smaller under Trump in 2019, the most recent full year, than it was in any of the final three years of the Obama administration.

But looking only at goods shows the trade deficit was generally higher under Trump than it was in the Obama years. Still, in 2019, it declined to around the same level as the final year of the Obama administration.

Biden: Violent crime went down "15% in our administration. It’s gone up on his watch."

Partially accurate

Biden is right about the Obama-Biden record, but wrong about Trump’s record. The violent crime rate fell nearly 16% from 2008, when Barack Obama and Biden were elected, to 2016, the last full year of their administration. But the violent crime rate has decreased every year Trump has been in office, according to FBI data.

Biden earlier this month claimed that when he was vice president, violent crime fell 15% and that the murder rate was up 26% across the nation this year under Trump. We rated that Half True; that comparison was based on snapshots of different crime data and at different time intervals during each administration.

Trump: Obama and Biden "passed a tax bill that gave us all of these privileges for depreciation, tax credits. We build a building, and we get tax credits, like the hotel on Pennsylvania Ave."

Needs context

The Trump campaign referred PolitiFact to a passage in the New York Times’ recent  investigation into Trump’s taxes (a report that Trump has called " fake news"). The passage referred to a change in tax law signed by President Barack Obama during the Great Recession that allowed losses from businesses to be used to reduce tax liability for four previous years, rather than the previous limit of two years.

But the relevance of this provision to his hotel property on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., is less clear. During the Obama years, Trump struck a deal with the federal government to turn the Old Post Office building into a hotel. A 2015  report by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., found that the Trump Organization directly  received $40 million under the Federal Historic Tax Credit. This tax credit was not enacted under Obama and Biden; it has been on the books  since 1976.

Biden: "One in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of the coronavirus."

Needs context

It’s tough to say precisely how many African Americans have died of COVID-19 because the government does not have complete information about the race and ethnicity of those who have died. But based on limited available data, Biden seems to be in the ballpark. Earlier this month,  the research arm of American Public Media found that 1 in 1,020 Black Americans has died of the virus — the highest mortality rate of any racial group nationwide — based on death rate data collected from every state and the District of Columbia. 

Trump: "Dr. Fauci said the opposite, he said very strongly," challenging Biden’s statement that no "serious person" would say masks weren’t important in reducing COVID-19 spread. 


In a  March 7 CBS News interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, "Right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks." At the time, still early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not recommending that Americans wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Masks were instead being reserved for health care workers, because there were concerns about having shortages of personal protective equipment.

As it became clear that high percentages of people were asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, the CDC updated their guidelines on April 3 to recommend mask wearing. Fauci  later acknowledged the resulting confusion but said public health leaders were making decisions based on the information they had at the time. He has since maintained that masks are important in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

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