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Fact-checking the Las Vegas Democratic debate

The Lead's political panel discusses.

Posted: Feb 19, 2020 9:54 PM
Updated: Feb 19, 2020 11:15 PM


Welcome to CNN's fact check coverage of the Democratic presidential debate hosted by NBC News and MSNBC and held in Las Vegas ahead of Saturday's Nevada caucuses.

Tonight was the ninth presidential debate, and the first that presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg qualified for. Many of the other candidates on stage attacked the former New York mayor and billionaire on his previous policies, like 'stop and frisk' and his campaign's significant ad spending.

For candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, the debate offered a chance to turn around their poor showings in New Hampshire and Iowa, while Sen. Bernie Sanders looke to keep his lead in national polling and overtake former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg's delegate lead.

CNN fact checked candidate's claims raging from policy projections, their work history and alleged accolades and attacks on those sharing the stage.

Warren's claim about Bloomberg calling women 'horse-faced lesbians'

Warren accused Bloomberg of saying derogatory things about women.

'I'd like to talk about who we're running against,' Warren said, 'a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump, I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg.'

Facts First: It's not clear whether Bloomberg ever said these specific words, but they have been attributed to him. The quote Warren is referencing is from a booklet of alleged Bloomberg quotes given to him by an employee as a gift for his birthday in 1990. While the introduction of the book says 'these are all actual quotes,' Bloomberg has denied that he actually said any of them.

The Washington Post recently uploaded a copy of the booklet of alleged Bloomberg quotes, which includes a criticism of the British Royal family, calling them 'a bunch of misfits -- a gay, an architect, that horsey faced lesbian, and a kid who gave up Koo Stark for some fat broad.'

Bloomberg's presidential campaign spokesman Stu Loeser told the Post that 'Mike simply did not say the things somebody wrote in this gag gift, which has been circulating for 30 years and has been quoted in every previous election Mike has been in.'

The Post also reported that a Bloomberg spokesman said in 2001 that ''some of the things he might have said' and Bloomberg apologized to 'anyone that was offended by' the comments.'

However, as CNN has reported, Bloomberg has been accused of sexist and misogynistic behavior in the past. His campaign chairwoman responded to new questions about those accusations to CNN, saying in part, 'In any large organization, there are going to be complaints -- but Mike has never tolerated any kind of discrimination or harassment, and he's created cultures that are all about equality and inclusion.'

-- Holmes Lybrand

Biden's claim about Bloomberg calling Obamacare a 'disgrace'

Biden said Bloomberg called Obamacare 'a disgrace' after it passed.

'The mayor said, when we passed it, the signature piece of this administration, it's a disgrace,' Biden said. 'They're the exact words. It was a disgrace. Look it up, check it out, it was a disgrace.'

Facts First: This is true.

Bloomberg did call the final Obamacare bill 'a disgrace' during a July 2010 event at Dartmouth College, just months after the law's passage. Bloomberg added that the law did 'absolutely nothing to fix the big health care problems' calling it just 'another program that's going to cost a lot more money.'

Bloomberg defended himself at the debate, saying, 'I was in favor of it. I thought it didn't go as far as we should,' comments his campaign also made to CNN's KFile on Sunday. His campaign pointed to comments he made in 2013 on a radio program after the bill's passage as a sign of his support. 'Congress passed this, so let's try it at least,' Bloomberg said.

'Some parts of Obamacare I don't think will work, I don't think is fair, I don't think is intelligent, whatever. But I don't have a better answer other than let's try this,' Bloomberg also said.

-- Andrew Kaczynski

Biden on Bloomberg's use of 'stop and frisk'

Biden said that Bloomberg, as mayor of New York City, had 'stop and frisk -- throwing close to five million young black men up against a wall.'

Facts First: There were approximately 5 million total 'stop and frisk' stops during Bloomberg's tenure as mayor between 2002 and 2013, but Biden was inaccurate when he said that this was the number of young black men stopped. Of about 5.08 million total stops under Bloomberg, about half, approximately 2.6 million stops, were of black people -- men and women of all ages, according to police data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Biden spokesman Michael Gwin said Biden meant to refer to the total number of stops. Gwin correctly noted that the stops disproportionately targeted young African-American and Hispanic men.

Bloomberg advocated stop and frisk even after a federal judge ruled in 2013 that the way New York was using stop and frisk was unconstitutional. He began apologizing for stop and frisk in November 2019, the month he launched his presidential campaign, saying he only belatedly realized that too many innocent people were being harmed. However, his account of what happened has left out important information.

You can click here for a detailed fact check.

-- Daniel Dale

Klobuchar on her record in red districts

As she has in prior debates, Klobuchar asserted Wednesday that she's won elections in Republican-held areas.

'I'm the one on this stage that had the highest voter turnout of any state in the country when I led the ticket, as well as bringing in rural and suburban voters. And I've done that as well,' she said. 'And I'm the only one with the receipts to have done that in Republican congressional districts over and over again.'

Facts First: Partly true. Minnesota had the highest voter turnout rate of any state during each of her Senate campaigns, but Klobuchar is not the only candidate who has won Republican-held congressional districts

Biden, who spent most of his career as the senator for Delaware, won in Republican congressional districts.

Biden first won the 1972 election to be senator from Delaware and was repeatedly re-elected to serve in that position by considerable margins until he became vice president in 2009. During that time, Delaware's sole congressional district was held by Republicans from 1973 to 1983, and from 1993 to 2011.

Turnout was highest in Minnesota in years when Klobuchar ran. In her three election years, Minnesota had the highest state voter turnout nationwide.

-- Caroline Kelly

Warren on Buttigieg and Klobuchar health care proposals

Warren attacked several of her rivals on their health care plans, particularly Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

'Mayor Buttigieg, there are four expenses that families pay, right, premiums, deductibles, co-pays, uncovered medical expenses. Mayor Buttigieg says he will put a cap only on the premiums. And that means families are going to pick up the rest of the costs. Amy, I looked online at your plan. It's two paragraphs,' Warren said.

Facts First: Warren is misleading in her description of Buttigieg's plan and wrong on Klobuchar's policy, which Warren also compared to a Post-it note. Buttigieg's plan would help lower deductibles and co-pays, in addition to premiums. And Klobuchar's proposal is more than two paragraphs.

Buttigieg's proposal, which he calls Medicare for All Who Want It, would create a government-run health insurance plan, known as a public option, that would be sold on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. As Warren noted, he would expand federal premium subsidies for Obamacare policies so that more Americans qualify, and they wouldn't have to pay more than 8.5% of their income for that coverage.

However, while Buttigieg's proposal doesn't set caps on consumers' out-of-pocket spending, it would reduce what they have to pay for medical care in two ways. He would tie those premium subsidies to gold policies, which typically have lower deductibles and co-pays than the silver plans that Obamacare premium subsidies are based on now.

And he calls for increasing cost-sharing assistance, which currently caps what low-income Americans who buy Obamacare policies have to pay for care, though he doesn't provide details.

Klobuchar's website has one page that outlines her health care proposals in five paragraphs that briefly summarize her proposals on health care, prescription drugs, addiction and mental health, reproductive rights and seniors. But each of those paragraphs, except the one on reproductive rights, has a link to other pages with more details on her plans.

Warren supports Medicare for All, which would eliminate premiums, deductibles and co-pays, though she would first implement a public option-type plan that would have premiums and co-pays for some Americans.

-- Tami Luhby

Buttigieg on hostility of Sanders followers

Buttigieg criticized Sanders' handling of bullying by some of his online followers and asked, 'Why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters?' Sanders retorted, 'I don't think it is especially the case.'

Facts First: While online harassment occurs across the political spectrum and the scope of the issue is hard to quantify, Sanders has battled allegations since 2016 that his supporters engage in harassment. A digital media expert who looked into it told CNN that the hostility from some Sanders' followers outweighs that of his Democratic rivals.

Sanders leads the Democratic field in raw measures of engagement on social media with more than 10 million followers on Twitter and 5 million likes on his campaign's official Facebook page.

Among unofficial Facebook pages created by supporters of Democratic candidates, Sanders also leads with 2.5 million followers and roughly 58,000 posts between November and January, more than that of all other Democratic candidates combined, according to data from the analytics company CrowdTangle.

'Anytime you have far greater numbers, you have far greater potential for harm,' said Ben Decker, who runs the digital investigations consultancy Memetica. Decker, who has monitored Facebook groups supporting Democratic candidates and who previously spoke to CNN, said he has observed higher levels of online harassment among Sanders' followers relative to those of his Democratic rivals.

In January, the Washington Post reported that Sanders supporters had 'weaponized Facebook to spread angry memes' about other Democratic contenders and cited data showing that since 2019, almost 3,000 active pro-Sanders Facebook pages have generated more than 290 million shares, likes or other actions.

At a CNN town hall Tuesday, Sanders said members of his campaign have also experienced harassment, and he disavowed all such behavior. 'I do not believe in online bullying,' he said. 'End of discussion.'

-- Curt Devine

Bloomberg on releasing his tax returns

Bloomberg on Wednesday claimed that he released his tax returns every year to the public for the 12 years he served as the mayor of New York.

'I put up my tax return every year for 12 years in City Hall,' Bloomberg said during his first appearance on the Democratic debate stage in Las Vegas.

He added that his returns would be 'out in a few weeks.'

'We are preparing it,' he said. 'The number of pages will probably be thousands of pages. I can't go to Turbo Tax.'

Facts First: This is misleading. The billionaire mayor allowed reporters to review his tax documents, but didn't publicly release his full tax returns during his 12-year tenure from 2002 to 2013.

As mayor, Bloomberg invited reporters every year from The Wall Street Journal and other outlets to review filings for 'hours and hours of time' with the mayor's accountants, Stu Loeser, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman told CNN. The sessions offered journalists a chance to ask for 'explanations about every page, schedule and addendum in his taxes,' Loeser said.

But in the last peek at the mayor's tax returns in 2013, the Journal described those disclosures as 'highly-redacted,' and reported that the documents never quite offered a full view of Bloomberg's wealth. For example, the mayor's accountants often used a code letter to represent a range of dollar amounts rather than listing an actual figure, the Journal reported.

Bloomberg has not released his tax returns since embarking on his presidential campaign, and has also not yet filed financial disclosures required of candidates to the Federal Election Commission.

The New York Times reported in January that Bloomberg received a second extension that would allow him to keep the details of his personal wealth under wraps until after millions of Americans in 14 states vote on Super Tuesday. He now has until March 20 to file.

-- Donna Borak

Bloomberg and Biden on 'stop and frisk'

Bloomberg and Biden had an exchange about 'stop and frisk' policing in which both of them got things wrong.

Bloomberg said he reduced stop and frisk by 95% after deciding the policy had gone too far, while Biden said the decline was due to the Obama administration's decision to send monitors to assess the situation.

Facts First: Bloomberg was misleading by omission when he cited a 95% decline in stop and frisk without explaining that the reduction happened only in the last two years of his 12-year mayoralty, following a 605% increase in his first 10 years.

And while Biden was correct that Bloomberg fought the appointment of a monitor to oversee New York City's compliance with a court order to reform stop and frisk, he was misleading on two other points about the monitor.

Biden claimed the monitor was sent by the Obama administration, though the monitor was a private lawyer appointed by a federal judge with the Obama administration's endorsement.

Biden also gave the false impression that the monitor was the reason the number of stops declined.

What Bloomberg said

Bloomberg delivered his now-familiar narrative about how his administration reduced the use of stop and frisk by 95% after he discovered too many stops were occurring.

What Bloomberg didn't mention, as usual, was when this decline happened. While there was indeed a 95% drop in stops, it occurred after a 605% increase in the use of stop and frisk over his first 10 years in office.

In claiming to have come to a discovery (his campaign says it happened around May or June of 2012) about the excesses of the policy, Bloomberg also omitted the fact that he continued to advocate stop and frisk for years after he supposedly had this change of heart. And he did not mention the pressure he had faced from the federal judge who had signaled in 2012 that she would soon rule against New York's use of stop and frisk. (You can read a full fact check here.)

What Biden said

After Bloomberg spoke, Biden argued that the reason stop and frisk actually declined was that President Barack Obama 'sent moderators' to New York City to oversee the city's use of stop and frisk, appearing to mean 'monitors.' He then added: 'Our administration sent in people to monitor it.'

The Obama Department of Justice did recommend to a federal judge who was hearing a lawsuit against stop and frisk that she appoint an independent monitor to oversee New York City's compliance with a reform order she might issue in the event she found its use of stop and frisk unconstitutional.

The judge, Shira Scheindlin, found New York City's use of the policy unconstitutional, in August 2013, and did appoint a monitor. But this was her decision, not the Obama administration's. The monitor, Peter Zimroth, was a lawyer at a private firm, not someone from the federal government who could have been sent by the President.

Biden was correct that Bloomberg argued against the appointment of a monitor. Because the Bloomberg administration in New York City appealed the ruling and won a freeze in October 2013, Zimroth's work was put on hold until November 2014, under Bloomberg's successor Bill de Blasio, who dropped the Bloomberg-era appeal.

But Biden was incorrect that the monitor was the reason the use of stop and frisk declined: the number of stops had already plummeted by the time Zimroth started in 2014. The 95% decline transpired between the first quarter of 2012 and the fourth quarter of 2013.

-- Daniel Dale

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