WASHINGTON | President Donald Trump and Twitter tangled over truth and consequences this past week as the social media giant flagged the president’s tweets for spreading false information and potentially inciting violence.
The episode left Trump fuming and threatening reprisals against the platform he uses constantly to hint at or lay out policy, talk up his record, sound off on critics and spread conspiracy theories and misinformation.
And in the same week that Twitter gave Trump a pass on his baseless innuendo about a broadcaster, the organization was left juggling fraught questions about freedom of expression and when and how to gag a president.
On and off social media, Trump stretched the facts or shredded them as he tried to make the best of a U.S. death toll surpassing 100,000 from the coronavirus, misrepresented his predecessor’s record on drug prices and toyed with the dangerous idea of taking insulin just because.
Here’s a look back:
TRUMP: “For all of the political hacks out there, if I hadn’t done my job well, & early, we would have lost 1 1/2 to 2 Million People, as opposed to the 100,000 plus that looks like will be the number.” — tweet Tuesday, before the toll of known deaths passed 100,000.
THE FACTS: This opinion comes from his ego, not science, and evades the fact that the U.S. has experienced far more known sickness and death from COVID-19 than any other country. Well-documented failures in U.S. testing and gaps in containment in the crucial early weeks contributed to the severity of the crisis.
Early in the U.S. outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the death toll could have reached or exceeded 2 million if no steps had been taken to contain the disease. That is to say, if public health authorities, governors, mayors, the president and the public did nothing.
A do-nothing course was never an option and federal officials never forecast such an outlier death toll. Trump’s tweets overlook the fact that the U.S. response — its weaknesses and strengths — was never all about him.
TRUMP vs. TWITTER
TRUMP, on Minneapolis protests and rioting: “I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right. … Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” — tweets Friday.
THE FACTS: His vow to send in the National Guard skirts vital context, though that’s not the larger issue here.
Minnesota’s governor already had activated the state’s National Guard in response to the chaos. Trump was unclear on whether he intended to have the federal government tap National Guard personnel in other states for the purpose of law enforcement in Minnesota.
U.S. law prohibits federal use of the National Guard or active-duty troops for domestic law enforcement. That prohibition can be overidden only in extreme circumstances. The Pentagon on Friday took the rare step of ordering the Army to put several active-duty U.S. military police units on the ready to deploy to Minneapolis if called.
The larger issue was Trump’s comment that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That phrase from the violent front lines of the civil rights era evokes a brutal, hair-trigger police response and could be taken to mean Trump was threatening to have looters shot. Trump said later that is not what he meant and that he was not familiar with the origins of the phrase.
Twitter said the tweet’s closing line “violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context” and “could inspire similar actions today.” People had to click on the warning to access the hidden tweet. When Trump’s tweet was repeated on the White House account instead of his own, Twitter flagged it similarly.
Trump said later he did not mean his comment as a threat but as an observation that looting tends to lead to people being shot. “I don’t want this to happen,” he tweeted.
The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air as a white police officer kneeled on his neck.
TRUMP: “So ridiculous to see Twitter trying to make the case that Mail-In Ballots are not subject to FRAUD. How stupid, there are examples, & cases, all over the place. Our election process will become badly tainted & a laughingstock all over the World.” — tweet Thursday.
TRUMP: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.” — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: No, there aren’t examples and cases “all over the place.” Voting fraud is rare.
Two Trump tweets prompted Twitter to take the extraordinary step of attaching fact-checking notices, infuriating the president.
Trump appointed a commission after the 2016 election to get to the bottom of his persistent theory that voting fraud is rampant. But the bottom fell out. The panel disbanded without producing any findings.
Some election studies have reported a higher incidence of mail-in voting fraud compared with in-person voting, but the overall risk is all but imperceptible. The Brennan Center for Justice said in 2017 the risk of voting fraud is 0.00004% to 0.0009%.
“Trump is simply wrong about mail-in balloting raising a ‘tremendous’ potential for fraud,” Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, recently wrote in an op-ed. “While certain pockets of the country have seen their share of absentee-ballot scandals, problems are extremely rare in the five states that rely primarily on vote-by-mail, including the heavily Republican state of Utah.”
Trump’s push for in-person voting also runs counter to CDC guidance urging Americans to avoid crowds and keep 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. The federal guidelines “encourage mail-in methods of voting if allowed in the jurisdiction,” given the coronavirus threat.
Trump himself voted by mail in the Florida Republican primary in March.
TRUMP: “The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone … living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. …This will be a Rigged Election. No way!” — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Not true that Californians are getting ballots regardless of who they are. Only registered voters in California will receive ballots.
TRUMP, wondering about taking insulin even though he’s not diabetic: “I don’t use insulin. Should I be? Huh? I never thought about it. But I know a lot of people are very — very badly affected, right? Unbelievable.” — remarks Tuesday at Medicare event.
THE FACTS: To be clear, taking insulin if you’re non-diabetic can kill you.
In people with diabetes, the pancreas cannot make insulin so they often require several doses a day. But that same insulin if taken in overdose or by non-diabetics can lead to hypoglycemic coma, which can have varied outcomes from confusion and dizziness to death.
Prodded by the president to speak to the wisdom of taking insulin when non-diabetic, Surgeon General Jerome Adams gently corrected him. He told Trump his body makes all the insulin it needs.
Trump stopped musing about the idea after that except to say he thought he’d asked “a very good question, actually.”
TRUMP: “A lot of interest in this story about Psycho Joe Scarborough. So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that?” — tweet Sunday.
TRUMP: “So many unanswered & obvious questions, but I won’t bring them up now! Law enforcement eventually will?” — tweet Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He’s spreading a groundless conspiracy theory about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, and a woman who had worked on his staff decades ago. There are no “unanswered” questions after an autopsy report ruled the 2001 death accidental, despite Trump’s dark musings.
After Lori Klausutis was found dead in Scarborough’s Fort Walton Beach congressional office, an autopsy revealed she had an undiagnosed heart condition and a coroner concluded she passed out and hit her head as she fell. The coroner said the head injury caused the death and she was not struck by anyone.
Scarborough was in Washington when Klausutis died in Florida, a month after he announced he was leaving office.
Trump’s false tweets spurred Timothy Klausutis to ask Twitter to take down the posts about his late wife because they were causing pain to her family; Twitter declined to do so.
KAYLEIGH McENANY, White House press secretary, referring to the former CIA director: “It was John Brennan who sat before Congress and said the Steele dossier — paid for by Hillary Clinton, paid for by the DNC — that that document played no part of the role in opening the Russia probe, when, in fact, we know it did; when, in fact, we know it was the impetus.” — news briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: It’s obvious simply from the timeline that the dossier was not the impetus for the probe into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and its contacts with Trump associates.
The FBI launched the investigation in July 2016, well before the case agents had ever seen the dossier. The FBI opened the investigation based on entirely different information: that a Trump campaign aide was said to have learned that Russia had dirt on Trump opponent Hillary Clinton.
The dossier contained unsubstantiated accounts of Trump’s personal behavior. It did factor into applications the FBI submitted to conduct surveillance on a different campaign aide, Carter Page, but it is not the case that the dossier sparked the Russia investigation.
More broadly, McEnany was pushing an unsupported conspiracy theory that the FBI investigation was tainted with partisan bias and hatched by Democrats.
TRUMP: “In the past, Obamacare prevented insurance providers from competing to offer lower costs for seniors. There was no competition, there was no anything, and they ran away with what took place, and the seniors were horribly hurt.” — Medicare event Tuesday.
THE FACTS: President Barack Obama’s health law actually reduced out-of-pocket prescription costs for older people. And it did not prevent insurers from competing to offer lower costs.
The law reduced what older people had to pay back then by gradually closing the “doughnut hole,” a notorious coverage gap in Medicare’s popular “Part D” prescription drug plan.
A 50% discount that Obamacare secured from drug makers on brand name medicines yielded an average savings of $581 in 2011 for older people with high drug costs, according to an analysis at the time by Medicare’s nonpartisan Office of the Actuary, for The Associated Press.
The law also directed Medicare to pick up more of the cost of generic drugs, saving an additional $22.
On Tuesday, Trump announced that next year most older people will have access to prescription plans that limit monthly copays for insulin to $35, for an average savings of $446 annually.
By tackling the coverage gap, Obamacare helped Medicare recipients with high drug costs generally, not only patients who must take insulin to manage their diabetes.
On the claim that Obamacare stifled insurer competition, there’s no evidence of that.
“Given the large number of Medicare prescription drug plans available to seniors, it is not clear how the Obama administration prevented insurers from competing with each other,” said Tricia Neuman, a Medicare expert with the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
Neuman cited statistics for 2012, midway through the Obama years, when the average number of Medicare Part D drug plans ranged across regions from a low of 25 to a high of 36 — more than enough to facilitate healthy competition.
TRUMP: “So we’re getting it down — $35 per month … So it’s a massive cut — I guess, 60, 70%. Nobody has seen anything like this for a long time. Sleepy Joe can’t do this — that, I can tell you.” — Medicare event Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Joe Biden proposes to do much more, whether he could get it done as president or not.
The Democratic presidential candidate supports allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with drug makers, restricting price increases to the inflation rate and limiting launch prices for new drugs that face no competition.
As a 2016 candidate, Trump also had backed Medicare negotiations. But he has not pursued that idea as president, although the Congressional Budget Office estimated it could result in significant savings for taxpayers and consumers.
Congress is at an impasse over legislation to reduce drug costs, including a bipartisan Senate bill backed by Trump that would act to limit price increases for medicines already on the market. But it would not authorize Medicare to negotiate prices.
TRUMP: “We’re always working on preexisting conditions and saving your preexisting conditions. And as long as I’m President, you’ll always be protected on preexisting conditions.” — Medicare event Tuesday.
THE FACTS: His administration’s actions say otherwise. It has been pressing in court for full repeal of Obama’s health law, which requires insurers to take all applicants, regardless of medical history, and charge the same standard premiums to healthy people and those who had medical problems before or when they signed up.
Trump and other Republicans say they’ll have a plan to preserve protections for people with preexisting conditions, but the White House has provided no details.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Robert Burns in Washington and AP News Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.
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