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On the Biden-Trump debate stage, fact-checks were hard to find

Viewers at a Cincinnati lounge watch former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate June 27, 2024, on CNN. (AP) Viewers at a Cincinnati lounge watch former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate June 27, 2024, on CNN. (AP)

Viewers at a Cincinnati lounge watch former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate June 27, 2024, on CNN. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson July 2, 2024

If Your Time is short

  • President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump struggled to land solid fact-checks of each other in the 90-minute debate, televised nationally June 27 on CNN. 

  • PolitiFact found numerous instances of claims that did not receive robust, fact-filled rebuttal. ​

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — both of whom are running on the records of their first terms in office — tried, but mostly struggled, to fact-check each other in real time during CNN’s 2024 presidential debate. 

The network said before the June 27 debate that the moderators would not challenge the candidates over their accuracy. So, whenever one candidate made inaccurate statements, it was up to his opponent to push back — and much of the time, neither did so effectively.

Unless a viewer entered the debate with detailed knowledge of the accuracy of the candidates’ talking points or aggressively followed external fact-checking efforts like PolitiFact’s, they were left with little guidance about what was true.

PolitiFact fact-checked nearly 30 claims on debate night, and although Biden had a couple of False and Mostly False statements, plus a number of Half True statements in which he omitted context, Trump went largely unchallenged within the debate on three Mostly False claims, a dozen straight False claims and one that got our worst rating, Pants on Fire. 

And because Trump offered more false and misleading material in the debate, Biden’s absent pushback was even more noticeable.

Neither Biden nor Trump was particularly effective at correcting the record, Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder said.

"Biden tried to fact-check Trump but was ineffective in doing so," he said. "Trump didn't fact-check so much as offer ‘alternative facts’ that in almost every case will not stand up in the light of day." 

Schroeder said the debate "was notable for the moderators’ total unwillingness to provide viewers with factual context. That's what CNN said in advance would happen and it certainly did — to the detriment of voters."

A CNN spokesperson told PolitiFact the network offered fact-checking in its postdebate analysis, but said that the moderators’ roles were to present the candidates with questions that mattered to American voters and to facilitate a debate.

It was up to the candidates to challenge each other during the debate, the spokesperson added.

CNN Political Director David Chalian echoed the spokesperson, telling The Washington Post, "The venue of a presidential debate between these two candidates is not the ideal venue for a live fact-checking exercise." 

Here were some missed fact-checking opportunities.

Trump doggedly stuck to his script and missed opportunities to fact-check Biden’s claims

During his debate responses, Trump often ignored the moderators’ questions on such issues as climate change, the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, the Israel-Hamas war and child care costs. Instead, he responded with oft-repeated lines from the campaign trail.

In so doing, Trump missed opportunities to ding Biden for inaccuracies and exaggeration — particularly on the economy, an important plank of the president’s reelection push.

For example, Biden claimed during the debate that billionaires pay 8.2% in taxes. It’s a claim he’s made before and that we’ve rated False; the amount they pay is in the mid-20% range. Trump, when allowed to respond, however, zeroed in with a zinger on Biden’s claim, "We finally beat Medicare" saying that the president "beat it to death."    

Biden also repeated a claim that semiconductor jobs that don’t require a college degree "pay over $100,000." We previously rated that statement Mostly False; earning that high a salary in the semiconductor industry does require a college degree. But the moderators moved on with a new question on Trump’s age, and Trump didn’t return to fact-checking Biden.

And on a topic that went viral on social media after the debate, Biden claimed "Black unemployment is the lowest level it has been in a long, long time." It did set a record under Biden, but he was breaking the record set under Trump a few years earlier. 

When it was his turn, Trump did not offer this statistic and instead responded hyperbolically: "He caused the inflation and it’s killing Black families and Hispanic families and just about everybody. It’s killing people." He then falsely blamed inflation on people entering the country illegally, saying, "They’re taking Black jobs and they're taking Hispanic jobs."

Biden was unable to muster clear, detailed rebuttals to Trump’s claims

On the campaign trail, Biden has touted his administration’s economic policies and approaches on the Inflation Reduction Act and efforts to expand the middle class and counter high food and drug costs. 

However, Biden left many Trump claims on these topics, ranging from questionable to downright false, unchallenged. 

Early in the debate, moderator Jake Tapper asked Trump about the inflation risks from his proposed 10% tariff on all foreign consumer goods. Trump waved away that possibility, saying the tariffs are "not going to drive (prices) higher." However, economists generally agree that consumers do pay the costs of tariffs.

Trump then delivered a litany of misleading claims, including that he signed "the largest tax cut in history" (he didn’t); that Biden is fully to blame for high inflation on his watch (it wasn’t; the primary reason was pandemic supply chain snags); that Biden was fully to blame for difficulties exiting Afghanistan (Biden was following an agreement Trump signed); that Trump’s tax cuts "spurred the greatest economy that we've ever seen" (it wasn’t the greatest ever).

Before Biden could counter any of these statements, Tapper asked Trump another question, about debt and taxes. Trump answered with more questionable claims, including that Biden weaponized the justice system to "go after his political opponent" (he didn’t) and that Biden "allowed millions of people to come in here from prisons, jails, and mental institutions" (this is wrong on multiple counts).

When the moderators returned to Biden, he struggled to counter this firehose spray of claims. Biden rebutted points related to debt and taxes, but that was the extent of his counterargument. 

Eventually, Biden ran out of time as he said, confusingly, "We make sure that all those things we needed to do, child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system, making sure that we're able to make every single solitary person, uh, eligible for what I've been able to do." 

Shannon Bow O'Brien, a professor of instruction at the University of Texas at Austin who studies political speeches and rhetoric, said although Biden "did an OK job" fact-checking Trump, "much of it got lost in his delivery." She said Biden "sounded like he was spitting out rehearsed facts" without worrying too much about the image he presented to viewers.

Tapper later asked the candidates which measures they’d take to keep Social Security solvent. 

Trump responded by saying Biden was "destroying" Social Security "because millions of people are pouring into our country and they’re putting them onto Social Security." 

Trump’s claim is False, on several counts. First, most immigrants in the U.S. illegally are ineligible for Social Security. Second, many migrants pay into Social Security through their taxes with no hope of drawing benefits later, bolstering the financially strapped program.

In his rebuttal, Biden focused not on Trump’s inaccuracies but on Trump’s claim that Biden failed to support military veterans. Anyone watching the debate would have no reason to question that the Biden administration is paying retirement benefits to recently arrived migrants.

CNN's Dana Bash, left, and Jake Tapper moderate the June 27, 2024, debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in Atlanta. (AP)

Experts say lack of moderator fact-checking allowed space for false narratives to go unchecked

Before the debate, Chalian told The Washington Post and The New York Times that the moderators would not fact-check Thursday’s debate, to allow space for the candidates’ points and counterpoints.

However, a recent Boston University poll found that the majority of Republicans and Democrats would prefer moderators correct false statements.

The moderators’ silence amid the false or misleading claims notably affected the debate. 

"Leaving Biden to counter such claims over and over clearly advantaged Trump," said Tammy Vigil, senior associate dean and associate professor of media science at Boston University’s College of Communication.

PolitiFact Staff Writer Madison Czopek contributed to this report.

RELATED: 2024 presidential debate fact-check: How accurate were Joe Biden, Donald Trump?

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Our Sources

CNN, presidential debate transcript, June 27, 2024

The Atlantic, Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’, Sept. 3, 2020

The Washington Post, Trump says there are 25 ‘witnesses’ disputing the Atlantic. Nope., Sept. 15, 2020

CNN, CNN's Daniel Dale fact checks Trump's and Biden's claims made in debate, June 28, 2024

Boston University, Moderators should point out factual errors in real time, Americans say in poll on eve of presidential debate, June 20, 2024

PolitiFact, 2024 presidential debate fact-check: How accurate were Joe Biden, Donald Trump? June 28, 2024

Washington Post, "Trump dodged a broad range of questions as Biden struggled onstage," June 29, 2024

Email interview with Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University journalism professor, June 28, 2024

Email interview with Shannon Bow O’Brien, professor of instruction at the University of Texas at Austin, June 28, 2024

Email interview with Tammy Vigil, senior associate dean and associate professor of media science at Boston University’s College of Communication, June 28, 2024

Emailed statement from CNN spokesperson, June 28, 2024

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On the Biden-Trump debate stage, fact-checks were hard to find