Fact checking the 3rd GOP debate of the 2024 election

Nov 9, 2023, 10:00 PM

Republican presidential candidates participate in a Republican presidential primary debate hosted b...

Republican presidential candidates participate in a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News on November 8 in Miami. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

(Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

(CNN) — Five of the Republican presidential candidates made a variety of false, misleading or lacking-in-context claims on Wednesday during the third debate of the 2024 party primary.

Related: The third GOP debate will focus on Israel and foreign policy but also on who could beat Donald Trump

The frontrunner in the race, former President Donald Trump, again skipped the debate in favor of his own speech. Here is a fact check of some of the claims from candidates who were on the debate stage in Miami.

DeSantis on Biden’s efforts to combat antisemitism on college campuses

During a back-and-forth about how the candidates would address incidents of antisemitism on college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict, Gov. Ron DeSantis said President Joe Biden is combating Islamophobia instead of supporting Jewish students.

“Not only is he not helping the Jewish students, who are being persecuted, he is launching an initiative to combat so-called Islamophobia. No, it’s antisemitism that’s spiraling out of control,” DeSantis said.

Facts First: This is misleading. While the Biden administration announced last week that it is developing a national strategy to counter Islamophobia, the White House already released a national strategy to combat antisemitism in May.

Earlier this week, the Department of Education issued guidance reminding schools that they have a legal obligation to address incidents of both antisemitism and Islamophobia. The guidance specifically said that schools must address discrimination based on race, color, or national origin – including against those who are Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab or Palestinian.

“When it comes to antisemitism or Islamophobia, that has no place on our college campuses or in our schools,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told CNN.

Biden has repeatedly denounced antisemitism, both after the Hamas attack and for years before.

From CNN’s Katie Lobosco

Haley on US troops targeted by Iran

Asked about supporting the use of military force against Iran in response to the recent attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxy groups, former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, “The idea that our men and women could be targeted, and that we’ve allowed almost 100 hits to happen under Biden’s watch is unthinkable.”

Facts first: Haley’s figure is incorrect. As of Wednesday, Iranian-backed groups had targeted US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria at least 41 times since October 17 with one-way attack drones or rocket attacks. The most recent was a multi-rocket attack on Wednesday, on forces at Shaddadi, Syria.

Haley also said that the US needed to “go and take out their infrastructure that they are using to make those strikes with so they can never do it again.” A senior military official told reporters on Wednesday that an airstrike that day by US F-15 fighter jets hit a weapons storage facility used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Corps Guard that is believed to house “weapons that we believe are likely used in many of the strikes that have taken place against our forces here in the region.”

From CNN’s Haley Britzky 

Scott on Biden and Iran

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said, “Frankly, President Biden has sent billions to Iran.”

Facts First: This needs context. Scott didn’t explain that the $6 billion in question was not “sent” from the US itself and is not money from US taxpayers. It is $6 billion of Iran’s own money, from oil sales, that had been frozen in restricted South Korean accounts until the Biden administration agreed in September to allow it to be transferred to restricted accounts in Qatar – to be used with US approval by Iran for certain specified humanitarian purposes – as part of a deal in which Iran agreed to free five Americans the US had deemed wrongfully detained.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said that none of the $6 billion has been spent yet. And in early October, after the Hamas attack on Israel, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told House Democrats that the US and Qatar had reached a “quiet understanding” to not allow Iran to access any of the money for the time being, a source in the room told CNN in October. (While Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not confirm that a “quiet understanding” had been reached, he made clear the US is able to freeze the funds.)

Even before that, the Biden administration emphasized that the Iranian government would not be able to pocket the money itself and that it could only be used, under strict US supervision, to make humanitarian purchases from approved vendors. Some critics of the Biden administration and the deal with Iran have fairly pointed out, however, that Iran getting access to $6 billion for humanitarian purposes could free up that same amount of its own money to be used to fund terror.

From CNN’s Daniel Dale 

Ramaswamy on Hunter Biden and Ukraine

Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy claimed during the debate that “Joe Biden’s son Hunter got a $5 billion bribe from Ukraine.” He claimed that this bribe was the reason the US has sent so much aid to Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia last year.

Facts First: The claim that any member of the Biden family received a bribe is unproven. An FBI informant who relayed the claim to the FBI in 2020 was merely reporting something he said he had been told by a Ukrainian businessman, the chief executive of the energy company where Hunter Biden had served on the board of directors; the informant provided no proof to the FBI, and no proof has publicly emerged in the subsequent years. In addition, there is no evidence that US wartime aid to Ukraine – which has been approved by bipartisan majorities in Congress – has anything to do with the president’s son.

According to an internal FBI document made public by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa earlier this year over the strong objections of the FBI, the informant told the bureau in 2020 – when Donald Trump was president – that the CEO of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, had claimed in 2016 that he made a $5 million payment to “one Biden” and another $5 million payment to “another Biden.” But the FBI document did not contain any proof for the claim, and the document said the informant was “not able to provide any further opinion as to the veracity” of the claim.

Republicans have tried to boost the credibility of the allegation by saying it was in an FBI document and that the FBI had viewed the informant as highly credible. But the document merely memorialized the information provided by the informant; it does not demonstrate that the information is true. And Hunter Biden’s former business associate Devon Archer testified to the House Oversight Committee earlier this year that he had not been aware of any such payments to the Bidens; Archer characterized Zlochevsky’s reported claim as an example of the Ukrainian businessman embellishing his influence.

From CNN’s Daniel Dale, Marshall Cohen and Annie Grayer

Ramaswamy on the 2016 and 2020 elections

In his opening remarks, Ramaswamy accused the media of interfering in the outcome of previous US elections.

“This media rigged the 2016 election, they rigged the 2020 election with the Hunter Biden laptop story and they’re going to rig this election unless we have accountability,” Ramaswamy said.

Facts First: This claim is false. Neither election was “rigged” and there is no evidence of any fraud large enough to have changed the outcome.

Officials from the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security, along with state election officials, said in a 2020 statement: “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”

And tellingly, in Ramaswamy’s own 2022 book “Nation of Victims,” he writes that the “2016 election wasn’t stolen in a literal sense” and that he hadn’t seen “convincing evidence” that the 2020 election was stolen or rigged.

“The fact that all of our governmental institutions so unanimously found no evidence of significant fraud is telling. Furthermore, I’ve talked to many Republicans at all levels of government, and not one has ever presented convincing evidence that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump; very few have seriously tried. I don’t believe that most Republican politicians actually think the election was stolen,” Ramaswamy wrote.

Asked about this change in his stance by NBC’s Chuck Todd in August, Ramaswamy claimed that in his books he also discussed what he did see as consequential election interference in 2020 – how “big tech” had worked to prevent the spread of a late-campaign story related to Hunter Biden’s laptop. However, Ramaswamy’s claim during the debate was directed not at tech companies but the media, who were actually the first to break the story around the laptop.

Ramaswamy has previously argued that the media spread an unfair narrative of Russian collusion in the 2016 election that robbed Trump of the ability to do the job after he was elected. However, a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee backed the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help then-candidate Donald Trump.

From CNN’s Tara Sumbramaniam

Haley attacks DeSantis for record on fracking

Haley once again attacked DeSantis for his record on fracking after their heated exchange on the topic during the second GOP debate.

“On the energy side, it cracks me up that Ron continues to do this,” Haley said Wednesday.

“He has opposed fracking, he’s opposed drilling,” Haley claimed.
“He opposed it before Florida voters even voted on it.”

Facts First: DeSantis has pushed back on these accusations repeatedly, but Haley is largely right. While DeSantis did not unilaterally ban fracking before Florida voters passed a state constitutional amendment to do so, he signed an executive order signed just days after he took office which called for the state to “adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.” 

And aside from the semantics, Haley’s broader argument about DeSantis’ position regarding off-shore drilling and fracking is supported by his comments and actions. During DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign, he was asked if he supported a ban on fracking and he emphatically said yes. In January 2020, he also oversaw the purchase of 20,000 acres of Everglades wetlands by the state of Florida to permanently protect them from oil drilling, which wasn’t prompted by the constitutional amendment in any way.

From CNN’s Tara Subramaniam

Scott on Americans’ views on abortion policy

As Tuesday’s election results highlighted, abortion remains one of the key flashpoint topics among voters. In Wednesday’s debate, Scott claimed that 75% of Americans support a federal ban on abortion for women who are at least 15 weeks pregnant.

“We need a 15-week federal limit. Three out of four Americans agree with a 15-week limit,” Scott said.

Facts First: This needs context. A spokesperson for Scott’s campaign told CNN during the debate that Scott was citing polling conducted for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which a review found used loaded language and did not offer respondents a complete range of possible responses. Some independent polls conducted this year and last, which have posed abortion questions far more neutrally, have found significantly less than 75% support for an abortion ban at or after 15 weeks.

The poll from SBA found 77% support for at least some limits by 15 weeks. But there are significant issues with that poll.

The relevant question prompted respondents with language about “a baby’s heartbeat” and how “a baby can feel pain,” using much more emotional language than independent polls tend to use. The poll also did not provide an option for respondents to express support for abortion limits any later in a pregnancy than 15 weeks. Instead, it only allowed respondents to endorse one of the following: an abortion ban throughout pregnancy with exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest; a 6-week ban with those exceptions; a 15-week ban with those exceptions; completely unrestricted abortion throughout pregnancy, or “I am completely unsure.” In other words, the poll didn’t even mention the possibility of an abortion ban at fetal viability, meaning when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb with or without medical help, often viewed as around 23 or 24 weeks.

More neutral polls conducted by media and academic entities have produced much different findings.

For example, an AP-NORC poll in June asked US adults if they think their state should or shouldn’t allow a pregnant person to get a legal abortion at various points in a pregnancy; 51% said their state should allow legal abortion at the 15-week mark, 45% said their state should not. A Marquette Law School poll in July asked US adults if they would support or oppose a national law banning abortion after 15 weeks; 47% were in favor, 53% were opposed.

A Fox News poll in April asked registered voters if they would favor or oppose a law in their state banning abortion after 15 weeks “except in the case of a medical emergency.” Fifty-four percent said they would favor such a law, 42% said they would oppose it. That is more support than the above polls that did not mention a medical-emergency exemption, but still well below the 75% Scott mentioned.

From CNN’s Daniel Dale and Tara Subramaniam

Scott on 15-week federal limit on abortion

In advocating for a 15-week federal limit on abortion, Scott said that he “would not allow states like California, Illinois or New York to have abortion up until the day of birth.”

Facts First: This needs context. California, Illinois, and New York do not allow unrestricted abortion throughout a pregnancy. Each of these states prohibits abortion after a certain point, though they each allow some exceptions afterward to protect the health of the person who is pregnant. 

It’s possible that Scott was suggesting that, without a federal law to impose a nationwide limit on abortion, these Democratic-led states would remove all limits on abortion in the future. But his wording left open the impression that he was saying that these states have no limits today, and that’s not the case.

California and Illinois both allow abortion until fetal “viability,” meaning when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb with or without medical help – often viewed as around 23 or 24 weeks – and after that when abortion is needed to protect the “life or health” of the patient; their laws echo the language of the Supreme Court’s now-overturned Roe v. Wade decision, which required “life or health” exceptions after viability. New York specifies that abortion is illegal after 24 weeks except when the fetus is not viable or when abortion is necessary to protect the pregnant person’s “life or health”; under a 2019 New York state law, abortion is never treated as a crime.

Some conservatives object to the presence of “life or health” exceptions in abortion laws, arguing that the “health” part of these exceptions is so broad that it essentially permits abortion at any time. But the claim about “abortion on demand” wrongly suggests that anyone can demand an abortion in these states at any time for any reason at all.

It’s also worth noting that a tiny percentage of abortions are performed at 24 weeks or later.

According to data published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 0.9% of reported abortions in 2020 occurred at 21 weeks or later. (Some of these abortions occur because of serious health risks or lethal fetal anomalies.) By contrast, 80.9% of reported abortions in 2020 were conducted before 10 weeks, 93.1% before 14 weeks and 95.8% before 16 weeks.

From CNN’s Daniel Dale and Jen Christensen

DeSantis on helping Americans evacuate from Israel after Hamas’ attack

Speaking about Biden’s response to Hamas’ attack on Israel, DeSantis, who is the governor of Florida, said, “We had Floridians that were over there after the attack. He [Biden] left them stranded. They couldn’t get flights out. So, I scrambled resources in Florida. I sent planes over to Israel and I brought back over 700 people to safety. There could have been more hostages had we not acted.”

Facts First: DeSantis’ statement, which appears to say Biden failed to evacuate Americans out of Israel, is both untrue and needs context.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby announced on October 12 that the US government would begin arranging charter flights for Americans seeking to leave Israel on October 13. The first US government flight out of Israel landed in Athens on October 13. On October 30, State Department spokesman Matt Miller said the agency was suspending charter flights due to a lack of demand.

Separately, DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Florida on October 12, allowing him to access a $500 million fund that does not require legislative approval, to evacuate people from Israel to Tampa. He told reporters in New Hampshire in October that he anticipated the first evacuation flight would land in Florida on October 15.

DeSantis’ claim that “there could have been more hostages” without his evacuation flights is a hypothetical; we can’t definitively fact check whether more hostages might be taken in the future. But it’s worth noting that no hostages have been taken from Israel since Hamas’ October 7 attack.
DeSantis declared a state of emergency five days later to begin chartering flights, after Israeli forces had taken back control of the country.

Asked for an explanation of the claim, DeSantis campaign spokesperson Bryan Griffin said in an email during the debate: “Of course Hamas could’ve taken more hostages. Everyone Ron DeSantis brought home is 100% safe from that possibility.”

From CNN’s Haley Britzky

Ramaswamy on Ohio’s constitutional amendment on abortion

Ramaswamy claimed that Ohio “passed a constitutional amendment that now effectively codifies a right to abortion all the way up to the time of birth without parental consent” because of a “Republican culture of losing.”

Facts First: This is false.

The passage of ballot measure Issue 1 on Tuesday establishes a person’s right to an abortion in the Ohio state constitution. The measure does not explicitly say that abortion is allowed under any circumstance, nor does it change Ohio’s parental consent and notification law.

Rather, the new amendment to the state constitution says that any kind of ban on the procedure pre-viability (typically at 23 to 24 weeks) is prohibited under state law. By the time a person is pregnant for 24-weeks there is a good chance the child could survive outside the womb. After viability, the state can restrict a person’s access to an abortion unless the pregnant person’s health or life is at risk because of that pregnancy.
An abortion late in pregnancy is exceptionally rare.

In Ohio, a minor will still need a parent’s permission to get an abortion, or they must get an exception from a judge.

From CNN’s Jen Christensen

DeSantis on China and land purchases in Florida

DeSantis said during the debate, “In Florida, I banned China from buying land in the state.”

Facts First: This needs context. The law signed by DeSantis prohibits most land purchases in Florida by Chinese entities and individuals (who are not US citizens or permanent residents), but the law did not completely ban all land purchases by these entities and individuals – as DeSantis’ categorical claim here may have suggested to debate viewers.

DeSantis signed a bill this year that prohibits the ownership of real property in Florida by the Chinese government, its ruling Communist Party, members or officials of either the government or the party, other organizations based in China, or “any person who is domiciled in the People’s Republic of China and who is not a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States.”

But the law contains an exemption for Chinese individuals who have been granted asylum in the US or are on a US visa that is not a tourist visa. Those individuals are allowed to make one purchase of a residential property, of up to two acres, if the property is more than five miles from a military installation.

From CNN’s Daniel Dale

Nikki Haley on unspent Covid dollars

Asked how she would help rural Americans who are being squeezed by inflation, former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said she would look to recover unspent Covid-19 relief funds.

“I will make sure, one, we claw back the $500 billion of unspent Covid dollars that are out there,” she said.

Facts First: Haley’s number is inaccurate. Haley made the same claim in a CNN town hall in June, and her data was out of date at the time. CNN checked again in late August and found that about $300 billion in Covid-19 relief funds has not been spent or committed, according to an estimate from the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, a government watchdog group. That figure takes into account the roughly $28 billion in Covid-19 funds that were rescinded as part of the debt ceiling package in June.

There is even less money that is unobligated, or not yet legally committed, that Congress could claw back. Only $104.3 billion remains in unobligated and unexpired funds, as of April 30, according to the US Government Accountability Office. However, this figure does not include the recissions enacted in the debt ceiling package.

From CNN’s Tami Luhby

Ramaswamy on Ukraine’s elections

In a series of comments about Ukraine, Ramaswamy argued that the country is “not democratic.” To support that claim, he said that Ukraine “has threatened not to hold elections this year, unless the US forks over more money.”

Facts First: This needs context. In an August interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did note that additional funding was one of several things the country needed in order to hold elections, but he requested help from both the US and Europe.

“If the United States and Europe give us financial support… I’m sorry, I will not hold elections on credit, I will not take money from weapons and give it to elections either,” Zelensky said, according to excerpts of the interview shared on his official website.

And Zelensky was clear in the August interview that a lack of funds was not the only obstacle. He said elections in Ukraine would be possible only if the right to vote is ensured for all citizens, including military personnel and forced migrants abroad and if foreign observers can be present at polling stations on the frontline.

Just days before Ramaswamy’s comments during the debate, Zelensky said it would be “irresponsible” to hold an election now but did not cite a lack of funds or call on the US for additional aid for future elections.

“In wartime, when there are so many challenges, it is absolutely irresponsible to throw the topic of elections into society in a lighthearted and playful way,” Zelensky said in his nightly address Monday. “I believe that now is not the right time for elections.”

Presidential elections in Ukraine typically take place every five years but have been suspended under martial law since the conflict began. This week, Ukraine’s parliament approved the extension of martial law and mobilization in the country by 90 more days. Zelensky was sworn into office in May 2019, meaning he would be up for re-election in the spring of 2024.

From CNN’s Tara Subramaniam Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, attacking rival candidate Gov.
Ron DeSantis, said: “We will go and end all formal trade relations with China until they stop murdering Americans from fentanyl, something Ron has yet to say that he’s going to do.”

Haley on DeSantis and trade with China

Haley, attacking rival candidate DeSantis, said: “We will go and end all formal trade relations with China until they stop murdering Americans from fentanyl, something Ron has yet to say that he’s going to do.”

Facts First: This is misleading. DeSantis, like Haley, has campaigned in support of ending China’s preferential trade status, known as permanent normal trade relations.

Haley has been more explicit in linking the proposed trade status revocation to China’s role in the US fentanyl crisis, saying that “as president, I will push Congress to revoke permanent normal trade relations until the flow of fentanyl ends.” But DeSantis has also called for eliminating the trade status, has called for “economic independence from China” and has decried China’s role in the fentanyl crisis – so Haley’s debate remark suggested more of a difference between their positions than there actually is.

From CNN’s Daniel Dale

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Fact checking the 3rd GOP debate of the 2024 election