Trump’s final falsehoods: How farewell speech was littered with misinformation

Jon Sharman
·8 min read

Donald Trump released a farewell address to the nation on Tuesday night, telling his “make America great again” supporters once again that their movement was “just beginning”.

The speech, made hours before Joe Biden was due to be inaugurated as president, contained a string of falsehoods and distortions of Mr Trump’s record.

An inveterate liar and compulsive exaggerator even on trivial matters – such as whether it rained during his own inauguration in 2017 – the outgoing president peppered his parting message with misleading claims.

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Over four years in office Mr Trump has made 30,558 such false or misleading statements, according to The Washington Post’s tireless fact-checkers.

Here we examine some of the “alternative facts” which cropped up in Tuesday’s 20-minute farewell speech.

‘Other administrations would have taken three four, five, maybe even up to 10 years to develop a vaccine’ for Covid-19

Governments have not developed the leading Covid-19 vaccines, scientists working for pharmaceutical firms and at universities have.

The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, a funding scheme, has indeed helped those researchers produce working jabs in record time.

But to claim personal credit for that is to ignore the international effort that made the creation of multiple vaccines possible. (Mr Trump is not alone in attempting to do this, however.)

US drugmaker Pfizer developed its vaccine in partnership with Germany's BioNTech, eschewing federal money for development though benefitting from an advance commitment from Washington to buy large quantities if the jab worked. A vaccine by Moderna, from the US, is also in widespread use.

Britain's Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is also being administered in several countries and vaccines from China and Russia are also in limited use. More than a dozen potential vaccines are in late stages of testing worldwide.

Mr Trump’s vaccine claim also glosses over the fact that his administration put all its eggs in that particular basket in its plan for a route out of the coronavirus crisis. The president resisted calls for lockdowns and disparaged mask-wearing, even actively playing down the severity of the pandemic in its early stages.

For months, he put the strength of the economy ahead of other considerations. Some 402,000 people have now died from Covid-19 in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University.

‘We built the greatest economy in the history of the world’

All of recorded history? This is a typically grandiose, archetypally Trumpian piece of nonsense.

Examining just the US economy, Donald Trump is the first president since Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression to leave office with fewer jobs than when he started.

While the US had the most jobs on record before Covid-19 struck, the population had also grown. The 3.5-per-cent unemployment rate before the recession was at a half-century low, but the percentage of people working or searching for jobs was still below a 2000 peak.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer looked at Mr Trump's economic growth record. Growth under his administration averaged 2.48 per cent annually before the pandemic, slightly better than the 2.41 per cent gains achieved during Barack Obama's second term. By contrast, the economic expansion that began in 1982 during Ronald Reagan's presidency averaged 4.2 per cent a year.

‘We passed the largest package of tax cuts and reforms in American history’

According to The Washington Post, Mr Trump has made this claim nearly 300 times.

His $1.5 trillion (£1.095 trillion) tax cut over 10 years ranks 12th in US history as a share of the total economy, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Ronald Reagan's 1981 cut was the biggest, followed by the 1945 rollback of taxes that had financed the Second World War.

On the subject of taxes, Mr Trump has paid very little in recent years, according to a New York Times investigation.

‘Horrified’ by attack on Capitol

In his speech, Mr Trump said: "All Americans were horrified by the assault on our Capitol. Political violence is an attack on everything we cherish as Americans. It can never be tolerated.

“Now, more than ever, we must unify around our shared values and rise above the partisan rancour and forge our common destiny.”

This is more a rhetorical dodge, or attempt at misdirection, than a straight-out lie. It deliberately fails to recognise that Mr Trump spent years sowing the seeds of the Capitol riot with baseless claims about election fraud, dating back to his lies about Hillary Clinton voters being bussed into New Hampshire in 2016.

Before last November’s election the president ramped up this disinformation campaign and, following his defeat, effectively embarked on a drawn-out coup attempt in which he repeatedly told his followers that victory had been “stolen” from them, repeating yet again the unfairness motif that had been a major feature of his presidency, at home and abroad.

He had also previously given succour to far-right groups like the Proud Boys by telling them, in one pre-election debate, to “stand back and stand by”; three years earlier he had insisted there were “very fine people” among a far-right militia mob that ran riot in Charlottesville.

Then, on 6 January this year, Mr Trump told a crowd outside the White House to march on the Capitol and demand that Congress void Joe Biden’s election victory. “We will never give up, we will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” he said.

Once the attack had begun Mr Trump made a half-hearted attempt to call off his followers, but in the same breath praised them as “very special” and repeated his lie that the election had been stolen.

The “partisan rancour” line from Tuesday’s address might be seen as an oblique reference to Democrats leading the charge on his historic second impeachment.

In the farewell speech Mr Trump still did not concede he had lost the election, admitting only that a new administration would be inaugurated.

Speaking of which…

Praying for Biden’s success

Mr Trump said that “we extend our best wishes” to the incoming Biden administration, adding: “We also want them to have luck, a very important word.” He said he was praying for Mr Biden’s success, but did not actually mention him by name.

This seems unlikely on two counts. One: Mr Trump has not admitted publicly that Mr Biden is the legitimate winner of the election, and so his good wishes come across as insincere.

Two: Mr Trump may have courted the evangelical Christian right, installing two prominent members as vice president and secretary of state, attending prayer breakfasts and supporting the March for Life anti-abortion campaign, but he does not appear to be a devoted student of the Bible – at least, not of the parts that tell of Moses’ mythical stone tablets and their admonishment against bearing false witness.

‘We obliterated the Isis caliphate’

This suggestion of a total, 100-per-cent defeat is misleading because Isis does still pose a threat.

Isis was defeated in Iraq in 2017, then lost the last of its land holdings in Syria in March 2019, marking the end of the extremists' self-declared caliphate. Still, extremist sleeper cells have continued to launch attacks in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks and are believed to be responsible for targeted killings against local officials and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

It also continues to claim responsibility for attacks in the West.

The continued attacks are a sign that the militant group is taking advantage of governments otherwise focused on the pandemic and the ensuing slide into economic chaos. The virus is compounding long-held concerns among security and UN experts that the group will stage a comeback.

‘We passed VA Choice’

A flat-out lie. Barack Obama’s administration introduced this scheme, and Mr Trump expanded it. The programme allows armed forces members to get medical care outside the Veterans Affairs system with their costs covered if government waiting times are too long. Mr Trump has tried to take credit for this Obama-era achievement scores of times.

‘Monumental and historic tariffs on China’

Mr Trump said in his farewell address: "We imposed historic and monumental tariffs on China ... Our trade relationship was rapidly changing, billions and billions of dollars were pouring into the US, but the virus forced us to go in a different direction."

The trade war with Beijing is one of the biggest features of the Trump administration, but the president has repeatedly mischaracterised his tariff scheme. China is not handing that money over to the US as he claims.

Tariffs, in effect a tax, have ended up being paid by importers in the US, as well as consumers and producers further down the line. Following China’s retaliatory tariff action, groups such as US farmers have suffered to the point where Mr Trump has been forced to hand billions of dollars to them in subsidies.

‘The world respects us again. Please don’t lose that respect’

The Pew Research Centre has been tracking public opinion about the US abroad for two decades. The charts only point one way.

Under Mr Trump, “the share of the public with a favourable view of the US is as low as it has been at any point” in some countries, Pew said last September.

In the UK just 41 per cent of people told Pew they held a positive opinion of America. In Germany, it was 26 per cent; in Australia, 33 per cent.

Much of the decline was linked to Mr Trump’s poor handling of the coronavirus crisis, Pew said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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