AP FACT CHECK: Trump baselessly cites fraud in virus toll

HOPE YEN and CALVIN WOODWARD
·12-min read
President Donald Trump walks to the podium to speak at a campaign rally at Keith House, Washington's Headquarters, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Newtown, Pa. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Election 2020 Trump

President Donald Trump walks to the podium to speak at a campaign rally at Keith House, Washington's Headquarters, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Newtown, Pa. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The actual crisis of the coronavirus pandemic and a manufactured crisis over voting fraud featured heavily in President Donald Trump’s misstatements during the 2020 campaign’s final week. Democrat Joe Biden went astray on trade as he assailed the president’s record on China.

Straining to make the pandemic look less dire than it is, Trump baselessly alleged that the death count is inflated by instances of doctors falsifying the cause of death. He produced no evidence of that, and there is strong contrary evidence that the death toll attributed to COVID-19 actually understates how many Americans are dying from it.

A sampling of political rhetoric from the week:

TRUMP: “You know, our doctors get more money if somebody dies from COVID. You know that right? I mean, our doctors are very smart people. So what they do is they say, ‘I’m sorry, but, you know, everybody dies of COVID.’” — rally Friday in Waterford Township, Michigan.

THE FACTS: No, the virus death count has not been overstated because of doctors lying to get more money. No evidence has emerged of such systemic fraud.

Almost 230,000 deaths from COVID-19 have been confirmed as of Saturday. The true number is almost certainly higher by a considerable margin.

As of Oct. 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 299,000 more U.S. deaths than would be expected in a normal year. Some of those deaths are sure to have been from COVID-19 — how many cannot be known.

It's true that hospitals may get higher reimbursement from the government to treat COVID-19 patients. Hospitals were given a 20% add-on for Medicare patients who test positive for the virus to cover the additional costs of treating the disease, such as buying supplies. The higher reimbursements are based on a COVID-19 diagnosis, not on the cause of death as Trump stated.

The Healthcare Financial Management Association, which works with hospitals on billing matters, says providers must support COVID-19 billing with test results or a physician's statement. The organization says hospitals expect to be audited for this billing and know that Medicare cheaters may have to pay back three times what they overcharged or even lose access to Medicaid patients.

Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, said Trump's allegation of COVID-19 overcounting, which he has made several times, “is a malicious, outrageous, and completely misguided charge.”

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VIRUS

TRUMP: “In California, you have a special mask. You cannot under any circumstances take it off. You have to eat through the mask.” — Arizona rally on Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Those statements are false.

California residents are not required to wear “special” masks Nor are they required to wear them all the time and “eat through the mask.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide mask order allows Californians to wear basic coverings such as homemade ones and people are not required to wear them when at home, outdoors more than 6 feet from others or when eating and drinking.

His office this month did tweet out a graphic advising people to “keep your mask on in between bites” when going out to eat at restaurants. That was mocked because Californians were also advised to minimize the amount of times they touch their masks. Newsom told reporters that one of his staffers had sent out the tweet, which the governor said was intended to indicate that if people start to read a book at the table, they may want to put their mask back on.

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TRUMP: “We have a spike in cases ... And you know why we have so many cases? Because we test more.” — Michigan rally Tuesday.

THE FACTS: No, increased testing does not fully account for the rise in recorded cases, and Trump is contradicted by his own top health officials. People are also infecting each other more than before as distancing rules recede, some shun masks and community spread picks up.

Adm. Brett Giroir, the Health and Human Services Department official overseeing the nation’s coronavirus testing efforts, stressed anew that the increases can’t be explained by just additional testing.

“We do believe and the data show that cases are going up,” Giroir told NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday. “Yes, we’re getting more cases identified, but the cases are actually going up. And we know that, too, because hospitalizations are going up.”

More testing actually does not mean more infections at all; people are getting sick regardless of whether their illness is recorded. More testing can help prevent the disease’s spread by letting people know COVID-19 is rising in their area.

Practically every state is now seeing a rise in cases. The virus has now killed over 228,000 in the U.S., according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Giroir warned that local governments may be forced to take “draconian measures” if Americans don’t take safety precautions seriously. “Cases will go up if we don’t make a change,” he said.

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TRADE

BIDEN, comparing Trump’s record on trade with that of the Obama administration: “We have a trade deficit that’s larger with China than when we were there.” – interview on “60 Minutes,” Oct. 25.

THE FACTS: Biden’s claim is outdated and no longer true. The U.S. deficit in the trade of goods and services with China fell last year to $308 billion — the lowest since 2013 — as Trump slapped taxes on most Chinese imports to the United States. And the gap is down again so far this year.

In the first two years of the Trump presidency, however, the United States ran higher trade deficits with China — $380 billion in 2018 and $337 billion in 2017 — than any recorded during the Obama administration. The deficit was $310 billion in 2016, the last year of the Obama presidency.

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2020 ELECTION

TRUMP: “It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on November third, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate and I don’t believe that that’s by our laws.” — remarks to reporters Tuesday.

THE FACTS: “Our laws” don’t require the immediate reporting of all election results in the country on election night. Delayed counting is unavoidable.

Apart from the usual lags in rounding up and reporting totals from every precinct in the country, the U.S. is seeing unprecedented numbers of early votes, and some battleground states won’t even start counting them until Election Day votes have been tallied.

Indeed, the Supreme Court is allowing Pennsylvania to count mailed ballots that are not even received by elections officials for three days after the election, as long as there’s no evidence that such ballots were filled out after Nov. 3. The decision isn’t final: Justices left open the possibility of reviewing the matter after the election.

The court is also allowing absentee ballots in North Carolina to be received and counted up to nine days after Election Day.

Earlier in the campaign, Trump asserted that the winner should be declared on election night, another outcome no one can guarantee and one that may elude the country Tuesday. There is no requirement that the winner be determined Election Day.

He once raised the question of delaying the election, then dropped the thought, but has persisted in groundless allegations that the election is certain to be plagued by fraud.

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TRUMP: “Strongly Trending (Google) since immediately after the second debate is CAN I CHANGE MY VOTE? This refers changing it to me. The answer in most states is YES. Go do it. Most important Election of your life!” — tweet Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Not so fast. Some states allow voters to switch their early vote, but laws vary and many have restrictions.

Minnesota, for instance, allows voters to “claw back” their vote and change it, but the deadline for that has passed. Wisconsin allows people to change their vote up to three times, though it doesn’t happen often. Florida allows voters who received mail ballots to choose to vote in person instead, but they cannot vote more than once.

If a voter has already sent his or her mail-in ballot and then goes to vote in person, “the (mail) ballot is deemed cast and the voter to have voted,” according to Florida law.

David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation said changing a vote in states where that is possible is “extremely rare” and very complicated.

“It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice,” he said.

Trump’s suggestion that he did so well in the debate that people who already voted for Biden wished they could switch to him is not borne out by the search engine’s statistics.

Google searches for “change my vote” did not crack the top 20 searches that night or after. Jill Biden was the subject of Google’s 20th most popular search that day. On Friday, the new “Borat” movie, presidential polls and college football were among the subjects drawing top 20 attention.

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TRUMP: “Big problems and discrepancies with Mail In Ballots all over the USA.” — tweet Monday.

THE FACTS: No, the catastrophe Trump has warned darkly about for months in mail-in voting has not materialized.

There have been sporadic reports of voters receiving mail ballots that were incorrectly formatted and other localized hitches in the record early turnout, but large-scale disenfranchisement has not been seen.

Trump has conspiratorially inflated local incidents, contending, for example, that mail-in ballots filled out for him are being dumped in rivers or creeks. This is a fabrication.

Three trays of mail were found by the side of a road and in a ditch — not a river or creek — in Greenville, Wisconsin, in mid-September. The sheriff initially said “several absentee ballots” were in the mix. The state’s elections officer later said no Wisconsin ballots were in the lost mail after all. No one said ballots marked for Trump were thrown out in the incident.

Trump’s motive for challenging votes by mail is plain: Democrats are dominating that segment of voting. Registered Democrats have also outnumbered registered Republicans in early voting in person at polling places, though the gap is narrower than with mailed ballots.

In short, Trump may need supporters to show up in huge numbers Tuesday if not before, and his baseless allegations of early-voting irregularities are designed to motivate them to do so as well as to portray the result as illegitimate if Biden wins.

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VOTING FRAUD

TRUMP, suggesting that Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak will add fraudulent votes: “We’re worried about the governor. ... Some of these people, in Nevada, they want to have the election. They want to have the count weeks after November 3rd. So let’s all wait for the governor to count them up good, and how many is he going to add during that two weeks, right?” — Arizona rally Wednesday.

TRUMP, on Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf: “The governor counts the ballots. ... This is the guy that’s counting our ballots? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.” — remarks Monday in Pennsylvania.

THE FACTS: To be clear, governors don’t count the votes, and they can’t just manufacture votes in the election.

Local county officials in Pennsylvania send out the ballots and count the votes. The state’s top elections official is Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Wolf appointee.

In Nevada, Sisolak has been a target of Trump’s ire after Sisolak in September criticized Trump’s indoor rally in a Las Vegas suburb for violating the state’s large-scale ban on indoor gatherings. But Sisolak doesn’t tally the votes himself, and Trump makes a baseless assertion that he can add fraudulent votes to the count.

Nevada’s secretary of state oversees that state’s new all-mail election. That office is held by Barbara Cegavske and she is a Republican.

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TRUMP: “In Nevada, they want to have a thing where you don’t have to have any verification of the signature.” -- New Hampshire rally Oct. 25.

THE FACTS: Not true, despite his frequent assertions to the contrary. The state’s existing law requires signature checks on mail ballots. A new law also spells out a process by which election officials are to check a signature against the one in government records.

In Nevada’s June primary, nearly 7,000 ballots were thrown out due to mismatched or missing signatures.

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TRUMP: “I say the biggest risk we have are the fake ballots.” — New Hampshire rally.

THE FACTS: His claim, frequently made in the last days before the election, is overblown.

It’s true that many states are expecting a surge in mail-in voting because of the coronavirus pandemic, which may lead to longer times in vote counting. The Supreme Court, for instance, will allow Pennsylvania to count mailed-in ballots received up to three days after the election; it also will allow North Carolina to count votes received nine days after the election so long as ballots are postmarked by Nov. 3.

But there is no evidence to indicate that massive fraud is afoot. Any delay in declaring a winner of the presidential race after Tuesday would not in itself be illegal.

Broadly speaking, voter fraud has proved exceedingly rare. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections.

In the five states that regularly send ballots to all voters who have registered, there have been no major cases of fraud or difficulty counting the votes.

Even if the election is messy and contested in court, the country will have a president in January — and not have vote counting going on “forever” as he asserts — because the Constitution and federal law ensure it.

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Associated Press writers Arijeta Lajka in New York, Tom Murphy in Indianapolis, Paul Wiseman and Darlene Superville in Washington; Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California; Michelle L. Price in Las Vegas and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.

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