Amazingly enough, Donald Trump’s lies were not the main story coming out of Tuesday night’s debate. But that’s only because Trump’s constant interruptions and personal insults sucked up more attention. The fact-checkers had a lot to work with, but, as CNN’s stellar fact-checker Daniel Dale pointed out, “Most of [Trump’s] false claims were ones he's made before and which have been repeatedly fact-checked and found to be false, rather than one-time slips or gaffes.” So a lot of the fact-checks could be at least somewhat plug and play using existing content.
To be clear: Fact-checkers did include former Vice President Joe Biden in their work, but while he made a few statements that registered as not quite right, he was well within the norm of accuracy for 90 minutes of speaking without notes. Trump, on the other hand, was off the charts. According to Dale, “There were times, particularly during the conclusion of the debate, when almost every comment from Trump was inaccurate.”
One fact check came not from people working for media organizations but in real time, directly from the person Trump lied about:
Beyond that, things Trump lied about, misrepresented, made false statements on, exaggerated, or misled on include Biden’s position on health care, veterans’ health care, coronavirus and masks, Biden’s position on coronavirus shutdowns, his own manufacturing jobs creation record, Black Lives Matter protests, his own former adviser Kellyanne Conway’s words, Biden’s advocacy of the 1994 crime bill, the size of his campaign rallies, the Green New Deal, his own environmental record, the causes of wildfires in California, the number of people in the U.S. with preexisting conditions, the price of insulin, Hunter Biden, Hunter Biden, and basically everything he said about voting and election fraud.
That last part is important, because a key part of Trump’s plan for this debate was to disrupt and drag down the elections. His interruptions and insults were part of that, intended to make people loathe the whole idea of voting for either of the candidates. But the content of what he said about elections was also intended to delegitimize the elections—because he believes he is going to lose, and rather than accept that loss he is trying to create distrust in the whole process.
So: Trump claimed fraud is widespread in mail-in voting, which it is not—in fact, it’s less than 0.0001%. He claimed his poll watchers in Philadelphia had been turned away Tuesday “Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.” In reality, poll watchers are only allowed to observe in-person voting on Election Day in Philadelphia. He falsely claimed that postal workers in West Virginia are selling ballots, apparently based on a case in which a single postal worker in the state altered some ballot applications—Democrats’ ballot applications, by the way—and claimed it had been done as a joke. He exaggerated a case in which a small number of ballots were mistakenly thrown out by an inexperienced worker. The mistake was caught, but Trump’s Justice Department is seeking to politicize it so that he has a debate talking point—which took the politicized Justice Department story and distorted it further.
It was a barrage of lies about election security designed to undermine confidence in November’s elections, combined with an invitation to his supporters to turn out to engage in voter intimidation, combined with an invitation to white supremacists to “stand by.” Over the years we’ve seen that many of Trump’s lies are intended to gain a fleeting moment’s advantage, to make him feel like a big man who won a single conversational exchange. Tuesday night was different. Both his attempts to rattle Joe Biden by attacking his son Hunter and his lies about voting had more sustained intention behind them. But the lies about the integrity of November’s elections were far more serious, because they were intentional, sustained assaults on those elections, and on U.S. democracy.