Steve August 18, 2020
fact-checking-the-first-night-of-the-democratic-national-convention

The first night of the all-online Democratic National Convention left us a little starved of items to fact-check. Here’s a roundup of items that caught our attention.

“Social Security beneficiaries count on the post office to get their checks.”

— actress Eva Longoria Bastón

Actually, a relatively small percentage of Social Security beneficiaries still get their checks through the mail.

The latest data shows that as of 2019, 99.1 percent of Social Security recipients get direct deposits electronically. It jumped from about 85 percent in 2008 as the Obama administration pushed to eliminate paper Social Security checks. Most recipients get their payments either deposited in their bank accounts or on a debit card that is filled automatically every month.

Doing the math, there are about 555,000 Americans who still get Social Security checks by mail and about 215,000 who get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks by mail. That compares with 61.5 million who receive direct deposit either to the bank or a debit card.

Of course, you still need to rely on the mail to get the debit card. Social Security notices also come through the mail, unless a person opts out. But relatively few people still get checks.

“Our way worked, and it was beautiful.”

— Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.)

Cuomo took credit for a sharp decline recently in novel coronavirus cases in New York. But he has been criticized for delaying a shelter-in-place order for New York until the pandemic had “the number of confirmed cases at 15,000 doubling every three or four days,” according to ProPublica.

More than 6,000 nursing home residents in the state have died of the disease, and Cuomo has been criticized for effectively ordering nursing homes on March 25 to accept coronavirus patients from hospitals (though a state investigation found most of those patients “were no longer contagious”).

“Joe will rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and fight the threat of climate change by transitioning us to 100 percent clean electricity over the next 15 years.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders is not quite on target. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan for energy and the environment calls for “net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” That’s a 30-year timeline.

In his remarks, Sanders instead made reference to one of the recommendations from the Biden-Sanders unity task force, which says that “to reach net-zero emissions as rapidly as possible, Democrats commit to eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 through technology-neutral standards for clean energy and energy efficiency.” That’s a 15-year timeline, but for the moment, these are simply recommendations that Biden says he will consider. Moreover, the “technology-neutral” language gives Democrats some wiggle room. The term encompasses renewable energy such as solar and wind, and nonrenewable sources such as nuclear or carbon capture.

“Since this pandemic began, over 30 million people have lost their jobs, and many have lost their health insurance.”

— Sanders

The 30 million figure is one way to measure job loss during early stages of the pandemic. It is based on jobless claims, but other metrics, such as the monthly employment numbers, suggest much lower numbers. More than 5 million people are estimated to have lost their health insurance. We will leave to the copy editors among our readers to decide whether “many” is the correct usage in this sentence.

“Vice President Biden and President Obama assembled a pandemic playbook to make sure that America was prepared and protected. The Trump administration disbanded the pandemic response team that was given to them.”

— Longoria Bastón

This is a common Democratic talking point, but it is disputed. Let’s break it down.

The playbook: Longoria Bastón is referring to a 40-page document (not counting appendixes) — a National Security Council staff playbook on fighting pandemics. Now, just about every war plan falls apart with the first battle, but a case could be made that there was useful information in the playbook. Most notably, the color-coded document lists dozens of pointed and detailed questions that top policymakers could ask themselves to prepare for a novel virus suddenly emerging from overseas.

The playbook also helpfully details the responsibilities and expertise of each agency that could be tasked with dealing with such a crisis. At the very least, the document could have served as a starting point for action and might have helped officials understand the gravity of the problem sooner. Trump administration officials insisted the document was out of date and of little value — without explaining why a new playbook was not put in place.

The pandemic response team: After Barack Obama became president in 2009, he eliminated the White House Health and Security Office, which worked on international health issues. But after grappling with the 2014 Ebola epidemic, Obama in 2016 established a Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the NSC. A directorate has its own staff, and it is headed by someone who generally reports to the national security adviser.

The structure survived during the early part of Trump’s presidency, when the office was headed by Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer. But after John Bolton became Trump’s third national security adviser, he decided the organizational chart was a mess and led to too many conflicts. So he folded the global health directorate into a new one that focused on counterproliferation and biodefense.

As far as we can determine, the positions that made up the old unit still are filled within the NSC, most in the nonproliferation directorate; one was moved to another directorate. The question that cannot be answered is whether a separate directorate would have had more clout to bring the issue immediately to the president’s attention.

One former administration official dismissed the debate over the NSC office as a relic of another type of presidency. “There isn’t any organizational chart in the U.S. government that makes any difference in the Trump administration,” the official told The Fact Checker. “Trump is more likely to say to Jared [Kushner], ‘What do you think we should do?’ That’s the big problem.”

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