Fact-check: How some of Trump’s State of the Union claims stand up to reality

Fact-check: How some of Trump’s State of the Union claims stand up to reality
Copyright REUTERS/Win McNamee/Pool
Copyright REUTERS/Win McNamee/Pool
By NBC News
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A fact-check of some of the key claims from Trump's speech.


By Jane C. Timm

President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, in which he boasted of the strength of the U.S. economy, the reach of the tax cuts passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump in December, and laid out his plans on immigration.

Here is how some of the president's claims on those topics stand up to the facts.

Trump gets black unemployment rate right, but claims undue credit

“Unemployment claims have hit a 45-year low. And something I’m very proud of — African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded,” Trump said.

Trump’s got his numbers right — unemployment overall is at a 45-year low and black unemployment did reach a new low this year — but he’s taking credit for an awful lot of gains that occurred before his administration.

President Barack Obama cut black unemployment in half, from 16.8 percent to 7.8 percent during his administration. Under Trump’s administration thus far, the black unemployment rate has fallen just one point, from 7.8 percent to 6.8 percent.

Has the US released terrorists only to meet them later on the battlefield?

"In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds of dangerous terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield — including the ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi," Trump said, before announcing an order directing that the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay be kept open.

Trump is correct, though the trend fell dramatically under former President Barack Obama. However, his claim that the U.S. released the man who would become the leader of ISIS is somewhat misleading. The man known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was released into Iraqi custody in 2004 — not set free by the U.S.

According to a March 2017 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 121 former detainees of the U.S. detention facility in Cuba were confirmed to have returned to terrorist activities. Another 87 were suspected of reengaging with terrorist activities, the report showed.

Of the 121 who were confirmed to have returned to terrorism, 113 would have been released during the George W. Bush presidency. Of the 87 suspected of reengaging with terrorism, 74 would have been released during the George W. Bush presidency.

Trump's right, ISIS did lose almost all its territory in Iraq and Syria

"One year later, I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and in Syria, and in other locations as well. But there is much more work to be done," Trump said.

This is true. By early December, the Pentagon said 97 percent of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria had been liberated. Now, analysts tell NBC News, the threat the U.S. must fight is dangerous lone wolf attacks and resurgences of the extremist group if forces do not continue to stamp it out.

Trump claims green cards are given 'randomly' without regard for skill, safety

"The third pillar ends the visa lottery — a program that randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of our people," Trump said.

Trump's description of the visa lottery program, which came as the president was describing his framework for immigration reform, is false. The diversity visa program grants 50,000 visas a year to individuals who have graduated high school or "two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience to perform," according to the State Department.

Visa applicants are selected through a random, computer-generated lottery. If an applicant is selected, they face all of the same background checks and screening processes as any other immigrant visa applicant to be granted admission, including document presentation, background checks, in person interviews and medical exams.

Did a terrorist enter on the diversity visa?

"In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration. In the age of terrorism, these programs present risks we can no longer afford," Trump said.

This is half true. Trump is correct that two suspects of recent terror attacks entered thanks to a family connection and the diversity visa lottery program, but both appear to have been radicalized well after they entered the United States, making them homegrown threats.

Can immigrants bring in 'unlimited' and 'distant' relatives?

"Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children. This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy, but for our security, and for the future of America," Trump said.


This is false. Legal immigrants can sponsor their spouses, children, parents, and siblings — but distant relatives, like cousins, cannot be sponsored for residency. The family reunification visa process takes years or even more than a decade, preventing "chains" from forming the way Trump suggests, as Politico reported in detail.

What's more, there are only so many family visas that can be granted. The numbers are capped by the US government.

Trump claims credit for 2.4 million new jobs, rising wages

"Since the election, we have created 2.4 million new jobs, including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone. After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages."

This is half true. The job numbers are technically correct, but Trump is overstating wage growth and taking credit for jobs added under his predecessor.

Trump’s first year in office was marked by 2.1 million jobs being added to the economy — the slowest year of job growth in six years — while the other job gains came under President Barack Obama. Wages are indeed rising, but they were not exactly stagnate. They’ve been rising steadily for years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Have 3 million workers received bonuses?

"Since we passed tax cuts, roughly 3 million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses — many of them thousands of dollars per worker," Trump said.

This appears to be true. Americans for Tax Reform, an advocacy group that fights all tax hikes, posted a list on Tuesday of 286 companies giving bonuses or pay raises because of the tax reform bill.

"At least 3 million Americans are receiving special tax reform bonuses," the group writes — likely where Trump is getting his figure.

While NBC News has not independently verified the group's count, the figure tracks with USA Today’s reporting that more than 2.5 million workers have received bonuses thus far.

Trump overstates tax relief for middle class

"Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small business," Trump said.


This claim is misleading — or, at least, depends on your definition of "tremendous." The middle class does get a tax cut under the new law, but unlike the relief for corporations, those cuts are not permanent. Ultimately, taxes for middle income families will rise.

"The tax cuts that Trump is bragging about? Those are the provisions that are slated to go away," said Kyle Pomerleau, the director of federal projects at The Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy think tank. Most of the tax cuts affecting individuals expire in 2026. By 2027, 47.5 percent of all households will pay more in taxes than under the previous law, including 62.2 percent of taxpayers in the middle 20 percent of earners.

"The current law is an across the board tax cut," Pomerleau said, but, "the expiration of that is going to be an across the board tax increase."

Trump touts GOP tax cuts as "biggest" in U.S. history

"Just as I promised the American people from this podium 11 months ago, we enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history," Trump said.

This claim is false. The GOP tax bill, passed in December, does not amount to the "biggest" in U.S. history, according to the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. According to their estimates, Trump's tax cut is the eighth biggest in history.


As for the reform aspect: "It’s hard to mathematically measure how reform-y your tax plan is," said Kyle Pomerleau, the director of federal projects at The Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy think tank. Still, Ronald Reagan's 1986 reform simplified the tax code in a big way and was probably more "reformish," Pomerleau told NBC News.

Adam Edelman contributed reporting.

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