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Eight Republican presidential candidates sparred over foreign aid, abortion limits and climate change in the first GOP primary debate ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Former President Donald Trump didn’t join them, though he loomed large in the discussion, which delved into topics such as his record and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump skipped the Fox News debate for a prerecorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, repeating false claims about both the 2020 presidential election and his recent indictments.
Appearing onstage at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
PolitiFact fact-checked their comments for accuracy.
Mike Pence: "A 15-week (abortion) ban is an idea whose time has come. It's supported by 70% of the American people."
Survey data varies on this question. Pence’s team pointed PolitiFact to a June 2023 poll sponsored by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion group, and conducted by the Tarrance Group. It found that 77% of respondents said abortions should be prohibited at conception, after six weeks or after 15 weeks.
But this poll was sponsored by a group with a position on the issue, and both questions told respondents that fetuses can feel pain at 15 weeks — an assertion that is not universal consensus among medical experts.
Independent polls varied on the question of an abortion ban after 15 weeks. A July 2022 survey from Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll found that 23% of respondents said their state should ban abortion after 15 weeks, 12% said it should be banned at six weeks and 37% said it should be allowed only in cases of rape and incest. Collectively, that’s 72% who supported a ban at 15 weeks or less.
In two subsequent polls, the support for abortion at 15 weeks or less was not as strong. A September 2022 Economist/YouGov poll found that 39% of respondents supported a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, and 46% opposed it. And a June 2023 Associated Press-NORC poll found that for abortion up to 15 weeks, 51% of respondents said they would allow it, while 45% said they would ban it.
Ron DeSantis: Democrats are "trying … to allow abortion all the way up to the moment of birth."
This claim is False and misleads about how rarely abortions are performed later in pregnancy. Several other candidates repeated similar claims, saying Democrats such as President Joe Biden are pushing for proposals for "abortion on demand" up to the moment of birth.
The vast majority of abortions in the U.S. — about 91% — occur in the first trimester. About 1% take place after 21 weeks, and far less than 1% occur in the third trimester and typically involve emergencies such as fatal fetal anomalies or life-threatening medical emergencies affecting the mother.
Biden has said he supported Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion and was overturned in June 2022, and wants federally protected abortion access.
Roe didn’t provide unrestricted access to abortion. It legalized abortion federally but also enabled the states to restrict or ban abortions once a fetus is viable, typically around 24 weeks into pregnancy. Exceptions to that time frame typically were allowed when the mother’s life or health was at risk.
The Democrat-led Women's Health Protection Act of 2021, which failed to pass the Senate, would have effectively codified a right to abortion while allowing for similar post-viability restrictions as Roe.
Nikki Haley: Vivek Ramaswamy wants to "defund Israel!"
Ramaswamy has expressed interest in cutting aid to Israel, but not immediately. In an August interview with actor Russell Brand, Ramaswamy said, "I believe in standing by commitments that we’ve already made." He referred to the 2016 agreement for the U.S. to provide Israel with $38 billion in military aid covering 2019 through 2028.
But Ramaswamy said he wants to negotiate "Abraham Accords 2.0" with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Indonesia to "get Israel on its own two feet." The Abraham Accords in 2020 normalized diplomatic relations among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
"Come 2028, that additional aid won’t be necessary in order to still have the kind of stability that we would actually have in the Middle East by having Israel more integrated in with its partners," Ramaswamy said. "Then it puts us in a position, everybody’s position, to say we don’t have to meddle."
On Aug. 18, Ramaswamy posted that "we will not leave Israel hanging out to dry - ever."
Ron DeSantis: On Ukraine funding, "I will have Europe pull their weight. Right now, they’re not doing that."
Europe has more than kept pace with the U.S. in providing Ukraine aid, both in money and as measured by share of gross domestic product.
The Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research organization, has been tracking global commitments to Ukraine. Its most recent data, through June 2023, covers the first 16 months of the Russia-Ukraine war.
The United States leads among donor nations, having given more than 70 billion euros, according to the institute’s data. However, the next 12 European nations collectively have provided nearly 87 billion euros.
European countries’ role is even bigger when considering their gross domestic product, which is the standard measure of a national economy’s size.
Nineteen European nations are spending a larger share of GDP on Ukraine than is the United States. Atop the list are many countries near Ukraine’s border — including Poland, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia — which are supporting refugees fleeing the war.
The U.S. stands alone in providing the most military aid to Ukraine, accounting for more than half the international amount.
Vivek Ramaswamy: "The climate change agenda is a hoax."
This is false. More than 97% of the world’s climate scientists and a majority of domestic and international scientific organizations agree that human activity is causing the Earth to warm, causing long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns, which are known as climate change.
Increased levels of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from human activity block heat from escaping the atmosphere and radiate it back toward Earth’s surface. Changes to the earth’s climate have resulted in warmer temperatures, a rising sea level and more extreme weather events like flooding and wildfires.
Vivek Ramaswamy: "The reality is the anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy. And so the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change."
Ramaswamy didn’t explain his evidence, and it was unclear what he was referencing — his campaign didn’t immediately respond to us. But data from a number of credible sources shows the human toll from climate change is significant.
Worldwide, extreme weather disasters made worse by climate change caused more than 2 million deaths between 1970 and 2021, the World Meteorological Organization said in a May 2023 report. The World Health Organization reported in November that at least 15,000 people died due to the heat in 2022. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 600 people a year die from heat-related illnesses, although experts told PolitiFact that number is likely an undercount.
Summer 2023 has set record temperatures in the U.S. and across the globe, with July the hottest month on record. Extreme temperatures that month were made at least three times likelier because of human-caused climate change, one research group found.
"I don’t know of any climate policies that are killing people," said Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University. "Fossil fuels, however, kill millions of people every year from air pollution."
Dessler pointed to 2021 research published by Harvard University in collaboration with other institutions that found more than 8 million people worldwide died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution.
Doug Burgum: "We've got a plan right now, the $1.2 trillion of Green New Deal spending buried in the ‘Inflation Creation Act’ is something that is just subsidizing China."
This is misleading.
Burgum referred to two pieces of legislation, one that became law and one that did not. The Green New Deal was a 2019 proposal Democrats backed to curb climate change and protect the environment; the resolution did not become law. The Inflation Reduction Act was enacted in 2022.
The Inflation Reduction Act provides tax credits to boost investment in solar, wind, hydropower and other renewable energy. It has spurred U.S. economic activity.
U.S. companies have announced 142,000 renewable energy jobs since the act became law. And in the first eight months after Biden signed the law, U.S. companies announced plans to invest at least $150 billion in clean energy projects.
Ron DeSantis: "In Florida, we eliminated critical race theory from our K through 12 schools."
We rated a similar claim Mostly False. We found no evidence that critical race theory, a broad set of ideas about racism being woven into American systems, was being taught in Florida’s K-12 schools. Educators, school officials and several Florida public school districts told us that CRT has never been part of the state curriculum.
We found a few examples of state education officials objecting to textbooks and courses they said contained CRT teaching in recent years. They show the state’s objections to prospective teaching materials, and success in preventing content it deemed to be CRT-related. But questions remain about the state’s rationale and how it defines the theory and other prohibited topics.
Tim Scott: "Parents who show up at school board meetings, they’re called, under this DOJ, they’re called domestic terrorists."
This is False.
PolitiFact has found no evidence that the Justice Department has labeled parents who speak out at school board meetings domestic terrorists.
This narrative emerged in October 2021, after Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI to address violent threats against school board members. The memo did not call parents "domestic terrorists." It noted that "spirited debate" is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
In 2022, a judge appointed by Trump found that Garland did not apply this label to parents and that no parents’ rights had been violated.
Ron DeSantis: "In Florida, we led the country out of lockdown. We kept our state free and open."
This is misleading. DeSantis revels in his record of snubbing public health recommendations to curb COVID-19’s spread. But he largely omits the closures of schools and businesses that happened under his watch.
Seven states did not issue stay-at-home orders to their residents, but not Florida. On April 1, 2020, DeSantis issued an executive order directing all Florida residents to "limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home." The order expired April 30, 2020, and Florida began a phased reopening in May.
Though he carved out an exception for religious services and some recreational activities, DeSantis didn't exempt in-person classroom instruction. DeSantis' Department of Education issued a March 13, 2020, recommendation that Florida schools close their facilities for an extended spring break before lengthening the closure through the end of the school year in early June.
Schools reopened in person in August 2020.
Tim Scott: "Let’s fire the 87,000 IRS agents, and hire or double the number of border patrol agents."
Doug Burgum: "The Biden administration wanted to put 87,000 people in the IRS as opposed to giving the money in the support we need to our own border patrol."
These claims about IRS agents are misleading. The IRS is hiring more employees after getting an $80 billion allocation over 10 years from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. But it’s unclear whether 87,000 people will be added over that 10-year span, and so far we know that not all new hires will be agents.
An April 2023 IRS report said the IRS planned to fill around 20,000 full-time equivalent positions, including customer service representatives, information technology experts and accountants. About 7,000 of the new hires will focus on enforcement, ensuring wealthy taxpayers and big corporations pay their taxes, according to the report. The agency also said in 2022 that it was expecting 50,000 employees to leave within six years.
Nikki Haley: "Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt."
This figure is close, but a little high.
One measure is publicly held debt. During Trump’s four years in office, debt held by the public rose by $7.2 trillion.
The other measure is to take publicly held debt and add to it the borrowing between one part of the government and another. This is known as gross federal debt, and it increased by $7.8 trillion during Trump’s presidency.
A president is not the sole force driving federal debt. Congress passes spending bills before they are sent to the president to be signed. And during Trump’s tenure, Republicans held the Senate for all four years, and held the House for two years.
Also, about two-thirds of federal spending consists of entitlements that are paid under long-standing formulas, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Mike Pence: "In four short years, we rebuilt our military."
We rated a similar claim from Trump Mostly False.
By January 2020, the Trump administration had made progress toward improving the military’s operational readiness, but most weapons and infrastructure remained the same as before Trump took office. The Trump administration had earmarked $2.7 trillion in defense spending over four years for buying and upgrading equipment, research and development, military personnel and operation and maintenance costs.
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said there was "more continuity than change" in the defense policies from former President Barack Obama to Trump.
"Most weapons are the same as before," O’Hanlon told us in 2020. We also tracked some of the Trump administration campaign commitments to rebuild the U.S Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and increase the U.S. Army’s size, but we found he compromised or broke all three of his promises.
Chris Christie: In 1980, Jimmy Carter "was defeated by a conservative governor (Ronald Reagan) from a blue state who knew how to get results."
Christie, who was elected as a Republican governor of blue New Jersey, tried to compare his situation with that of former President Ronald Reagan, but the comparison falls short. California is a blue state today, but it was not when Reagan won it in the 1980 presidential race on his way to winning the presidency.
In six of the seven presidential elections before 1980, the majority of Californians voted for the Republican candidate, backing Dwight Eisenhower twice, Richard Nixon three times and Gerald Ford once. The only time in those seven elections when the state’s voters chose a Democrat was in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson won the state in a national landslide.
California’s presidential preferences changed in 1992, more than a decade after Reagan’s first victory there, when Bill Clinton lavished attention on the state and won it. The 1994 passage of Proposition 187, which denied services to immigrants in the country illegally, furthered the shift toward Democrats, with the state’s growing Latino population turning away from Republicans who had most aggressively backed the measure. Since 1992, Democrats have won California in every presidential race.
See links in fact-checks.
World Health Organization, Climate change is already killing us, but strong action now can prevent more deaths, Nov. 7, 2022
Gavin Schmidt, X thread, May 14, 2023
Email interview, David Weiskopf, senior policy advisor at NextGen Policy, Aug. 23, 2023
United Nations, Extreme weather caused two million deaths, cost $4 trillion over last 50 years, May 22, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Extreme Heat, accessed Aug. 23, 2023
Climate Central, Fingerprints of climate change during Earth’s hottest month, Aug. 1, 2023
PolitiFact, Joe Biden said heat kills more Americans than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Is it true?, July 28, 2023
PolitiFact, After hottest month on record, can novel solutions address ‘urban heat islands’?, Aug. 17, 2023
Email interview, Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University, Aug. 24, 2023
Vivek Ramaswamy, LinkedIn post, May 2023
DesiFacts, Fact Check: The Impact of Fossil Fuels on Climate-Related Deaths, July 24, 2023