The most popular fact checks of 2020

We also listed five of our most popular videos, as well as the top fact checks that were published before 2020. (Meanwhile, we’re going to try to take a needed break before the new year. Only something dramatic will cause us to change our plans.) 1. Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop: […]

We also listed five of our most popular videos, as well as the top fact checks that were published before 2020.

(Meanwhile, we’re going to try to take a needed break before the new year. Only something dramatic will cause us to change our plans.)

1. Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop: An explainer

In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Trump seized on a report in the New York Post to make wild claims of corruption against Joe Biden. But it was rather murky and unconfirmed. The article was based on emails purportedly obtained from a laptop that Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president Joe Biden, had supposedly left behind for repair in a Delaware shop in April 2019. In the end, the laptop incident appears to have had little impact on the campaign. The FBI obtained the laptop, but a New York Times report after the election said that investigators, exploring a possible money laundering case against Hunter Biden, “had already examined a laptop owned by Mr. Biden and an external hard drive that had been abandoned at a computer store in Wilmington and found nothing to advance the inquiry.”

2. How false hope spread about hydroxychloroquine to treat covid-19 — and the consequences that followed

Trump responded to the pandemic with an often frantic search for an instant cure. For a while, at the top of his list was the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine, which captured Trump’s imagination after online chatter about some (pretty dubious) studies that touted it as a miracle drug.

The Fact Checker video team — in one of our most-viewed videos — reconstructed how the claim spread online and illustrated the troubling consequences of such misleading hope in the drugs. The FDA, under pressure from Trump, in March gave emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19. But then it revoked the authorization on June 15. The agency said in a statement that “it is no longer reasonable to believe” the drug may be effective in fighting covid-19.

Claims about hydroxychloroquine to treat covid-19 have gained traction despite a lack of scientific evidence. How did this happen? (The Washington Post)

3. Was the White House office for global pandemics eliminated?

Democrats claimed that Trump abolished a White House global pandemic office, contributing to the federal government’s sluggish response to the coronavirus outbreak. But Trump administration officials disagreed, saying the office was folded into another one to streamline a bloated organization. Readers were confused, so we dug into the issue.

We concluded there was enough evidence to support both narratives. The question that cannot be answered — at least perhaps until a congressionally mandated commission examines the U.S. preparation for this crisis — is whether a separate directorate would have had more clout to bring the issue immediately to the president’s attention. That might have helped buy time to stem the spread of the disease by focusing the full attention of government on the emerging problem.

4. Mitch McConnell got ‘rich’ the old-fashioned way

This fact check dissected a slick ad produced by the Lincoln Project, a political action committee run by Republican never-Trumpers. The ad implied that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell became “one of the richest guys” in the Senate because of backroom deals he did as a lawmaker.

This is an old playbook used against McConnell by Democrats, to little effect, so we wonder why it keeps getting recycled. McConnell got rich because he married well — his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, inherited millions of dollars — not because of deals he cooked up in Washington. The ad earned Three Pinocchios — and McConnell once again easily won reelection to the Senate.

5. Trump’s vicious claim that Joe Scarborough might have murdered an aide

The president was referring to the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a 28-year-old aide who worked for Scarborough when he was a Republican member of Congress representing Florida’s 1st Congressional District. The circumstances of Klausutis’s death have spawned conspiracy theories, but authorities never suspected foul play. Klausutis’s death on July 20, 2001, was ruled accidental, and police concluded there was no reason to investigate further. The medical examiner determined that an abnormal heart rhythm caused Klausutis to lose consciousness and fall, fatally striking her head. She was discovered in Scarborough’s office in Fort Walton Beach, lying on her back with her head near a desk.

Showing no shame, Trump even falsely insinuated that Scarborough — who was in Washington when the tragedy happened — was romantically involved with Klausutis, who was married. This was one of those fact checks of Trump where we wished we could award more than Four Pinocchios.

6. Trump’s claim the Postal Service loses money on every e-commerce package it delivers

Trump was threatening to veto financial aid for the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service unless it hikes the price it charges for delivering packages — which he said should be quadrupled. In particular, he attacked Amazon. The Washington Post, of course, is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. The president is often displeased by reporting in The Post, which he occasionally labels the “Amazon Washington Post” even though The Post is not part of Amazon. Bezos has owned The Post since 2013 as a personal investment via Nash Holdings.

It was a complicated issue with few hard numbers, but in the end, we gave Trump Four Pinocchios. USPS, by its own calculation, said revenue from package deliveries far exceeds costs; moreover, under the law, USPS is prohibited from losing money in the package-delivery sector. It turned out to be a good call. Internal USPS documents obtained by The Post in September found that Amazon generated $3.9 billion in revenue for the agency in the 2019 fiscal year that ended in September. The Postal Service turned a $1.6 billion profit on that business, nearly twice as much as any other customer. So Trump once again was totally wrong.

7. Who caused the violence at protests? It wasn’t antifa.

On May 30 — five days after George Floyd was killed and four after protests erupted across Minneapolis — President Trump first said antifa forces were behind the violence that swept across the country. He has repeated this claim nearly 30 times since. Online activists and prominent right-wing Twitter personalities promoted the theory. And the nation’s top law enforcement officials — including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Attorney General William P. Barr — appeared to confirm it, echoing Trump’s claim.

The Fact Checker video team spoke to witnesses and reviewed arrest records, federal charges, intelligence reports, online conversations and dozens of videos and photos of violent incidents from the early days of protests in Minneapolis to determine whether a coordinated antifa campaign was responsible for the violence. The conclusion: There has not yet been a single confirmed case in which someone who self-identifies as antifa led violent acts at any of the protests across the country. The president and his administration have placed an outsize burden of blame on antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists, without waiting for arrest data and completed investigations.

Trump has consistently, misleadingly blamed antifa as perpetrators of violence at the George Floyd protests. (The Washington Post)

8. The sexual allegations against Joe Biden: The corroborators

Contemporaneous accounts are essential to establishing the credibility of the allegation because they reduce the chances that a person is making up a story for political purposes. In the case of sexual allegations, such accounts can help bolster the credibility of the “she said” side of the equation. Often, a sexual assault will happen behind closed doors. The contemporaneous corroborators can explain what they heard at the time and whether the story being told now is consistent with how the story was told years earlier. This does not necessarily mean the allegation is true, but it does give a journalistic organization more confidence to report on the allegation.

The president says he’s “very happy” sexual misconduct by powerful men is being “exposed.” He denies all of the allegations against him. (The Washington Post)

9. Trump says there are 25 ‘witnesses’ disputing the Atlantic. Nope.

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic published an article Sept. 3 that was at once surprising and not surprising: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’ ” The president had famously attacked the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), saying he wasn’t a war hero because “I like people who weren’t captured.” But Goldberg provided what he said were new accounts of Trump’s private remarks disparaging soldiers who died in service of the United States. The people who recounted these remarks were not identified. In trying to refute the article, the White House has focused on its first anecdote — that Trump canceled a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 because he did not believe it was important to honor American war dead.

The White House collected the names of 25 people who claimed to refute Goldberg’s reporting on the cemetery decision. Trump called them “witnesses,” but that’s wrong. Eleven people on the list were not with Trump. They are mostly current administration officials serving at the pleasure of the president or communications aides and so can offer only bromides. This article assessed the credibility of the statements of 14 people who were traveling in France as part of the president’s entourage and have disputed elements of Goldberg’s report.

10. The Trump campaign’s egregious editing of a CNN clip

The Trump campaign became notorious for misleading edits in its videos, continually taking comments or portraying events out of context. This fact check was one of many we did on Trump campaign videos. In this case, CNN even wrote a cease-and-desist letter to Trump’s reelection campaign, saying that the remarks of two of its stars, Wolf Blitzer and Sanjay Gupta, were edited to give a false impression. “The editing of the CNN interview is so deceptive — complete with images to suggest Blitzer and Gupta were discussing restrictions on travel from China — that it is little wonder CNN filed a complaint,” we concluded. The Trump campaign earned Four Pinocchios — one of many such ratings it received for misleading videos.

President Trump’s reelection campaign praised his coronavirus response in an ad release on May 3. But many of the quotes in the video were misleading. (The Washington Post)

Top videos

A fact: More people watch our videos than read our fact checks. Videos have given us a different option to tell particularly visual and complicated stories in new ways. Videos updating readers on our database of Trump’s false or misleading claims remain wildly popular. (Here’s our video on Trump breaking 20,000 claims.) Many of the videos above were hugely popular. Our top video, on the Wuhan lab, earned more than 2 million views on YouTube. The ones listed below also ranked among the top performers. No surprise — all of the top videos were about the pandemic.

Top columns in 2020 — that were published before 2020

Many readers discover old fact checks when searching the Internet for information. Here’s a list of fact checks that ranked among the top 100 in 2020 — even though they were first published in 2019 (or earlier).

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