Fact check: Biden and Trump trade falsehoods and context-free claims at 1st presidential debate of 2024

During Thursday's debate between President Biden and former President Donald Trump, the two candidates offered no shortage of false claims and assertions that lacked context.

Here's a rundown of some of the night's most distinctive moments and exchanges that were either downright false or left out important facts and context.

As he has on the campaign trail, Trump made several false claims throughout the debate.

On the topic of abortion, for instance, he said of some Democratic-led states, "They're radical because they will take the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, even after birth."

That is an entirely evidence-free claim. Killing a person after birth is illegal in every U.S. state.

Trump also asserted that "everybody" agreed with his appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade, which protected the right for women to obtain an abortion nationwide. The court's decision sent the issue of whether to outlaw or restrict abortions back to the states.

"What I did was, I put three great Supreme Court justices on the court and they happened to vote in favor of killing Roe v. Wade and moving it back to the states. This is something that everybody wanted," Trump said.

Polls taken after the Supreme Court overturned Roe have consistently shown that a majority of Americans disapprove of the court's decision.

Without providing any evidence, Trump regularly states that the only reason he has been criminally indicted is that Biden has sought to keep him from winning a second term. On Thursday, he did so once again.

"I wouldn't be under indictment because I wouldn't have been his political opponent. He indicted me because I was his opponent," Trump said.

Two of the criminal cases against Trump were brought in state courts that are not under the direction of the Justice Department. While special counsel Jack Smith, who indicted Trump in the classified documents case and the Jan. 6 election interference case, was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, there is no evidence to suggest Biden's involvement in the decision to file charges.

On the topic of terrorism, Trump offered revisionist history when it came to his time in office.

"You had no terror at all during my administration. This place — the whole world is blowing up under him," Trump asserted.

This is not the first time Trump has falsely claimed the U.S. had no terrorist attacks during his presidency. In reality, there were several incidents that qualify:

  • In 2017, Trump's Justice Department alleged that a mass murder in New York City, which left eight people dead, was a terrorist attack in support of ISIS.

  • In 2018, the Justice Department claimed there was evidence of a "domestic terrorist attack" when a Trump supporter mailed homemade explosive devices to Democratic officials and CNN offices.

  • In 2019, Trump's Justice Department claimed an attack that killed three U.S. service members and injured others at a military base in Florida was motivated by an "associate" of al-Qaida.

  • Also in 2019, a gunman, who the Justice Department said was targeting Latinos, killed 23 people in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

While Trump has not been forthcoming about his plans for securing Social Security for future generations, he has repeatedly said he has no plans to cut it. Biden asserted otherwise on Thursday.

"He wants to get rid of Social Security. He thinks that there's plenty to cut in Social Security," he said.

Trump has said that there may be some room to reduce spending on Social Security and proposed a budget that included some cuts to the program, but has not stated any intention to eliminate the program.

During the debate, Biden made a claim about an official endorsement by a government agency that simply doesn't make them.

"By the way the Border Patrol endorsed me, endorsed my position," the president said in an apparent reference to his recent executive order meant to curtail the surge in the number of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

The Border Patrol Union, which does sometimes make political endorsements, has not endorsed Biden, however, and said in a post on X during the debate, "To be clear, we never have and never will endorse Biden."

Biden offered an incorrect unemployment statistic when defending his own record and criticizing the state of the economy Trump had left him.

"There was no inflation when I became president. You know why? Because the economy was flat on its back, 15% unemployment," Biden said.

In truth, the unemployment rate was 6.4% in January of 2021. It has since fallen to 4%.

Trump sought to blame Biden for China's continued economic rise but left out some notable details.

"China's going to own us if you keep allowing them to do what they're doing to us as a country. They are killing us as a country, Joe. And you can't let that happen — you're destroying our country," Trump said.

Trump left out that on May 14, Biden placed tariffs on a number of Chinese goods, including EVs, solar panels, steel, aluminum and medical equipment. For his first three years in office, Biden also elected to leave many of the tariffs in place that Trump had slapped on China.

In a questionable list of claims, Trump portrayed himself as having joined in the fight against climate change.

"I want absolutely immaculate clean water and I want absolutely clean air, and we had it. We had H2O," Trump said, presumably meaning CO2, a greenhouse gas scientists say is helping to warm the planet. "We had the best numbers ever and we did — we were using all forms of energy, all forms, everything. And yet, during my four years, I had the best environmental numbers ever."

While greenhouse gas emissions fell during Trump's term in office, they fell even more during Barack Obama's presidency. Experts also note that the modest decline when Trump was president was aided by the decline in economic activity caused by the coronavirus pandemic, not because of any specific actions taken by the Trump administration. Trump has promised oil executives that he will do away with regulations on oil production and will fight to dismantle the transition to clean energy that accelerated the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

"[Trump] wants to get rid of the [Affordable Care Act] again. And they're gonna try again if they win," Biden exclaimed during Thursday's debate.

While Trump had indeed sought to repeal Obama's signature health care law, he failed to do so and has since proclaimed that he is now "not running to terminate" the law. Instead, Trump has said he wants to make it "much better than it is right now and much less expensive for you."

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 45 million Americans are now enrolled in coverage related to the ACA, and that percentage continues to grow each year.

On the subject of inflation, Biden and Trump both saw fit to pin the blame for the problem on the other.

"He caused this inflation. I gave him a country with essentially no inflation," Trump said of Biden, adding, "He destroyed it."

Biden countered that Trump "caused it with his tremendous malfeasance in the way he handled the pandemic."

But inflation is primarily the result of macroeconomic trends that presidents have little power to influence. Economists blame two recent factors, the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine, for recent spikes in prices.

Inflation grew steadily during the first two years of Biden’s term, hitting a peak of 9% in June 2022 — not when Biden took office, as he sometimes claims. Inflation has dropped significantly since then, but the prices of key commodities, fuel and housing are still higher than they were when Biden took office.

➕ Read more

  • How did Trump and Biden do in the debate? 3 takeaways from 2024's 1st big clash. "Biden struggled to show his age doesn't matter." [Yahoo News]

  • CNN moderators in Biden-Trump debate: It almost didn't matter that they were on stage. "Did the moderators play a role? ... Their problem was that, more times than not, the questions were ignored as the two candidates continued to squabble at their own pace." [Associated Press]

  • Swing state voters react to presidential debate, Biden's weak performance. "At a watch party organized by the Biden campaign, some voters were adamant that Biden had a strong debate performance, while others expressed reservations." [ABC News]

  • Who won the Biden-Trump debate? Biden's freeze draws age concerns. "The biggest moment of the night came early, when Biden froze for several seconds while answering a question about the economy." [USA Today]

  • Fact Focus: Here's a look at some of the false claims made during Biden and Trump's first debate. "President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump traded barbs and a variety of false and misleading information." [Associated Press]

  • After a devastating debate performance, Biden aides try to reassure panicky Democrats. "Biden aides stressed that whatever happened on the debate stage, the fundamentals of the race are unchanged." [NBC News]

  • Here's why it would be tough for Democrats to replace Joe Biden on the presidential ticket. "Every state has already held its presidential primary. Democratic rules mandate that the delegates Biden won remain bound to support him at the party's upcoming national convention unless he tells them he’s leaving the race." [Associated Press]

With reporting from Katie Mather, Michael Bebernes and Kate Murphy.

Cover thumbnail photo: Mike Blake/Reuters