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PolitiFact FL: Fact-checking Trump’s town hall - Wuhan scientist, wars, ‘no inflation’

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks during a Fox News Channel town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.
Carolyn Kaster
/
AP
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks during a Fox News Channel town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

While his leading Republican competitors tangled on a Des Moines, Iowa, debate stage across town, former President Donald Trump shared attention-grabbing anecdotes and recycled claims in his own town hall.

The Jan. 10 event hosted by Fox News five days before the Iowa caucuses covered a wide range of topics, including foreign policy, COVID-19 and the economy. Moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum joined voters — many of whom said they would be caucusing for Trump — in asking what they could expect from another Trump term. But the Republican frontrunner focused more on the past, invoking his presidential record and strong poll numbers while attacking his campaign opponents, including President Joe Biden.

Here are four claims that stood out.

"I think (COVID-19) was done out of incompetence. That's what I think, I believe that. A scientist went out, said hello to his girlfriend and that was the end of that. She died and then people started dying all over the place."

Trump was referring to the theory that the COVID-19 virus originated from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China. U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided over the virus’s likely origin. But we wondered about the origin of the girlfriend anecdote.

A government report declassified in June 2023 said the National Intelligence Council and four unnamed agencies pointed to natural exposure to an infected animal as the likely source of COVID-19, whereas the Energy Department and the FBI say a lab-related incident was the likely cause.

When we asked Trump’s campaign about the account that it was spread by a scientist to a girlfriend, it referred us to Trump’s website for evidence. We found no mentions of "Wuhan" or "COVID-19" on the site.

But our searches led us to one unsourced account that sounded similar:

In April 2020, Fox News reported that unnamed sources said COVID-19 likely originated from a Wuhan lab leak and "because of risky practices, the virus got out, infected a lab worker, who then infected his girlfriend."

"But if you go back and look at the record, you will see that the biggest fan of Dr. Fauci was Ron DeSanctimonious. He was a big fan. He said, ‘I go by’ — exactly quote — ‘I go by what Dr. Fauci said.’" 

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke highly of Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert and then-director of the National Institutes for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. We didn’t find DeSantis using the exact quote Trump recounted, but he did say something similar.

The Trump campaign pointed us to a June 1 CNN article that explored some of DeSantis’ March 2020 praise for Fauci, who helped lead the national response to COVID-19. At the time, DeSantis said that Fauci was "really doing a good job," CNN reported. When he was asked about the timeline for the coronavirus pandemic and recovery on March 14, 2020, DeSantis said, "I would defer to people like Dr. Fauci."

DeSantis later changed his tune on Fauci, however. In 2021, DeSantis started selling "Don’t Fauci My Florida" merchandise, while opposing measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus — mask mandates and stay-at-home orders. In 2022, DeSantis called Fauci a "little elf" who should be chucked "across the Potomac."

Trump, like DeSantis, frequently criticized Fauci. But he, too, praised Fauci at times. On Jan. 29, 2020, Trump formed a White House Coronavirus Task Force that included Fauci and others who the administration described as "subject matter experts" and "some of the Nation’s foremost experts on infectious diseases." Trump featured Fauci in a 2020 campaign ad, in which he used a Fauci statement out of context to suggest Fauci was complimentary of Trump’s pandemic response. And on his last full day in office, Trump awarded presidential commendations to Fauci and 51 others, though he later said he didn’t know who had given the commendation.

"I had no wars. I’m the only president in 72 years — I didn't have any wars."

During Trump’s four years as president, he did not seek authorization from Congress for use of military force, or a formal declaration of war against any other country. But under the Trump administration, the U.S. was involved in several wars, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Trump’s campaign directed us to Trump’s campaign website, where we found a January 2023 Wall Street Journal opinion article written by Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio. In that piece, Vance praised Trump for "not starting any wars" as president and endorsed Trump’s 2024 run.

But we reported in 2021 that, as president, Trump deployed U.S. armed forces in foreign countries under the broad authorization to use force that was granted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He oversaw aerial attacks in several countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

Trump is also not the first president to avoid starting a war in 72 years. President Jimmy Carter, who was in office from 1977 to 1981, did not formally declare war on another country, seek authorization from Congress to use force or engage U.S. armed forces in a new sustained armed conflict with a foreign power.

"We had no inflation" during the Trump administration.

This is inaccurate. Trump made a similar claim in a 2022 speech at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

Inflation was low under Trump, but at no point did the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index record "no inflation."

During Trump’s presidency, inflation rates hovered around 2% and then dropped at the start of COVID-19 pandemic when the economy was in a free-fall. The lowest recorded inflation under Trump was 0.1% in May 2020.

At the pandemic’s onset, much of the country’s economic activity stopped amid initial shutdowns, and demand for goods and services cratered. So, Trump claiming credit for little to no inflation glosses over that rates were low not because of economic strength, but rather widespread economic distress.

PolitiFact Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.