The biggest Pinocchios of 2020

It’s time for our annual roundup of the biggest Pinocchios of the year.

Ever since President Trump burst on the political scene in 2015, we have noted that we faced a challenge in not letting him dominate this list of the biggest falsehoods. The president is a serial exaggerator without parallel in U.S. politics. He not only consistently makes false claims, but also repeats them, in some cases hundreds of times, even though they have been proved wrong.

In 2019, Trump took seven of the 13 spots. He earned six spots in 2018 and 2017, five in 2016 and three in 2015. Even so, we cheated a bit because in some cases Trump’s false claims on a particular subject were so numerous and varied that we created all-around categories.

The explosion of false and misleading statements from Trump during his presidency is well documented in our database. We have struggled to keep up with his torrent of falsehoods during the final weeks of the campaign, when he barnstormed the country making 600 to 700 false or misleading claims a week. The next update will show he crossed the 25,000 mark by mid-October.

So in this remarkable year, we have given up trying to keep Trump to about half of the list. In 2020, Trump will earn seven of 10 spots, with three all-around categories — his false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. election and the violence that erupted after the death of George Floyd in police custody. President-elect Joe Biden earns two spots, while the last slot goes to a GOP hopeful in a Senate race.

Nevertheless, this may be Trump’s last appearance on this annual list. As of Jan. 21, we will set a high bar for fact-checking his statements. He will be a defeated ex-president, and we tend to focus on claims made by people in power. In other words, we hope to ignore him and concentrate on people who really matter in national policy debates.

In compiling this list, we mostly focused on claims that earned Four Pinocchios during the year. To keep it simple, in some cases, we have shortened or paraphrased the quotes in the headlines. To read the full column, click on the link embedded in the quote. The all-around categories have links within the summaries.

We generally do not list the Pinocchios of the Year in any particular order, but the collection of coronavirus and election claims are especially consequential. The president’s statements affected both the health of U.S. citizens and American democracy and will undoubtedly influence how historians assess his performance as president.

Coronavirus falsehoods

(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

A global pandemic would be a challenge for any U.S. president. But through his constant lies about the crisis, Trump managed to consistently make the situation worse for the United States. He minimized the danger at first, dismissing the novel coronavirus as less serious than the seasonal flu and something that would go away on its own. He touted bogus cures and quick fixes. He oversold achievements, such as falsely claiming that he led the world in a China ban and that U.S. testing for the virus was on track. He blamed others, falsely saying, for instance, that President Barack Obama bungled the swine flu pandemic and left behind an “empty cupboard” of ventilators. He invented a fairy tale about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “dancing” in the streets of Chinatown and attacked Anthony S. Fauci, the renowned director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with bogus complaints. He also repeatedly lowballed the death count, falsely claiming he saved millions of lives. He often wrongly said 85 percent of mask-wearers catch the virus — insisting it was true even after he was corrected. And this is only scratching the surface of his falsehoods.

Election lies

(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Throughout 2020, Trump seeded the ground for challenging the presidential election results with bogus claims of election fraud. More than 200 times, he warned about the alleged dangers of mail-in voting. (His own administration highlighted how his false claims on voting-by-mail were almost identical to the Russian propaganda being spread online to destabilize U.S. politics.) In his campaign rallies, Trump sprinkled his speeches with tall tales about election malfeasance. So when Biden decisively defeated him in the 2020 election, the president and his allies engaged in a scorched-earth effort to challenge the vote count in key swing states. His claims were repeatedly tossed out of court by judges and denied by election officials, but Trump has kept repeating the false claims, even after the electoral college affirmed Biden’s win. Trump still refuses to concede. These lies may have long-term consequences, undermining Americans’ faith that votes will be correctly counted.

Bogus violence claims

(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis by police led to a national reckoning on race. But Trump saw the incident as a way to gain an electoral edge, so he repeatedly hyped claims about “professional anarchists, violent mobs, or, arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters, antifa and others.” antifa is a moniker, not a single group with a clear organizational structure or leader, and no cases could be found in which someone who self-identifies as antifa led violent acts at protests across the country. The White House tweeted (and later deleted) a 58-second video that employed out-of-context social clips to lob unproven accusations and create a misleading impression of what has happened during the Floyd protests. Trump himself tweeted an outrageous conspiracy theory about a Buffalo man injured by police. He also falsely claimed that Obama never tried to tackle the problem of police brutality during his presidency. And he repeatedly — and falsely — said that Biden supported efforts to defund police.

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