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Fact-checking the first two days of CPAC

By Daniel Dale, CNN

The first two days of the Conservative Political Action Conference featured a parade of speakers who described President Joe Biden as weak and incompetent, Democrats as leftist ideologues and Donald Trump’s presidency as a smashing success.

Aside from such subjective assertions, the speakers in Orlando made some objectively false and misleading claims — on subjects ranging from the legitimacy of the 2020 election to the state of the US energy industry to the contents of a recent terrorism memo from the Department of Homeland Security.

Here is a look at six false or misleading claims from CPAC speeches delivered on Thursday and Friday.

Kimberly Guilfoyle: False claim about the 2020 election

Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Trump campaign adviser who is engaged to Donald Trump Jr., used part of her speech to sharply criticize Biden. And she said, “It turns out rigging elections for incompetent, weak leaders actually has consequences, does it not?”

Facts First: Guilfoyle’s claim about the 2020 election was flat false. The election was free and fair, nobody rigged it and there is no evidence of any kind of widespread fraud.

Guilfoyle has repeatedly made false claims about the 2020 election being rigged or stolen. She also did so, for example, in a speech at the January 6, 2021, rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.

Josh Mandel: False claims about the 2020 election

Josh Mandel, a Senate candidate in Ohio, used his speech to repeat his usual inaccurate campaign rhetoric about the 2020 election.

Mandel, a former Ohio state representative and treasurer, said, “I believe this election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.” He called for eliminating the committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and replacing it with a “November 3rd commission” named after the day of the 2020 election.

Mandel argued that one of today’s most important fights is “to stop the cheating from the left.” And after calling for an audit of the 2020 election in every state, including Ohio — where Trump beat Biden by more than 8 percentage points — Mandel said of Ohio: “I guarantee you: Trump actually won by a higher margin than was even reported.”

Facts First: This is all nonsense. The 2020 election wasn’t stolen from Trump. There is no evidence of any widespread election cheating by “the left.” And there is zero indication that Trump’s official margin of victory in Ohio — which was run in 2020 by a Republican governor, Mike DeWine, and a Republican elections chief, Secretary of State Frank LaRose — is incorrect in any significant way.

In early February, LaRose announced that he had referred to law enforcement, “for further investigation and potential prosecution,” 27 possible illegal ballots in the 2020 general election; the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper reported in mid-February that the total number of reported illegal Ohio votes in that election was up to 42. But even 42 is a microscopic percentage of the approximately 5.9 million Ohio votes cast in the presidential race. Trump won the state by more than 475,000 votes.

LaRose said in his February statement announcing the 27 new referrals: “Here are the facts: Ohio smashed voter turnout records in 2020 while providing Ohioans a secure election. Our state is proof positive you don’t have to choose between secure or convenient elections — we have both.” (He subsequently tweeted that the alleged fraud discovered by his office is “ONLY THE BEGINNING” and that “this is one of MANY investigations.”)

It’s important to note that there is no current indication that even the small number of potentially illegal Ohio ballots were cast overwhelmingly by Democrats or overwhelmingly for Democrats. In one case, a Republican local official admitted to illegally casting a ballot on behalf of his recently deceased father; he told NBC News it was an “honest error” and also that he had simply been “trying to execute a dying man’s wishes.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis: False claim about his handling of the 2020 election

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis contrasted Florida’s handling of the 2020 election, which he described as a success, with the “shenanigans” he claimed had occurred elsewhere in the country. DeSantis said, “We didn’t change the rules when Covid came. We followed the law. We counted 99% of the ballots by midnight on election night.”

Facts First: DeSantis was wrong to categorically claim that Florida had not changed election rules when Covid-19 arrived. While Florida didn’t change its voting procedures, DeSantis personally changed some of its election administration procedures. Because far more voters than usual were expected to vote by mail, DeSantis issued an executive order in June 2020 that allowed counties to start processing mail-in ballots earlier than state law allowed. And because of concerns about ensuring adequate staffing at voting locations, his order also suspended a state rule that had prevented state employees from being granted administrative leave to serve as poll workers.

Florida law in 2020 said counties could start the process of counting mail-in ballots on the 22nd day before the election. DeSantis’ order — which he issued after Florida’s county elections supervisors asked his administration to make various changes to help them deal with the pandemic — let counties begin processing earlier, as soon as they had completed the required public testing of their tabulation machines and equipment. DeSantis’ change was one of the reasons that Florida was able to count its votes so much faster than states where Republican state legislators had rejected Democratic requests to allow earlier-than-usual counting of mail-in ballots.

It’s especially notable that DeSantis made this change via executive order. Many Republicans have criticized Democratic leaders in other states for changing election procedures in 2020 without getting approval from state legislatures.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn: False claim about a Department of Homeland Security document

Tennessee’s Sen. Marsha Blackburn said in her speech: “Homeland Security sent out a memo saying if you hear anybody speaking against the Covid policies, education policies, of this administration: Report them to the authorities. It was a slap in the face to free speech.”

Facts First: This is false. The Department of Homeland Security has not issued any memo saying you should alert the authorities about people speaking in opposition to the Biden administration, its pandemic policies or its education policies. A document that the Department of Homeland Security published in early February urged people to report “suspicious activity and threats of violence,” but the document was about the terrorism threat to the United States, not about political criticism. While the department said that violent extremists were using vaccine and mask mandates to justify violence, it never said anybody should be reported for mere criticism of these mandates or of anything else.

The February document, which Blackburn also denounced in a Senate floor speech last week, is the latest of the Department of Homeland Security’s regular public updates on the terrorism threat to the US. The department said in the document that “false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories,” including the proliferation of online false or misleading claims about Covid-19 and widespread election fraud, were among the factors “contributing to the current heightened threat environment.”

The department went on to say that measures implemented to fight Covid-19, particularly vaccine and mask mandates, “have been used by domestic violent extremists to justify violence since 2020 and could continue to inspire these extremists to target government, healthcare, and academic institutions that they associate with those measures.” The department also outlined various calls for violence by foreign terrorist entities and by various kinds of domestic extremists.

Then, at the end at the document, the department did what it does in all of these update documents: advise citizens to “report suspicious activity and threats of violence, including online threats,” to law enforcement. The department never said that people should be reported merely for speaking out against the Biden administration or its policies. It also never said that people who merely oppose pandemic mandates are suspicious.

John Cohen, a top Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism official, said last week that anyone who suggests that the document reflects an administration strategy of targeting people for their political beliefs “either didn’t read the (document), didn’t understand it or is intentionally misrepresenting it.” He said the department’s job is “not to police thought; our job is to prevent acts of violence.”

Rep. Andy Biggs: Misleading claim about US gas exports

Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona made a series of remarks about what Republicans plan to do in the future. He said, “And by the way, we’re gonna unleash America’s energy sector. Because when you unleash America’s energy sector, you flood it — we start exporting gas again like we did under Trump — the cost comes down.”

Facts First: This is misleading. The US exported more natural gas under Biden in 2021 than in any year of Trump’s presidency. From February 2021, Biden’s first full month in office, through November 2021, the last month for which official data is currently available, natural gas exports were up 29.6% from the same period in 2020 and 43.5% from the same period in 2019, according to data from the federal government’s Energy Information Administration.

That’s not to say that Biden is personally responsible for the increase in natural gas exports. Amid the boom in production from hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, US natural gas exports have been rising since the early 2000s, rising sharply at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term and continuing that trend through President Donald Trump’s one term.

And the Biden administration has taken steps to move the country away from the extraction of fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, though its efforts have gotten bogged down in the courts.

But Biggs made it sound like the US has exported less gas under Biden than under Trump. That’s just not the case.

Kelly Tshibaka: Misleading claim about a vote by Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Kelly Tshibaka, the Trump-endorsed Republican primary challenger to Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, criticized her rival’s record. Tshibaka said of Murkowski: “She cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm the radical environmentalist Deb Haaland to be Joe Biden’s interior secretary.” She claimed that Murkowski had harmed the oil and gas industry “with that single vote.”

Facts First: Tshibaka was misleading in suggesting that Murkowski’s vote in favor of Haaland was decisive in determining the fate of Haaland’s nomination. Tshibaka didn’t make clear that the tie Murkowski prevented was in an initial committee vote — a vote that wouldn’t have determined outcome of the nomination either way — not in the final confirmation vote on the Senate floor. Because of Senate rules, Haaland would almost certainly have been confirmed even if there had been a tie at the committee. The final Senate vote on Haaland’s confirmation was 51-40, with three additional Republicans — including Murkowski’s fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Dan Sullivan — joining every Democrat present in voting yes. (Nine senators missed the vote.)

Murkowski’s vote in favor of Haaland did prevent a potential tie in an Energy Committee vote on the nomination, making the committee outcome 11-9 in favor of Haaland rather than a 10-10 tie. However, this wasn’t very consequential. Under the rules governing this 50-50 Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would have been able to schedule a final vote to confirm Haaland even if the committee vote had been a tie.

Under Senate rules, a committee tie would have forced the full Senate to spend some extra time debating about Haaland. But it would not have killed her nomination.

Consider what happened with a Biden nominee who was being considered by the Senate the same month as Haaland, Xavier Becerra. After a Senate committee tied in its vote on Becerra’s nomination to become health and human services secretary, Schumer introduced a motion to bring the nomination to the Senate floor anyway, as allowed under the rules.

The Senate approved this “discharge” motion, then confirmed Becerra a week later.

Murkowski campaign manager Nate Adams said in an email: “Anyone that thinks that Senator Murkowski cast the ‘tie-breaking vote’ for Haaland’s confirmation either has no idea how the Senate works, or is intentionally misconstruing the facts for their own political gain — both scenarios are equally concerning for someone who is seeking to represent Alaskans.”

Tshibaka’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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