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The most popular fact checks of 2023

Our annual list of the most popular fact checks holds a surprise this year. For the first time since 2015, a fact check about former president Donald Trump published in the same year didn’t make it.

Instead, three of the most-read fact checks concerned Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who for months blocked the confirmation of hundreds of senior military officers over his objection to a Defense Department policy allowing military personnel and their families to recoup travel expenses incurred while seeking an abortion. Four of the top fact checks focused on either President Biden or his son Hunter.

Here’s the rundown.

By a large margin, our detailed look at the president’s State of the Union address was the most-read fact check. We examined 13 claims, including that billionaires pay a lower tax rate than a schoolteacher or a firefighter (he was counting unrealized capital gains, which is not how the current tax system works), that he had the “largest deficit reduction in American history” (his policies made the deficit problem worse) and that mass shootings tripled after an assault-weapons ban lapsed (this claim is subject to dispute, depending on how you do the math).

This was the second of our three articles this year about Tuberville. For nearly a decade, Tuberville described the World War II exploits of his father, Charles R. Tuberville Jr., in a relatively consistent way — that he was a tank commander, that he earned five Bronze Stars, that he participated in the D-Day landing and that he lied about his age to join the Army. News organizations tended to accept Tuberville’s version and either reprint or broadcast it. Yet our examination of Army histories, newspaper reports and other materials called into question many of the claims put forth by Tuberville.

When Tuberville ran for the Senate in 2020, he pledged “to donate every dime I make when I’m in Washington, D.C., to the veterans of the state of Alabama.” We investigated whether he had lived up to his promise — and found there was no evidence that he had. At the time of our fact check, he had earned $437,000 as a senator. Veterans organizations that responded to our queries said they had received no funds from Tuberville since he became a senator. The Internal Revenue Service certified the Tommy Tuberville Foundation as a public charity in 2015, making donations to the organization tax-deductible. But a review of IRS filings made by the foundation shows that very little has been spent on charitable causes — especially since he became a senator.

Republican lawmakers expressed outrage after Fox News published a 2015 email chain from Hunter Biden’s laptop in which a Ukrainian energy company executive suggested that the “ultimate purpose” of Hunter’s hiring by the company was to shut down investigations of the company’s owner. The email exchange took place about one month before then-Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Ukraine with the express purpose of seeking the removal of the country’s top prosecutor. But we demonstrated how U.S. policy operated independently of his son’s efforts to engage a PR firm to burnish the firm’s image.

During the debt ceiling debate, Republicans pegged Biden as a big spender, while he pointed the finger at Trump. Trump did run up the debt while battling the coronavirus pandemic — policies Biden often supported. Biden’s attack was a bit misplaced. We explained how policy choices made long ago are more responsible for the fiscal state of the nation. In fact, the president most responsible for the nation’s fiscal imbalance is Lyndon B. Johnson. Close behind is Richard M. Nixon. Johnson enacted Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s, and then Nixon in the early 1970s expanded both programs and also enhanced Social Security so that benefits were indexed to inflation.

Congressional Republicans released an FBI document from 2020 that made a shocking allegation about President Biden — that he and his son Hunter were involved in a foreign bribery scheme with a Ukrainian business executive. The four-page document that the Republicans released, an FD-1023 form, is the kind used to record information from a person the FBI considers a “confidential human source.” The document recounted conversations that cannot be independently verified, but we shed light on a business transaction described in those conversations, comparing the document’s account with publicly available information. Upon examination, the facts didn’t add up.

Our interest was piqued when we discovered that Tuberville in July sold the last properties he owned in Alabama. So we investigated whether he really lived in Alabama. Tuberville’s office said his primary residence is an Auburn house that records show is owned by his wife and son and appraised at about $300,000. But campaign finance reports and his signature on property documents indicate that his home is actually a $3 million, 4,000-square-foot beach house he has lived in for nearly two decades in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., located in the Florida Panhandle.

When we first fact-checked Biden’s claim that he reduced the budget deficit by $1.7 trillion, he earned Three Pinocchios. Biden gets his $1.7 trillion figure by comparing the deficit in fiscal 2020 ($3.132 trillion) with the deficit in fiscal 2022 ($1.375 trillion). But the Congressional Budget Office, the official scorekeeper, in February 2021 already estimated the budget deficit would fall dramatically in fiscal 2021 and 2022 because emergency pandemic spending would lapse. In fact, over two years, Biden increased the national debt about $850 billion more than originally projected. Despite our Pinocchios, Biden kept making this claim. So we awarded him a Bottomless Pinocchio — given for Three or Four-Pinocchio claims said more than 20 times.

Then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) earned Three Pinocchios for claims that House Democrats while in power increased discretionary spending by 30 percent while Republicans didn’t increase it by “one dollar” in the eight years they were in power. This is one of those cleverly misleading claims designed to flummox people who do not closely follow the budget debates in Washington. Bipartisan spending caps did hold for many years, but, in 2018, when Republicans controlled the White House, the House and the Senate, they blew through the caps and boosted discretionary spending by 16 percent. Then the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy, and government spending spiked.

Shortly after being elected speaker, McCarthy announced that he would block two prominent California Democrats — Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam B. Schiff — from serving on the House Intelligence Committee. But unless you were a regular consumer of right-wing media, you might have been puzzled by the accusations used to justify their expulsion. McCarthy said Schiff “lied to the American public” about whether he knew the whistleblower who triggered the impeachment investigation of Trump; without presenting evidence, he suggested that Swalwell had done something inappropriate with a suspected Chinese intelligence operative. We looked into both claims and awarded McCarthy Four Pinocchios.

Many readers discover old fact checks when searching the internet for information. Here’s a list of fact checks that ranked among the top 50 in 2023 — though they were first published in 2019, 2021 or 2022. The first story on this list made it into the top 10, even though it was published almost three years ago. Yes, that’s about Trump, but it does not get counted above because it was not originally published this year.

1. Trump’s false or misleading claims total 30,573 over 4 years (Jan. 24, 2021)

2. How the falsehood of athletes dying of coronavirus vaccines spread (Feb. 1, 2022)

3. The repeated claim that Fauci lied to Congress about ‘gain-of-function’ research (Oct. 29, 2021)

4. The Iraq War and WMDs: An intelligence failure or White House spin? (March 22, 2019)

5. The dueling histories in the debate over ‘historic Palestine’ (May 28, 2021)

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post