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Fact Squad | Trump, Biden swap falsehoods about Michigan, autos at messy debate

LANSING — Amid 90 minutes of interruptions and insults during their first debate Tuesday, President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden also made exaggerated claims about Michigan and the auto industry. 

In a chaotic event in Cleveland moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace that often strayed wildly off-topic, the candidates briefly discussed their plans for Michigan, COVID-19 and reigniting the economy.

Both took credit for helping the auto industry, Trump claimed Michigan’s economy has never been better than last year, and the president also claimed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have made the state a “prison.”

Bridge Michigan’s Fact Squad is on the case.

The claim: Biden saved autos; Trump ruined them

Biden, referencing the auto industry bailout that was dramatically expanded in 2009 while he served as vice president, said he was “asked to bring back Chrysler and General Motors” and helped to do so. 

“We brought them back right here in the state of Ohio and Michigan,” Biden said. 

But Trump? “He blew it. They’re gone. He blew it,” Biden said.

Trump countered by claiming “many car companies came in from Germany, from Japan” and “went to Michigan, went to Ohio.”

The facts

It’s true, Biden played a role in the auto industry bailout that is widely credited with helping General Motors and Chrysler avoid collapse, which economists say could have crippled the Michigan economy. The companies and their affiliates were loaned some $80 billion by the administrations of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But Biden grossly exaggerated the state of the auto industry under Trump when he claimed that the automakers are now “gone.”

As the vice president pointed out earlier this month in Macomb County, GM closed a transmission plant in Warren last year, and it also shuttered a plant in Lordstown, Ohio. 

But GM maintains a large presence in Michigan (nearly 50,000 jobs) and this year announced a $2.2 million investment to retool its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to produce only electric vehicles. 

Fiat Chrysler, meanwhile, is building its first new plant in Detroit in almost three decades and expanding other facilities, a $4.5 billion investment to create nearly 6,500 jobs.

The claim: ‘Many car companies’ moved to Michigan.

In touting the auto industry, Trump claimed “many car companies” from Germany and Japan are relocating to Michigan and Ohio. 

The facts

This claim appears unfounded. There have been only a handful of new auto facilities announcements across the country during Trump’s tenure. 

Waymo, the electric car company linked to Google, is building a factory in the Detroit area. And Navya, a French company that builds driverless shuttles, reportedly plans to build a small facility in Saline. Neither company is from Germany or Japan. 

Trump’s claims on Tuesday were similar to talking points on the campaign trail, including during a rally in Saginaw County this month, that he brought thousands of autos jobs to Michigan.

In fact only one major plant, a Jeep plant in Detroit, has been announced in Michigan during his presidency and total auto manufacturing jobs in the state fell 2,000 to 40,300 under Trump as of February, according to federal statistics.

The claim: Michigan had its 'best year ever'

Trump, while bragging that he created the best economy in history, said Michigan enjoyed its “best year ever” in 2019.

The facts 

Not the best, but still pretty good:  The state’s gross domestic product was at the highest point since at least 1997 at the beginning of 2019, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 

The labor force participation rate was higher than it had been since 2010 — though that was still lower than 1976 levels. The unemployment rate in 2019 was at the lowest point since 2000, which in turn was at the lowest point since 1976. 

However, auto sales nationwide were around the same as they were during the last two years of the Obama administration and real median household income was around $64,000, well below the maximum of around $71,000 in 1999. Manufacturing jobs were at mid-2000s levels, but still significantly down from the late 1990s. 

The claim: Michigan is ‘like being in prison’

In a segment on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump claimed some governors are “under siege” because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, mentioning Michigan, Pennsylvania and a “couple others” he did not name. 

“You’ve got to open these states up,” the president said. “It’s not fair. It’s almost like being in prison.”

The facts

To suggest living in Michigan feels like being in prison is an obvious exaggeration by Trump, who has feuded for months with Whitmer. 

Whitmer has issued more than 180 executive orders since the pandemic began and continues to require Michigan businesses and residents to adhere to various public health protocols, including mask requirements, some of which are controversial.

But the governor has also allowed most sectors of the state economy to reopen after lifting her stay-home order June 1 as Michigan case counts, once among the highest in the nation, dropped. Last week, Whitmer announced plans to allow businesses like movie theaters and banquet centers that had remained closed longer than others to reopen Oct. 9. 

The conclusion

The messy and combative debate between Trump and Biden provided the public with few opportunities to actually learn about the policy positions and proposals of the candidates. 

And for Michigan voters, the few references to our state were muddled by exaggeration and hyperbole. 

If there is a winner, and we’ll leave that assessment to the public, it was not facts.

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