AP Fact Check: No New Work on the Wall; Shaky Amazon Claim

President Donald Trump hailed the start of his long-sought U.S.-Mexico border wall this past week, proudly tweeting photos of the “WALL!” 

Actually, no new work got underway. The photos showed the continuation of an old project to replace 2 miles of existing barrier.

And Saturday, he ripped Amazon with a shaky claim that its contract with the post office is a “scam.”

Trump and his officials departed from reality on a variety of subjects in recent days: the census, Amazon’s practices and the makeup of the Supreme Court among them. Here’s a look at some statements and their veracity:

TRUMP: “Great briefing this afternoon on the start of our Southern Border WALL!” — tweet Wednesday, showing photos of workers building a fence.

TRUMP: “We’re going to be starting work, literally, on Monday, on not only some new wall — not enough, but we’re working that very quickly — but also fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences.” — Trump, speaking the previous week after signing a bill financing the government.

THE FACTS: Trump’s wrong. No new work began Monday or any other time this past week. And the photos Trump tweeted were misleading. They showed work that’s been going on for more than a month on a small border wall replacement project in Calexico, California, that has nothing to do with the federal budget he signed into law last week.

The Calexico project began Feb. 21 to replace a little more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of border wall was financed during the 2017 budget year. A barrier built in the 1990s mainly from recycled metal scraps is being torn down and replaced with bollard-style barriers that are 30 feet (9.1 meters) high.

Ronald D. Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, defended the president’s statements, saying Friday “there’s construction” underway.

U.S. Post Service

TRUMP: “If the P.O. ‘increased its parcel rates, Amazon’s shipping costs would rise by $2.6 Billion.’ This Post Office scam must stop. Amazon must pay real costs (and taxes) now!” — tweet Saturday.

TRUMP: “I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election. Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!” — tweet Thursday.

THE FACTS: Trump is misrepresenting Amazon’s record on taxes, the U.S. Postal Service’s financial situation and the contract that has the post office deliver some Amazon orders. Federal regulators have found that contract to be profitable for the Postal Service.

People who buy products sold by Amazon pay sales tax in all states that have a sales tax. Not all third-party vendors using Amazon collect it, however.

As for the post office, package delivery has been a bright spot for a service that’s lost money for 11 straight years. The losses are mostly because of pension and health care costs, not the business deal for the Postal Service to deliver packages for Amazon. 

Boosted by e-commerce, the Postal Service has enjoyed double-digit increases in revenue from delivering packages, but that hasn’t been enough to offset declines in first-class letters and marketing mail, which together make up more than two-thirds of postal revenue.

While the Postal Service’s losses can’t be attributed to its package business, Trump’s claim that it could get more bang for its buck may not be entirely far-fetched. A 2017 analysis by Citigroup concluded that the Postal Service was charging below-market rates as a whole for parcels. The post office does not use taxpayer money for its operations.

Trump is upset about Amazon because its owner, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, one of the targets of his “fake news” tweets.

Pentagon and the wall

TRUMP: “Because of the $700 & $716 Billion Dollars gotten to rebuild our Military, many jobs are created and our Military is again rich. Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M!” — tweets Sunday and Monday.

THE FACTS: Trump is floating the idea of using “M” — the Pentagon’s military budget — to pay for his wall with Mexico. Such a move would almost certainly require approval from Congress and there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about the notion of diverting military money for this purpose.

Only Congress has the power under the Constitution to determine federal appropriations, leaving the Trump administration little authority to shift money without lawmakers’ approval.

Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood referred all questions on the wall to the White House. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to reveal specifics, but said Trump would work with the White House counsel to make sure any action taken was within his executive authority.

Veterans Affairs

DAVID SHULKIN, citing reasons Trump fired him as Veterans Affairs secretary: “I have been falsely accused of things by people who wanted me out of the way. But despite these politically based attacks on me and my family’s character, I am proud of my record and know that I acted with the utmost integrity.” — op-ed Thursday in The New York Times.

THE FACTS: His statement that he and his family were subjected to politically based attacks is disingenuous, though politics contributed to his dismissal.

White House support for Shulkin eroded after a blistering report in February by VA’s internal watchdog, a nonpartisan office. The inspector general’s office concluded that he had violated ethics rules by accepting free Wimbledon tennis tickets. The inspector general also said Shulkin’s chief of staff had doctored emails to justify bringing the secretary’s wife to Europe with him at taxpayer expense.

It is true that Shulkin encountered resistance from about a half-dozen political appointees at the VA and White House who rebelled against him. In an extraordinary telephone call, John Ullyot, a top communications aide, and VA spokesman Curt Cashour asked the Republican staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Committee to push for Shulkin’s removal after the release of the inspector general’s report. The staff director declined to do so. Those political appointees were not involved in drafting the inspector general’s report.

Shulkin expressed regret for the “distractions” caused by the report and agreed to pay more than $4,000 to cover the costs of his wife’s coach airfare and the Wimbledon tickets. He continues to insist he did nothing wrong and point to what his staff did in doctoring his emails as a “mistake.”

Second Amendment

TRUMP: “THE SECOND AMENDMENT WILL NEVER BE REPEALED! As much as Democrats would like to see this happen, and despite the words yesterday of former Supreme Court Justice Stevens, NO WAY. We need more Republicans in 2018 and must ALWAYS hold the Supreme Court!” — tweet Wednesday.

THE FACTS: As a basics civics lesson, Trump’s tweet falls short. The Supreme Court is the unelected branch of government and no party can “hold” it. That said, both parties try to win confirmation of justices who are considered likely to vote the way they want.

Republican-nominated justices have formed a majority of the Supreme Court for nearly 50 years. The five more conservative justices were appointed by Republicans while the four more liberal justices were Democratic nominees.

Republicans would have the opportunity to cement ideological balance in their favor if Justice Anthony Kennedy, the most moderate of the conservatives, or one of the older and more liberal justices were to retire with Trump in office and Republicans in control of the Senate.

Trump was citing retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who called in a New York Times article for repeal of the Second Amendment to allow for gun control legislation. Democratic leaders are not proposing repeal of the amendment, as Trump implies. Also noteworthy: Stevens was nominated by a Republican president, Gerald Ford.

Census and citizenship

WHITE HOUSE SPOKESWOMAN SARAH SANDERS, on the Trump administration’s decision to ask people about their citizenship in the 2020 census: “This is a question that’s been included in every census since 1965 with the exception of 2010, when it was removed. … And again, this is something that has been part of the census for decades and something that the Department of Commerce felt strongly needed to be included again.” — press briefing Tuesday.

COMMERCE DEPARTMENT: “Between 1820 and 1950, almost every decennial census asked a question on citizenship in some form.” — statement on Monday.

THE FACTS: Sanders is incorrect. The Commerce Department statement is also problematic. Both are trying to play down the risk of a severe undercount of the population if many immigrants, intimidated by the citizenship question, refuse to participate.

The Census Bureau hasn’t included a citizenship question in its once-a-decade survey sent to all U.S. households since 1950, before the Civil Rights era and passage of a 1965 law designed to help ensure minority groups in the count are fully represented.

The nation’s count is based on the total resident population, both citizens and noncitizens, and used to determine how many U.S. representatives each state gets in the U.S. House.

The citizenship question was not in the 1960 census, according to a copy of the form posted on the Census Bureau website, and no census was held in 1965.

From 1970 to 2000, the question was included only in the long-form section of the census survey, sent to a portion of U.S. households. After 2000, the question has been asked on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a separate poll designed to replace the census long form and sent only to a sample of U.S. households.

The Commerce Department’s assertion that the citizenship question was asked on “almost” every decennial census between 1820 and 1950 also pushes the limits of reality. According to the Census Bureau, the question wasn’t asked in four of those censuses —1840, 1850, 1860 or 1880.

Between 1820 and 1950, a total of 14 censuses were held. That means more than 1 in 4 surveys during that time period lacked the citizenship question.

Not exactly “almost.”

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