“Joe Biden’s supporters are fighting to defund police departments. Violent crime has exploded. You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
– Text of a Trump campaign ad, “Abolished,” over images of violence and a recording of a police answering machine, released July 2, 2020.
The Trump campaign has a problem. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has firmly rejected calls from left-wing activists to “defund police.” But clearly the Trump campaign wants to tag him with the somewhat confusing slogan. So it produced an ad that slickly tries to get around this uncomfortable fact.
The Trump campaign must think the effort is a winner. Ben Taber, an account manager at Advertising Analytics, says that as of July 13, the Trump campaign had spent $6.7 million placing the ad on network television and on local stations in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico and Michigan.
But, factually, the ad is a loser.
The scenes of mayhem in the ad come from some of the recent looting that took place after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.
The ad is framed around an unanswered phone at a police station. “You have reached the 9-1-1 police emergency line,” a voice says on an answering machine. “Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call. If you are calling to report a rape, please press one. To report a murder, press two. To report a home invasion, press three. For all other crimes, leave your name and number and someone will get back to you. Our estimated wait time is currently five days. Goodbye.”
Toward the end of this hellish fantasy, the text reads: “Joe Biden’s supporters are fighting to defund police departments. Violent crime has exploded. You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Note the “Joe Biden’s supporters”? The Trump campaign can’t tag Biden, so it tries guilt by association.
The line about supporters is attributed to a Fox News report on June 6. But it turns out the article is only about one supporter: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The article says she wants to reduce the $6 billion budget of the New York City Police Department. But it also notes that her position is not in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Among other Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass, D-Calif., have not supported defunding the police.
(The Trump campaign says the citation was only illustrative and provided a list of other Biden supporters who back defunding police, such as 54 Democratic National Committee members, convention superdelegates and members of a criminal justice task force convened by Biden, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – who cut $150 million from the police budget – and others.)
We should pause a moment and explain what “defund the police” means. It generally does not mean eliminating the police. Instead, advocates want to redirect some funds now spent on police forces to items such as education, public health, housing and youth services. The idea is that low-income communities would become stronger – and less in need of police – if root problems were addressed.
Under this concept, some police officers would be replaced with trained social workers or specialized response teams in an effort to let police focus on violent crime, not drug overdoses or homelessness. The theory is that police would be better positioned to deal with rapes and murders if they were not required to deal with other social ills that sometimes lead to community confrontations with police.
At The Fact Checker, we obviously take no position on the issue. But this is a catchphrase that can be easily twisted to mean something else. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to a budget deal that would divert about $1 billion, or 17%, of the police budget to fund projects for youth living in public housing projects.
The Trump ad then claims “violent crime has exploded” and sources that to an ABC News report titled, “Why some police officials believe crime is on the rise in US cities.” The answer, according to a survey of four cities by the Police Executive Research Forum, is that the coronavirus pandemic led to the release of offenders in jails and the closure of courts to process new crimes. The report also said that police had less time to investigate crimes because they were monitoring protests.
That’s a pretty slim reed on which to rest this claim. (The Trump campaign also provided references to articles about increases in violence in June in New York, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Los Angeles.)
The tag line – “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” – gets no citation because, well, it’s ridiculous. The Trump campaign might have a case for this ad if Biden were a strong supporter of eliminating police departments. But, instead, as Fox News reported as far back as June 8, Biden opposes the concept.
“No, I don’t support defunding the police,” Biden said in a CBS interview cited in the Fox report. “I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.”
Biden, in fact, has come under fire from the left for his position and for proposing to spend an additional $300 million a year on the community policing program started in the Clinton administration. (That would effectively double the budget for the program.) “More than 50 liberal groups signed a letter Monday to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden criticizing his response to the emerging protest movement against police brutality, warning that failing to embrace a more aggressive agenda risks alienating the African American voters he needs to win the election,” The Washington Post reported in June. “It is a slap in the face to Black folks,” lamented LaTosha Brown, the head of Black Voters Matter, an Atlanta-based civil rights group that signed on to the letter.
Biden has argued that the correct response to prod police departments is to get closer to their communities and undertake reforms. “The vast majority of police are decent, honorable people, but there are bad apples, man. And we have to change the way in which we teach police. We have to release all the information,” he said at a recent fundraiser. “We have to make sure that we deal with an entire new set of standards at the federal level like Barack [Obama] and I were doing before we left office. There’s so much we can do, the country is ready to do it. We don’t have to defund the police departments, we have to make sure they meet minimum basic standards of decency. And the vast majority of police, they want that to happen.”
The Trump ad first appeared July 2. The Trump campaign says the interview Biden had with activist Ady Barkan – and an edited version posted by NowThis on July 8 – has bolstered their case.
During the interview, Barkan said, “We can reduce the responsibilities assigned to the police and redirect some of the funding for police into social services, mental health counseling and affordable housing.”
He asked Biden, “Are you open to that kind of reform?” In the video, Biden replies, “I’ve proposed that kind of reform.” At another point, Barkan again asks: “But so we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?” The video shows Biden saying: “Yes, absolutely.”
The Fact Checker obtained an audio tape of the full conversation and Biden’s responses were much more nuanced, though as usual a bit disjointed. The NowThis video does not include Biden adding that his response was not the same as “defunding all the police.” He also speaks about increasing funding for mental health, which is different from saying that he would fund mental health aid out of redirected funds from the police. In effect, Biden appears to say he would condition aid on police reforms as an incentive on the one hand, while simultaneously providing additional resources for mental health, homelessness and other kinds of community support. (A Biden campaign aide confirms that this is Biden’s position.)
Here’s the transcript of the key portions of the interview that were snipped. We highlighted in bold what appears in the video.
BARKAN: Are you open to that kind of reform?
BIDEN: I’ve proposed that kind of reform. And by the way, the idea, though, that’s not the same as getting rid of or defunding all the police. There are certain things you cannot send. My daughter, who has her master’s degree in social work, she, she is one who engages in dealing with all those problems, many of which you, you talk about. When you have – I’ve been very involved in holding over 1,000 hours of hearings on violence against women. And so many women, women are being killed by their, their spouses and/or their so-called lovers. When you get a call to a third-story walk-up in a domestic dispute, you can’t send a social worker, because a social worker may get shot, too. So what happens – you, what do you do? You can send along a social worker with a police officer. We need significantly more help. That’s why I call for significant increases in funding for mental health clinics and mental health providers. We are desperately in need of that now . . .
[Biden continues talking, some of which appears in the video, such as when he advocates for having “access to the records of police when they had misconduct charges” and dismisses the need for police to have access to surplus military equipment.]
BARKAN: But so we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?
BIDEN: Yes, absolutely. And by the way, not just redirect, condition them. If they don’t eliminate chokeholds, they don’t get Byrne grants. If they don’t do the following, they don’t get any help. If they don’t do – because you know as well as I do, the vast majority of all police departments are funded by the locality, funded by the municipality, funded by the state. It’s only the federal government comes in on top of that. And so it says you want help, you have to do the following reforms, you have to make sure you have no-knock warrants eliminated. If you have them, you don’t get Byrne grants. If you have them, boom. And one of the things that we also need to be doing is fundamentally changing the way – and I’ve been pushing it for years – changing the way we deal with our prison system . . .
The Trump campaign defended the ad.
“Joe Biden has failed to stand up to his supporters and the far-left elements of his Democratic Party who have called for defunding the police,” Trump campaign spokesman Zach Parkinson said. “Just last week, when Biden was pressed by an activist on whether he supported radical efforts to ‘redirect’ police funding, Biden didn’t hesitate in saying he ‘absolutely’ did. There can be no misunderstanding what ‘redirect’ means in this context – it means taking money originally budgeted for police and moving it elsewhere. At a time when crime is surging across the country, the American people need a president who will stand up to lawlessness and support the brave men and women in blue who keep our communities safe, not one who wants to cut their budgets. As the Trump campaign’s ad makes perfectly clear, they would have no such support under a Biden administration.”
Update, July 14: After this fact check appeared, a reader in Wisconsin contacted us to say the ad had been updated, apparently based on the Barkan interview. Rather than refer to Biden supporters, the ad now says: “Joe Biden supports defunding the police.” The citation is now: “Joe Biden comments, 7/8/20.” Clearly that’s a reference to the Barkan interview. As we have shown, Biden did not say he supports defunding the police during that interview.
The Pinocchio test
This ad tries to have its cake and eat it, too. Biden, to the dismay of activists on the left, has refused to back proposals to defund police and, in fact, has called for increased federal spending to bolster the number of police. So the Trump campaign uses slippery language of how “Biden supporters” back defunding and the result will be unchecked violence in “Biden’s America” that would leave Americans unsafe. We think most viewers of this ad, if they were unaware of Biden’s real position, would come away believing he supports defunding the police.
The Trump campaign would be on more solid ground if it acknowledged that Biden opposed the idea but then argued he won’t stand up to liberal activists. But instead, it tries to suggest that Biden is a supporter of defunding the police. That’s simply false and, with its “Joe Biden’s America” line, tips us to Four Pinocchios. (Update: This rating also stands for the new version of the ad. The full Barkan interview shows Biden did not say he supported defunding the police.)