Fact-checking the third Republican primary debate

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Five Republican presidential candidates traded rhetorical blows in Miami on Wednesday night, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina discussed fracking and fentanyl to the economy and Donald Trump.

Some of the claims they made over two hours onstage were false or exaggerated, while others required critical context and yet more adhered more closely to the truth.

NBC News fact-checked the candidates in real time. For full coverage, visit the debate live blog. Here are some of the top issues the candidates brought up.

Is Canada a major source of fentanyl?

Ramaswamy said he would focus on both the southern and northern borders to combat the fentanyl crisis in America.

“There was enough fentanyl that was captured just on the northern border last year to kill 3 million Americans. So we got to just skate to where the puck is going, not just where the puck is,” he said. “Don’t just build the wall; build both walls.”

This is largely false. The Drug Enforcement Administration reported 14 pounds of fentanyl were seized on the Canadian border last year, out of 14,700 pounds seized throughout the U.S. The 3 million deaths number is most likely based on the DEA’s estimate that 1 kilogram of fentanyl could kill up to 500,000 people. So while it’s true that the amount of fentanyl seized from Canada technically could kill up to 3 million people, the focus on Canada seems unwarranted given that it represents one-thousandth of all seizures.

It is worth noting that, with his skating metaphor, he was referring to the great Canadian hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s best-known quote.

Did the Sierra Club praise Ron DeSantis?

“It cracks me up that Ron continues to do this. He has opposed fracking. He’s opposed drilling,” Haley said. “He was praised by the Sierra Club, and you’re trying to make up for it and act like you weren’t a liberal when it comes to the environment.”

This is mostly true. DeSantis’s record as governor of Florida is more progressive on the environment than the records of other candidates running for office. He has embraced protecting the Everglades and opposed hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and drilling in the state. In 2019, the Sierra Club they said it was “pleased” with one of his budgets. In more recent years, however, it has condemned his administration.

Are gas prices higher?

Scott said gas prices are “40% higher right now than they were just a little over two years ago.”

This is false. A gallon of regular gas costs about $3.40 per gallon on average this week, compared with $3.41 per gallon in November 2021, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Prices did spike over the course of 2022 (to as high as $5 per gallon in June 2022), in part because of the war in Ukraine, but they have since come down.

Are abortions late in pregnancy or infanticide happening?

Scott said he would ban abortions from occurring “up until the day of birth” and “certainly wouldn’t allow” the “infanticide” he said a Democratic governor had talked about.

This is misleading. The vast majority of abortions occur in the first trimester. In 2020, just 0.9% of abortions occurred after 21 weeks of gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Abortions after the point of viability are often due to severe congenital abnormalities or maternal complications. Ninety-three percent of abortions in 2020 occurred before 13 weeks of gestation.

Infanticide is already illegal. Then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam made controversial remarks about giving families choices on resuscitating dying infants. Trump made a similar false claim during his 2019 State of the Union address, and NBC News debunked it then.

Is China buying up American farmland?

“My message to [Chinese President] Xi Jinping is this: You are done buying land in this country,” Ramaswamy said.

“China is buying our farmland,” Scott said.

This is largely false. While state and federal lawmakers have been pushing to restrict Chinese purchases of land in the U.S., a recent NBC News data analysis of real estate purchases filed with the U.S. Agriculture Department showed China purchased fewer than 1,400 acres in the past year and a half, out of 1.3 billion acres of agricultural land. A third of foreign-owned acres of U.S. land are held by Canadian interests, while Chinese interests hold just three-hundredths of 1%.

Are wages flat and prices rising?

“Prices are going up,” Ramaswamy said. “But wages have remained flat.”

This is half-true. Americans made average hourly earnings of $34 per hour in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up 4.1% from $32.66 the year before and up 19% from $28.55 in February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic swept the U.S.

BLS data shows that consumer prices overall are, indeed, rising, though at a sharply slower pace than a year ago. They are up 3.7% over the last year and up 19% since February 2020. But many price categories have fallen from earlier peaks. For example, the average price of a gallon of milk rose from $3.19 in November 2019 to $4.20 in May 2022 but settled back at $3.97 this fall.

Are there sleeper terrorist cells in America?

“I believe that we have sleeper terrorist cells in America. Thousands of people have come from Yemen, Iran, Syria and Iraq,” Scott said.

This is not supported by evidence. While Scott said he “believes” there are sleeper cells, he did not cite any evidence, and there is scant proof of any such sleeper cells. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have called for the establishment of sleeper cells, but such cells have largely been debunked. After a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s military leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, there were fears that Hezbollah sleeper cells might be activated, but there is no evidence of any such activity.

Did Ukraine ban Christians?

Criticizing American support for Ukraine’s war on Russia, Ramaswamy said U.S. dollars are funding “the banning of Christians,” mentioning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

This is misleading. Ukraine has taken steps to ban pro-Russia groups for months, taking steps to ban the activities of religious and political groups with ties to Russia. Last month the Ukrainian parliament took steps to ban the operations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has had close ties to Moscow.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church split with the Russian Orthodox Church in May 2022, months after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Did DeSantis evacuate Americans out of Israel?

“Biden’s neglect has been atrocious,” DeSantis said. “He left them stranded; they couldn’t get flights out. So I scrambled resources in Florida. I sent planes over to Israel, and I brought back over 700 people to safety.”

This is half-true. The Biden administration initially told Americans in Israel to take advantage of commercial flights on Oct. 9, but flights from Israel to the U.S. were scarce, and prices were reportedly as high as $25,000. Some Americans in Israel at the time posted on social media that they were stranded.

On Oct. 12, DeSantis signed an executive order that allowed the Florida Division of Emergency Management to pay for Americans in Israel to fly back to the U.S. The flights, however, were organized by the Tampa-based nonprofit group Project Dynamo, which specializes in rescuing Americans in distress, and DeSantis’ primary role was to fund the flights.

On the same day, the U.S. announced it would help Americans evacuate on charter flights. About 1,500 Americans did leave Israel with help from the U.S. government. U.S. citizens were responsible for paying for the government flights, while DeSantis footed the bill for his flights.

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