AP FACT CHECK: Trump garbles Syria story, poverty record

Published 8:27 am Wednesday, December 26, 2018

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is garbling his story about what’s going on with the Islamic State group. Has it been defeated or is it still a fighting force? He had it both ways over the course of several days.

In a tumultuous week capped with the launch of a partial government shutdown, Trump also spread misinformation about poverty, the Russia investigation and immigration as he lost his defense secretary and his envoy to the anti-IS coalition after announcing U.S. troops will be pulled from Syria.

A look at some claims and the reality:

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TRUMP: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” — tweet Wednesday.

THE FACTS: The militants are a diminished but deadly force, and U.S. partners warn that a premature American withdrawal will allow them to storm back. Trump seemed to contradict his own assertion when he tweeted the next day that the U.S. withdrawal means Russia, Syria and Iran “will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.”

Then on Saturday he said the group is “largely defeated” and other countries “should be able to easily take care of whatever remains.”

IS militants still hold a string of villages and towns along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, where they have resisted weeks of attacks by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces to drive them out.

The pocket is home to about 15,000 people, among them 2,000 IS fighters, according to U.S. military estimates.

But that figure could be as high as 8,000 militants, if fighters hiding out in the deserts south of the Euphrates River are also counted, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through networks of local informants.

Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman said they include seasoned militants who have fought global wars of jihad since the 1990s.

The SDF, a Kurdish-led force that is America’s only military partner in Syria, said Thursday: “The war against Islamic State has not ended and the group has not been defeated.” The group is at the front lines of the battle against IS along the Euphrates River.

It said a U.S. withdrawal would leave Syrians “between the claws of enemy forces.”

At their height in 2014, IS militants controlled approximately one-third of territory in Syria and Iraq, including major cities in both countries. The group flourished in the political vacuum of Syria’s civil war, in which President Bashar Assad has violently put down a 2011 uprising against his family’s 40-year rule.

The pocket along the Euphrates represents just one percent of the territory it once held. But recent attacks in Iraq show the group is still capable of mounting deadly assaults even without holding urban areas.

Trump’s own advisers have described the battle against IS as a long-term commitment that depends on stabilizing Syria after nearly eight years of civil war.

Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition to defeat IS in Syria and Iraq, said earlier this month, “Nobody is declaring mission accomplished” and it would be “reckless” to do so. After Trump announced the withdrawal of troops, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, then McGurk, resigned. Trump said he did not know his envoy.


TRUMP: “Last year alone, we lifted 1 million Americans out of poverty, which is a record.” — remarks Dec. 12.

THE FACTS: It’s not a record and barely a decline.

The Census Bureau did report that the number of Americans living in poverty last year was 39.7 million, a decline of 918,000 from 2016. But the bureau said the 39.7 million is not a meaningfully different number statistically from 2016, when the figure stood at 40.6 million. In other words, the drop could be accounted for by variations in sampling the population rather than by an actual decline in the number of poor people.