For a recent article, PolitiFact called our office asking whether it was true that Hillary Clinton once wanted a border wall. Specifically, they were analyzing the truthfulness of the following statement made by Donald Trump:
We're gonna have strong borders. We're gonna have a wall — a big, powerful wall. You know that Hillary Clinton wanted a wall, a number of years ago. She wanted a wall." (at 1:00:10)
PolitiFact wasn't interested in the difference between the word "wall" and "fence" and noted in their article that "both block people." They just wanted to know if Trump's statement was accurate.
I explained that as a senator, Clinton voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 which required, among other things, "physical infrastructure enhancements to prevent unlawful entry by aliens into the United States". I also explained that it required "operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States" and operational control was defined as: "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband." (Emphasis added.)
The Secure Fence Act would have created 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and required that DHS "shall provide for least 2 layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors" along a number of specific stretches. After it was signed into law, however, an amendment gave much more discretion to DHS to decide where and if it wanted to construct fencing, rendering the act much less effective.
It sure sounds like "she wanted a wall," to quote Trump.
But I gave PolitiFact more research. In October 2006, Clinton gave a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in which she called for an amnesty, but also said the United States must "Secure our borders with technology, personnel, physical barriers if necessary in some places; and we need to have tougher employer sanctions." On illegal aliens, Clinton said: "If they've committed transgressions of whatever kind, they should be obviously deported."
And I alerted PolitiFact to a speech Clinton gave at a high school in Windham, N.H., in November last year in which she comes across as a border security enthusiast. She said:
Well look, I voted numerous times when I was a Senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in. And I do think you have to control your borders. We need to secure our borders, I'm for it, I voted for it, I believe in it, and we also need to deal with the families, the workers who are here, who have made contributions, and their children.
Clinton's stance on border security has raised some eyebrows within her generally open-border coalition of supporters. It was noted by some that Bernie Sanders (then still in the House) voted against the 2006 border security bill. Perhaps this is why Clinton has stopped talking about her past and is instead busily repeating her claim that she's for building "bridges, not walls."
I explained the following to PolitiFact:
It's clear that at one point Clinton supported a secure border that includes physical barriers and she spoke about it as recently as November of last year. Since then her talk of building "bridges, not walls" leaves one wondering what Clinton's current position is on border security. For whatever reason, Clinton seems unable to take a clear position. Does she still support physical barriers, and if so, how does she define them? Apparently the barriers she's envisioning would be strong enough, tall enough, wide enough, and deep enough "to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in" since that's her metric in the November speech. Necessarily, that would be more than the barbed wire fencing and vehicular barriers currently on parts of our border that do little to stop illegal immigrants. On the other hand, it's possible that Clinton now supports open borders. Does she think our borders are secure enough in their current condition? This would be a great question for the media to ask her.
But PolitiFact could only conclude that it's "half true" that Clinton "wanted a wall a number of years ago," as Trump noted.
PolitiFact argued that Trump was equating Hillary's fence with his own proposed fence. They argued that since his is bigger than what Clinton has proposed in the past, it's only half true to claim that Clinton once wanted a wall. PolitiFact concluded:
But the fence Clinton backed is not nearly as expansive as the wall Trump is promoting. And in his phrasing, Trump seemed to equate the two.
But if one is to make this type of an argument, one must compare the proposed walls either by type or mileage. PolitiFact didn't make much of an attempt to do so. (Largely this is because — as I noted to PolitiFact — information on exactly what either candidate supports today is lacking, particularly in Clinton's case.)
So how does PolitiFact make the comparison? They argued that Trump wants 2,000 miles of fencing, which is more than the 700 miles in the Secure Fence Act that Clinton voted for. They wrote:
Building a wall along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico, of course, has been a central part of Trump's campaign.
The fact-checker had briefly noted this in our e-mail communication, writing:
To me, a 700-mile barrier seems much different than a 2,000 mile one. Thoughts?
I didn't think that this was going to become the central issue within her argument, so I responded:
As for distances, yes, 700 miles is different than 2,000 miles. I'm not sure that either candidate has ever declared a specific amount of fencing as an absolute, however.
I also made sure to alert her to the fact that Trump had stated there wouldn't be a need to have a border wall along all 2,000 miles of the border. I also argued that she shouldn't limit Hillary's support to only 700 miles because I didn't see any evidence that Clinton felt the Secure Fence Act was the ultimate fix to border security. I reiterated:
I think it would be helpful to reach out to both campaigns to see where they stand on the current status of the border. But as for your original question, I think it's quite clear that Clinton was at one point in favor of border fencing.
Again, the main statement PolitiFact wanted me to look into was Trump's, "You know that Hillary Clinton wanted a wall, a number of years ago. She wanted a wall."
It seems clear that she did. Case closed. But PolitiFact decided to stick to the mileage comparison.
The problem is that PolitiFact didn't look into my statement about Trump actually supporting less than 2,000 miles of fencing along the border. Had they done so before publishing the article, they would have found that when asked about it, Trump suggested his wall would be around 1,000 miles due to natural barriers that already exist on parts of the border. Specifically, he said:
You know, interestingly, the wall on the southern border, it's — really, if you think it's a thousand miles. It's 2,000 miles, but ... you also have natural terrain which is automatically a barrier, which is a good thing. So you're talking about a thousand.
This is a big problem for PolitiFact's analysis because their entire rating — "half true" — rests on their belief that Trump was equating a 2,000-mile fence with a 700-mile fence.
With this type of an analysis, PolitiFact should have been comparing a 1,000-mile fence with a 700-mile fence. Would that change their rating? It seems logical that it might.
But again, the mileage comparison simply doesn't seem all that helpful in determining the truthfulness of Trump's original statement. If Hillary once supported 700 miles and Trump now supports 1,000 miles, is it really only "half true" that Hillary once wanted a wall?
I think one can say it's "completely, 100 percent true" that Clinton once wanted a smaller wall than what Trump is proposing today. I'm not sure that this helps Clinton.
For me, the only important question is what Clinton supports doing on the border today. Does she still support the Secure Fence Act? Does she want the 700 miles of double border fencing completed? Or has she flip-flopped? Her campaign website only reads "protect our borders" and nothing more.
One last point on the truthfulness ratings used by PolitiFact.
They call Trump's statement "Half True" which they define as: "The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context."
The next step up is "Mostly True" which they define as: "The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information."
To receive a "True" rating, PolitiFact must find that "The statement is accurate and there's nothing significant missing."
There's a lot of wiggle room and language that allows for all sorts of interpretation on the part of PolitiFact but I find it difficult to accept that Trump's statement about Clinton's past support for a wall is only "partially accurate" and either "leaves out important details" or "takes things out of context". One could easily argue that it's at least "Mostly True" according to PolitiFact's statements.
But the article wasn't designed to educate people about where Clinton and Trump stand on border security. The article was meant to argue that Trump is only half right (or half wrong, if you want to look at it that way).
Had Trump said, "By the way, Hillary's 700 miles is 300 miles shorter than the 1,000 miles I'm supporting" PolitiFact would have had to give the statement a "True" rating which means it probably would never have been picked up by PolitiFact in the first place.
Bottom line: It's totally true that Clinton once supported a double-wall border fence that never got constructed, and it's totally true that Trump's proposed wall is 300 miles longer.
So where does Clinton stand today?
(For the record, prior to writing this piece I sent an e-mail to PolitiFact after they published their article and raised the questions above. They have yet to respond.)