How The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” enabled a Trump lie about Social Security cuts

Trump wants to “terminate” the payroll tax that funds Social Security. The Washington Post gives him a pass, arguing that because he probably can’t do it, then it doesn’t count as a plan.

The Washington Post ran a “Fact Checker” piece on September 4 giving the Joe Biden campaign the ignominious prize of “Four Pinocchios” — for running an ad based on President Donald Trump’s actual comments about ending the payroll taxes funding Social Security. And this week, Trump claimed the Post’s piece as a victory.

Right-wing media have been promoting Trump’s efforts to zero out the payroll tax since March, often making misleading comparisons to a 2% payroll tax cut during the Obama administration that also reimbursed the program with general revenue funds. And while Trump’s efforts have been peddled as a solution to the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik also explained back in March, “a payroll tax cut would be poorly targeted, delivering the most help to households least in need,” as it would merely benefit those workers who are still getting paid instead of the vulnerable workers who are being sent home without pay or laid off.

The Biden campaign ran an ad earlier this month about the potential consequences of zeroing out payroll taxes for Social Security.

The recent Post article, titled “Biden campaign attacks a Trump Social Security ‘plan’ that does not exist,” seemed to base this verdict on the idea that Trump doesn’t really have a plan for anything. Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote, “The president gave the Democrats an opening with a series of confusing remarks after he signed an executive order that would suspend the payment of payroll taxes” which fund Social Security “until the end of the year.” Kessler also noted later, “Trump, of course, has a habit of contradicting his aides after they try to explain his remarks.”

All The Washington Post has done is let Trump off easy for his typical combination of both lying and constantly changing his pronouncements from off the cuff — and holding the various efforts by White House officials to walk back whatever Trump just said as being more credible than the president’s own words. Meanwhile, Biden is somehow found to be at fault for trying to hold Trump accountable on what he actually says.

And dropping the ball like this has real consequences in spreading Trump’s misleading claims to potential voters, with the Post’s piece having already received over 19,500 interactions on Facebook -- with over 10,000 of those interactions coming from a single share by the Team Trump campaign account.

While Trump’s executive order defers payment on employees’ half of payroll taxes — leaving employers’ half intact and also setting up a major headache when those deferred taxes would have to be paid back — the president also made a grandiose statement in a mid-August press briefing about eliminating all payroll taxes permanently.

And the payroll tax — we’ll be terminating the payroll tax after I, hopefully, get elected. We’ll be terminating the payroll tax, so that will mean anywhere from $5,000 to even more per family, and also great for businesses and great for jobs. A lot of people will be very happy to hear that. A lot of the great — certainly, conservative economists will be great to have — they think that’s the greatest thing we can do. That’s better than the payments; that’s better than anything else.

But it’s a lot of money, and it’s — it’s going right directly to the people, and it goes there very easily. But it also creates stronger companies to employ the people. So we will be — on the assumption I win, we are going to be terminating the payroll tax after the beginning of the new year.

Later in the same event, Trump reiterated that “at the end of the year, on the assumption that I win, I’m going to terminate the payroll tax.” He then added, “We’ll be paying into Social Security through the General Fund. And it works out very nicely.” But this statement came after he had just spoken effusively of how much money would be saved for people by eliminating the payroll tax entirely, which he repeatedly promised to do if reelected, seemingly without any other taxes being raised.

In response to that actual statement by Trump about “terminating the payroll tax,” a group of Democratic senators wrote a letter on August 19 to Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, asking what the effects would be of lowering all payroll taxes to zero on both the employer and employee sides. The response letter, sent on August 24, concluded that if no reimbursement was made to Social Security from general tax revenues — which has been done in the past, such as during those Obama-era payroll tax cuts — the Disability Insurance fund would run out in the middle of 2021, and the Old Age and Survivors Insurance pensions would run out in the middle of 2023.

The Post’s fact check piece included a comment from a Biden campaign adviser explaining the ramifications of what Trump had said — followed by the Post covering for Trump by explaining that he could never realistically enact such a policy, thus letting him off the hook for repeatedly saying that he would do so.

A Biden campaign adviser defended the ad. Citing Trump’s comments in mid-August, especially about Americans saving $5,000, he said: “To eliminate the payroll tax is a fair estimate of what Trump’s plan is. I think it’s a fair hit. He left himself open to a fair hit, and in the world of politics, it was a fair hit." He said it was ridiculous to believe Social Security could be funded in the long term through regular tax revenue, without the Social Security payroll tax, as Trump claimed Aug. 12.

Given that few lawmakers supported temporarily suspending the Social Security payroll tax, it’s a stretch to think Trump would win enough support to permanently suspend it — even if that were his policy. But if he wins reelection, it’s fair to think he could win congressional approval to cover the few months of payments owed by the Americans covered by his executive order.

And the Post seemingly never responded to people who called out the obvious problems:

The Trump campaign then promoted the Post article with a series of spam replies on Twitter to anybody discussing the actual threat to Social Security. And for his part, Trump issued a tweet on Monday claiming a total win thanks to the Post.

And that’s what happens when Trump’s abnormal behavior is treated with kid gloves, and given a pass on a supposed fact check, while nobody is allowed to confront him on his own terms and hold him accountable for his actual words.