Last week, Washington Post “Fact Checker” editor and chief writer Glenn Kessler demonstrated the sheer lengths that some mainstream media observers often go to cast a false equivalence between President Joe Biden and disgraced former President Donald Trump, awarding Biden the title of “Bottomless Pinocchio” — a title created just for Trump himself — for saying repeatedly that the federal deficit has been reduced by $1.7 trillion annually during his time in office. The catch here is that the deficit really has decreased by that amount during the Biden administration, but Kessler still cast it as Trump-style “propaganda.”
But, as we have documented before, Biden’s talking point is highly misleading — worthy of Three Pinocchios.
Yet he keeps saying it over and over. By our count, at least 30 times since June he’s taken credit for reducing the budget deficit by $1.7 trillion.
Why is this significant? Readers may recall that during Donald Trump’s presidency, we established a new category, the Bottomless Pinocchio, to account for false or misleading statements repeated so often that they became a form of propaganda. A statement would get added to the list if it had earned a Three or Four Pinocchios rating and been repeated at least 20 times. By the end of the Trump presidency, 56 claims made by Trump had qualified.
To be clear, The Washington Post is not disputing the fact that the federal budget deficit has decreased by $1.7 trillion annually under Biden, nor is the author complaining that Biden simply doesn’t deserve credit for the deficit reduction. Kessler actually goes a step further, arguing that Biden has increased the deficit compared to baseline projections from before his administration had enacted any new policies and legislation (emphasis added):
Here’s the rub: The Congressional Budget Office, the official scorekeeper, in February 2021 already estimated the budget deficit would fall dramatically in fiscal 2021 and 2022 because emergency pandemic spending would lapse. The combined 2021 and 2022 budget deficits were projected by the CBO in 2021 to be $3.31 trillion. In November, the CBO said the combined deficits were in fact $4.15 trillion.
What happened? Biden enacted additional pandemic relief funds and other new policies, resulting in a more modest decline in the deficit. For instance, the deficit was projected to be about $1 trillion in 2022, and it turned out to be about $1.375 trillion. It was supposed to decline $875 billion in 2021, and it was actually $360 billion under Biden.
All told, in those two years Biden increased the national debt about $850 billion more than originally projected.
These CBO estimates are hypothetical, and are based on the assumption that “current laws governing taxes and spending” would be generally unchanged over the next 10 years — which in this case would have posited no new pandemic spending at all. Kessler has set an impossible test for Biden to ever meet, in which a president is not allowed to enact any policies during his term and then would not even get any credit for that, either.
Compare this alongside the Post’s listing of “Bottomless Pinocchios” awarded to Trump, including “The U.S. has started building the wall,” “Mexico is paying for the wall,” “Hydroxychloroquine is a cure of covid-19,” “The 2020 presidential election was rigged,” and “Dominion Voting Systems manipulated the 2020 presidential vote,” among many others. It is clear that a technical argument over Biden’s fiscal numbers — including factual statements that actually did happen as described — cannot possibly compare to a title created specifically for Trump’s constant stream of lies, conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and all manner of misleading statements.
In the end, Kessler's “fact check” of Biden would have been better suited for placement in the Post's opinion pages than in a section ostensibly reserved for reporting. Accusing the president of “sleight of hand,” Kessler concluded that “it’s easy to manipulate the math” around deficit claims because “budget numbers often make people’s eyes glaze over.”
By contrast, Kessler bemoaned of covering then-candidate Trump back in the 2016 campaign, “It's actually not that great fun fact-checking him.”
“You know, a good fact check is like a mystery story where you spend a lot of time to try to unravel how the politician had, you know, concocted this particular statistic in a way that was misleading,” Kessler explained on the December 6, 2015, edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources. “With Trump, the statements he makes are often so absurd that you can instantly find out why it's wrong and how it's wrong. And, you know, it's not that interesting, frankly.”
While he indeed went on to chronicle many of Trump’s “Bottomless Pinocchios,” Kessler also strained to find any angle to discredit Democratic claims. A great example was during the 2020 presidential race, when he awarded “Four Pinocchios” to a Biden campaign ad that called out Trump’s open declaration that he wanted to end the tax that funds Social Security — which Kessler faulted as dishonest on the peculiar grounds that Trump would likely not have been able to pass it through Congress, even though he had clearly proposed it.
And with the strong possibility that the 2024 election could be a rematch between Biden and Trump, the last thing the public needs is for media outlets to cast a dishonest equivalence between one candidate who says factually true observations versus one of the most destructive propagandists in American history — especially if they are doing it because their jobs just wouldn’t be “interesting” otherwise.