FACT CHECK: White House Apologizes For False Claim About African-American Jobs

Aug 15, 2018
Originally published on August 16, 2018 10:31 am

The White House was forced to backtrack this week, after wildly misstating the level of job gains by African-Americans under President Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.

The false claim came during Tuesday's press briefing, which was dominated by questions about Omarosa Manigault Newman. In her new tell-all book and on an accompanying publicity tour, the former reality TV star and presidential assistant has accused Trump of being a racist.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to rebut that claim by arguing that Trump has done more to boost African-Americans' economic status than his predecessor. But her job statistics were as bogus as Trump's long-debunked claims about Obama's birth certificate.

Here's what Sanders said:

"This president, since he took office, in the year and a half that he's been here has created 700,000 new jobs for African-Americans. That's 700,000 African-Americans that are working now that weren't working when this president took place. When President Obama left after eight years in office — eight years in office — he'd only created 195,000 jobs for African-Americans. President Trump in his first year and a half has already tripled what President Obama did in eight years."

First, let's stipulate that presidents by and large don't "create" jobs. The strength or weakness of the job market depends on numerous factors beyond the control of the White House. But fairly or not, presidents are often judged by how the economy performs on their watch. So let's examine Sanders' numbers.

She was right about Trump's record. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 700,000 more African-Americans working now than when Trump took office — 708,000 more, to be precise.

But when it comes to Obama's record, Sanders is off by a factor of 15.

According to the BLS, there were 18.4 million African-Americans working when Obama left office in January 2017. That's 2.9 million more than when he was sworn in eight years earlier.

Once reporters pointed out the error, Sanders issued a rare, albeit grudging, correction on Twitter.

"Jobs numbers for Pres Trump and Pres Obama were correct, but the time frame for Pres Obama wasn't," Sanders wrote. "I'm sorry for the mistake. But no apologies for the 700,000 jobs for African Americans created under President Trump."

So, is there a different time period for which the 195,000 figure Sanders gave for Obama would be correct?

The number appears to be drawn from a chart compiled by the president's Council of Economic Advisers, which showed job growth for the 20 months following each of the last three presidential elections (including November and December of the year the election was held).

From November 2008 until July 2010, 636,000 African-Americans lost jobs, as the nation sank into its deepest recession since the great depression. Four years later, in the 20 months following Obama's re-election, 831,000 African-Americans found jobs. Adding those two periods together produces a net total of 195,000. But this is a curious "time period" in which to assess Obama's record — the 20 months following his 2008 election, added to the 20 months following his 2012 re-election, ignoring the periods in between and afterwards. On Tuesday night, the CEA apologized for what it called its "earlier miscommunication" to Sanders.

Perhaps a more reasonable yardstick with which to compare African-American job gains during Trump's first 18 months in office is what happened in the 18 months just before that, from June 2015 through December 2016. According to the BLS, 793,000 African-Americans found work during that period.

In other words, about 85,000 more African-Americans found work during the 18 months before Trump took office than the 18 months since.

The pattern is similar for the broader population. In the 18 months since Trump was sworn in, the U.S. has added 3.4 million jobs, about a quarter-million fewer jobs than were added in the previous 18 months.

In no way is this to discount the strong job gains generally, and among African-Americans in particular, that the U.S. has enjoyed under the Trump administration. But those gains appear to be little more than a continuation of the healthy trend that Trump inherited. And no matter how much this president tries to reverse and discredit the legacy of his predecessor, the numbers are plain to see.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week the White House did something it rarely does - issue an apology. Press secretary Sarah Sanders apologized after she wildly understated job gains by African-Americans under former President Obama. President Trump often boasts that unemployment among African-Americans has fallen to a record low on his watch. NPR's Scott Horsley reports that's merely continuing a trend that began under Trump's predecessor.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Cable television has been filled this week with news of Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former reality TV star and presidential assistant who's in the midst of a publicity tour for her new tell-all book. Manigault Newman, who first gained notoriety on "The Apprentice" with Donald Trump, has accused the president of being a racist. Press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to rebut that charge on Tuesday by pointing to economic gains that blacks have enjoyed on Trump's watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: This president, since he took office, in the year and a half that he's been here has created 700,000 new jobs for African-Americans. That's 700,000 African-Americans that are working now that weren't working when this president took place.

HORSLEY: Let's set aside the fact that Trump himself has not actually created all those jobs. So far, at least Sanders' numbers are on the money. The Labor Department says just over 700,000 African-Americans have found work since Trump took office. The trouble began with what Sanders said next when she tried to benchmark Trump's jobs record against that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SANDERS: When President Obama left after eight years in office - eight years in office - he had only created 195,000 jobs for African-Americans. President Trump in his first year and a half has already tripled what President Obama did in eight years.

HORSLEY: In fact, there were 2.9 million more African-Americans working when Obama left office last year than when he was sworn in. Sanders' figure, 195,000, was off by a factor of 15. After reporters pointed out her error, the press secretary issued a rare correction on Twitter last night, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers apologized for what it called a miscommunication. It's a pattern that's familiar, though, to anyone who remembers the presidential campaign when Trump often exaggerated the ills facing black Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You're living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

HORSLEY: The fact is job gains among African-Americans in the 18 months since Trump took office look very much like the gains in the 18 months before he was sworn in, albeit a little slower. And the same is true for job growth overall. U.S. employers have added 3.4 million jobs since Trump became president, just shy of the 3.7 million added in the last year and a half of the Obama administration. Janelle Jones, who's with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, says there has been no sharp uptick nor downturn on Trump's watch, just a smooth and steady line.

JANELLE JONES: He has inherited an economy that was on its way. During Obama's presidency, we were going through a recovery. It was really starting to reach communities that are usually left behind. I'm thinking of workers of color. And so what we've seen since Trump has been in office is exactly that - a continuation of this trend.

HORSLEY: And no matter how much this president tries to reverse and discredit the legacy of his predecessor, the numbers are plain to see in black and white. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.