AP FACT CHECK: Trump and an eco legacy not his own

CALVIN WOODWARD, HOPE YEN and SETH BORENSTEIN
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Fact Check Week

In this July 8, 2019, photo, President Donald Trump listens as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks during an event on the environment in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and his aides this past week celebrated an environmental legacy that is not theirs to claim.

In large measure, the progress they cited pre-dates Trump's presidency. And in some of the particulars, they were wrong. For example, the air is not cleaner under Trump.

The tendency to seek credit for things achieved by others or not achieved at all spread to other areas of federal policy. Trump's veterans affairs chief cited improvements in waiting times and quality of care at VA health centers as examples of the good job he's doing leading the department, despite the fact that the progress came before he took the position. The president repeated his familiar boast that more people than ever before are working, ignoring the main reason for that — there are more people than ever before.

A recap from the week on a variety of subjects:

ENVIRONMENT

ANDREW WHEELER, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: "From 1970 to 2018, U.S. criteria air pollution fell 74 percent. ... Under your administration, emissions of all the criteria air pollutants continue to decline. For example, the lead and sulfur dioxide have dropped by double-digit percentages over the last two years. Today, we have the cleanest air on record." — remarks Monday.

THE FACTS: Air quality has not improved since Trump took office and air in the U.S. is not the cleanest on record.

Wheeler specifically is incorrect that emissions for all six of the "criteria" air pollutants tracked by EPA have declined during the Trump administration. Of the six, three actually increased in 2017: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and two measures of particulate matter pollution. The other three, ozone, lead and sulfur dioxide, did decline.

Indeed, after decades of improvement, progress in air quality stalled. Over the last two years the U.S. had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier , according to EPA data analyzed by The AP.

There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when the U.S had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980, when the measurement started.

Records for the fewest air polluted days were set during the Obama administration.

It would be premature to blame Trump's anti-regulatory policies for this setback. Scientists say it is too early to see the effects of changes in environmental policy of the Trump administration. Air quality is affected by complex factors, both natural and man-made; last year's western wildfires may have contributed, for example. Along the same lines, Trump cannot plausibly claim that his policies have delivered clean air in a year or two when citing developments that have been trending for years.

How is U.S. air quality doing overall? The Health Effects Institute's State of Global Air 2019 report ranked the U.S. 37th dirtiest out of 195 countries for ozone, also known as smog, worse than the global average for population-weighted pollution. Countries such as Britain, Japan, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Albania, Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, New Zealand and Canada have less smoggy air. The U.S. ranks 8th cleanest on the more deadly category of fine particles in the air. It's still behind countries such as Canada and New Zealand but better than the global average.

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TRUMP: "We've refocused the EPA back on its core mission, and, last year, the agency completed more Superfund hazardous waste clean-ups than any year of the previous administrations and set records in almost every year." — remarks Monday.

WHEELER: "We're making tremendous environmental progress under President Trump. ... There may be no better example than our renewed focus on Superfund — the federal program that cleans up large, hazardous sites. ...In fiscal year 2018, we deleted the most sites from the National Priorities List in one year since 2005." — remarks Monday.

THE FACTS: The Trump administration is taking undue credit for cleanup of hazardous industrial sites that was largely done under President Barack Obama and previous administrations. In addition, Wheeler's reference to a "renewed focus" on the Superfund program ignores the fact that the administration recommended cutting the program's budget 15%.

It's true that the EPA announced last year that it had deleted 22 Superfund toxic waste sites from the government's national priorities list, the most since 2005. But it takes years, if not decades, to clean up a Superfund site before it is removed from the list. That means the construction work, such as removing soil or drilling wells to suck out contaminated groundwater, would have been largely done before the Trump administration.

For instance, an analysis of EPA records by The Associated Press found that at seven Superfund sites the EPA took off the list in 2017 and boasted about, the physical cleanup was performed before Trump took office.

Removing sites from the list is a procedural step that occurs after monitoring data show that remaining levels of harmful contaminates meet cleanup targets, which were often set by EPA decades ago.

There are currently more than 1,300 Superfund sites on EPA's National Priorities List at various stages in the cleanup process.

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TRUMP: "The previous administration waged a relentless war on American energy." — remarks Monday.

THE FACT: This accusation is hard to sustain given the rise of U.S. energy under Obama. In 2013, the U.S. became the world's top producer both of natural gas and petroleum hydrocarbons, says the government's U.S. Energy Information Administration. As for crude oil specifically, the agency says the U.S. became the world's top crude oil producer last year. That is largely attributed to the shale oil boom that began late in George W. Bush's administration and proceeded apace during the Obama years.

The boom came because of fracking and other technology, such as horizontal drilling, that made it possible to find a lot more oil and gas without drilling more holes. (As a senator, Obama voted for a 2005 law that exempted fracking from a range of regulations.)

As president, Obama did impose fracking regulations on federal lands that were challenged by industry, then overturned by Trump, but he did little to slow the surge, especially on state and private lands. Altogether, the government issued permits for about 30,000 new oil and gas wells on federal lands during Obama's presidency.

Perhaps the central paradox of the Obama energy policy is that, despite his keen focus on wind and solar power, the greatest energy revolution of the past half century happened on his watch as U.S. petroleum and natural gas production achieved pre-eminence.

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TRUMP: "Today, the United States is ranked — listen to this — No. 1 in the world for access to clean drinking water — ranked No. 1 in the world." — remarks Monday.

THE FACTS: True in this respect: The U.S. is tied with nine other countries as having the cleanest drinking water, according to one leading measure. Yale University's global Environmental Performance Index finds 10 countries tied for the cleanest drinking water.

On environmental quality overall, the index puts the U.S. 27th, behind a variety of European countries, Canada, Japan, Australia and more. Switzerland was No. 1.

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VETERANS

ROBERT WILKIE, secretary of veterans affairs, asked if he's achieved progress in fixing VA since being confirmed to the job one year ago: "Since that time, I can say yes. ...The Journal of the American Medical Association says our wait times are now as good or better than in the private sector. And the Annals of Internal Medicine say our care is as good or better than it is in the private sector, across the country. What that means is that morale is up, that VA is in a better place than it has been in the last few years." — interview Wednesday with Fox News.

THE FACTS: The progress he cites in waiting times and quality of care happened before he became VA secretary.

It's true that a study by the medical association that came out in January found veterans got into a VA facility for an appointment faster on average than if they went to a private facility. But the study tracked progress from 2014 to 2017. Wilkie became acting VA secretary in late March 2018 and was confirmed as permanent VA secretary that July.

Similarly, a study published last December in the Annals of Internal Medicine did find that VA facilities outperform private hospitals in most health care markets throughout the country. But the finding is also based on data from as early as 2014 through June 30, 2017.

Wilkie, in fact, credits the VA's "concerted" effort to improve access to care "since 2014" in a VA press release in January announcing the medical association study's results.

The wait time study covered four specialties, primary care, dermatology, cardiology and orthopedics.

It found that in 2014, the average wait to get into VA medical center was 22.5 days, compared with 18.7 days in the private sector, which was not statistically different. By 2017, the wait at VA improved to 17.7 days, while increasing to 29.8 days for private doctors. Waits at VA medical centers were shorter in all specialties except orthopedics.

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RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

TRUMP, on special counsel Robert Mueller's upcoming testimony to Congress, now set for July 24: "They also want to interview the highly ... conflicted and compromised Mueller again." — tweets Thursday.

THE FACTS: Trump makes a groundless charge, as he often does, that Mueller was "highly conflicted and compromised." Mueller, a longtime Republican, was cleared by the Justice Department's ethics experts to lead the Russia investigation.

Trump typically cites a business dispute with Mueller and asserts that Mueller wanted the FBI director position, but that Trump rejected him.

But according to the special counsel's report , when Trump previously complained privately to aides that Mueller would not be objective, the advisers, including then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, then-White House counsel Don McGahn and Reince Priebus, chief of staff at the time, rejected his complaints of an alleged business dispute and possible bad feelings over the FBI job as not representing "true conflicts." Bannon called the claims "ridiculous."

Bannon told Mueller's investigators that while the White House had invited Mueller to speak to the president about the FBI and thought about asking him to become director again, Mueller did not come in looking for a job. Mueller was FBI director from 2001 to 2013.

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ECONOMY

TRUMP: "Jobs — now more people working today than ever in the history of our country. Ever in the history of our country — think of that." — remarks Thursday at social media summit.

TRUMP: "We're up to almost 160 million jobs. ...If you think, more people working in the United States today than at any day ever in our history." — remarks Monday at dinner with emir of Qatar.

THE FACTS: He's omitting important context. There is a record workforce, but it's driven by population growth.

A more relevant measure is the proportion of Americans with jobs, and that is still far below record highs.

According to Labor Department data , 60.6% of people in the United States 16 years and older were working in June. That's below the all-time high of 64.7% in April 2000, though higher than the 59.9% when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, Nicky Forster in New York and Matthew Daly, Michael Biesecker, Ellen Knickmeyer and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.

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