Donald Trump has assailed the government’s official economic data this summer by calling it “phony” or “fake news." He likes to say the “actual” number for jobs statistics or the inflation rate would be much more flattering to him — and would look worse for President Joe Biden.
It’s a return to form for the former president who called the unemployment rate "total fiction" during his 2016 campaign before flipping and touting that same data once he was in office.
This time around, Yahoo Finance found at least six recent instances when Trump dismissed inflation and jobs data. In one example, during a speech in Arizona in July, Trump mischaracterized an already record-high inflation reading of 9.1%. “Biden created the worst inflation in 47 years," he said. "We’re at 9.1%, but the actual number is much, much higher than that.” In addition to offering no evidence of his claim, the 9.1% number is the highest increase in 40 years, not 47.
“It's not based in reality or an accurate understanding of Americans' experiences. It's just based on political narrative,” Aaron Sojourner, a former senior economist for labor at White House Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Obama and Trump, said in an interview.
He added, referring to Trump, “He just makes up stuff."
Trump's baseless dismissals of economic data appear set to be one feature of a widely expected third run for the presidency that he could announce as early as this year. In addition, his campaign will likely feature a full-throated attack on the FBI after it searched his home for a potential violation of the Espionage Act. Trump is also likely to focus on his business practices and plan to fire thousands of government employees who are traditionally insulated from politics.
Multiple requests to representatives of the former president to back up his claims went unanswered.
‘Now I accept those numbers very proudly’
Casting doubt on official statistics featured prominently in Trump’s 2016 campaign. The then-candidate called the official jobs report fake or phony at least 19 times, according to a Washington Post tally.
At the time, Trump echoed a trend among right-wing figures who were quick to question any good economic news under the watch of then-President Obama. The late former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, for example, once claimed “these Chicago guys” changed the numbers to improve their political standing.
But for Trump, his tone abruptly changed once in office.
During a roundtable with manufacturers in 2017, he said of the unemployment rate, which was then at 4.3%, that “for a long time they don’t matter, but now I accept those numbers very proudly.”
Then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer also shocked reporters that year when he told them he’d talked to Trump about the jobs data “and he said to quote him very clearly: 'They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.' ”
Both the unemployment rate and the Consumer Price Index, the most widely cited measure of inflation, are compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There is no evidence that the group, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, has changed its methods for gathering and releasing information between presidential administrations.
"They are very professional, very scientific [and] do their work every month completely above board," says Sojourner, who's currently a labor economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. "We can argue about interpretation of what they mean to some extent, but they follow very reliable procedures to get accurate statistics on the labor market."
‘It’s fake news’
For Trump, in what may continue through the 2024 election, the numbers are fake again.
At a rally in May, Trump said of the 3.6% unemployment rate: “That’s not true, it’s not correct: It’s fake news.” He followed it up with a post on Truth Social, his social media platform, adding that “[m]illions of people that are unemployed but not looking for jobs make that number FAKE, like so much else in our failing Country.” He repeated a version of the claim again at a rally in Illinois later that month.
Trump appears to be referring to the civilian labor force level, which sat at 164.6 million Americans in February 2020, just before the COVID pandemic hit. Contrary to Trump’s claims, the metric has returned to a similar level in recent months under President Biden, digging out from losses in the labor force during the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall, the most recent jobs report found that total non-farm employment has fully recovered to its pre-pandemic level. In February 2020, the survey found the labor force was 152.504 million Americans strong. As of July 2022, that number was up to 152.536 million.
In more recent appearances this summer, Trump has turned his focus to inflation. At a speech in Arizona on July 22, he flatly said that inflation was much higher than the 9.1% year-over-year rate reported in June.
A few days later, during a speech in Washington, DC on July 26, he hedged a bit, saying “a lot of people think it is much higher than that.”
This month, during a speech in Dallas, he said of the inflation rate: “I believe it’s much higher than that, by the way.”
More recently, inflation moderated in July's numbers with falling gas prices leading to a lower than expected year-over-year increase of 8.5% in the consumer price index. Month over month, inflation was flat with the rise in things like food offset by decreasing prices for fuel.
If inflation continues to cool, Trump is quite likely to increase the frequency of his declarations that the data is cooked. But don't expect economists like Sojourner to take the claims seriously.
"I don't think [Trump's] false claims merit good faith interpretation," he says.
Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.