On Friday, President Trump announced at a press conference that he'll declare a national emergency on the southern border in order to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Although the president made many unsubstantiated claims throughout his press conference, the reporters present who fact-checked Trump's national emergency claims faced an uphill battle, as Trump repeatedly stymied and interrupted their comments from behind the podium.
On paper, it shouldn't have been difficult to debunk the factual inaccuracies in Trump's address, as many of them were objectively false in fairly clear-cut ways. To take just one example, Trump claimed at the presser that Barack Obama "put on more debt on this country than every president in the history of our country combined." This isn't anywhere close to true; the debt grew by $8.5 trillion under Obama, which is less than $11.6 billion in debt the U.S. had at the end of George W. Bush's term.
But fact-checking Trump in print is much different than doing so in person, as the reporters at Friday's event quickly discovered. Although many of them did attempt to point out the president's falsehoods, Trump regularly railroaded and cut them off, making it difficult for their points to sink in.
For instance, CNN reporter Jim Acosta confronted Trump on his characterizations of what's actually happening at the southern border, specifically that there's an "invasion of our country" that constitutes a national emergency.
"There’s a lot of reporting out there, there’s a lot of crime data out there, there’s a lot of Department of Homeland Security data out there that shows border crossings at a near-record low," Acosta began.
"That's because of us," Trump interrupted.
But it's not. Border apprehensions hit a high in 2000, then began falling drastically and have remained relatively constant since the mid-2000s, government data shows. Moreover, border apprehensions rose substantially during 2018, when Trump was in office, and so there's no sense in which the historically-low levels of border apprehensions is due to his administration's policies.
In a subsequent back-and-forth with Trump, Acosta noted that, according to several studies, undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. Trump's response was not to engage with that data point, but rather to question Acosta's integrity in asking the question.
"You don't — you don't really believe that stat, do you?," Trump asked. "Do you really believe that stat? Take a look at our federal prisons."
There's no reason to doubt "that stat," though, and there's no reason to suggest that Acosta secretly doubts it, either. Likewise, Trump implied that some fact about federal prisons debunks the statistic Acosta referenced, but didn't say anything about what that fact is, or why it might disprove studies about crime rates.
"I believe in facts and statistics," Acosta responded. "What do you say to your critics who say that you are creating a national emergency, that you're concocting a national emergency here in order to get your wall because you couldn't get it through other ways?"
"Ask the 'angel moms,' what do you think?," Trump said, referring to parents of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants. "Ask these incredible women who lost their daughters and their sons, OK? Because your question is a very political question, because you have an agenda, you're CNN, you're fake news, you have an agenda."
Trump went on to say that "the numbers that you gave are wrong," though he presented no evidence to prove that, and accused Acosta of asking "a fake question," and then called on another reporter before he could respond.
This is why it's so difficult to fact-check Trump in person. Proving a point with empirical data has no effect on a president who openly rejects empirical data, and a president who freely interrupts questions he's not happy with is immune to difficult questioning.