The big clue that PolitiFact botched this fact check occurs in the image we cropped from PolitiFact's website.
Donald Trump states that the EU sends millions of cars to the United States. PolitiFact performs adjustments to that claim, suggesting Trump specified German cars and specifying that the EU sends millions of German cars per year. Yet Trump did not specify German cars and did not specify an annual rate.
PolitiFact quotes Trump:
At one point, he singled out German cars.Saying Trump "singled out German cars" counts as twisting the truth. Trump "singled out" German cars in the sense of offering two examples of German cars among the millions sent to the United States by the European Union.
"The European Union … they send us Mercedes, they send us -- by the millions -- the BMWs -- cars by the millions," Trump said.
It counts as a major error for a fact checker to ignore the clear context showing that Trump was talking about the European Union and not simply German cars of one make (Mercedes) or another (BMW). And if those German makes account for large individual shares of EU exports to the United States then Trump deserves credit for choosing strong examples.
It counts as another major error for a fact checker to assume an annual rate in the millions when the speaker did not specify any such rate. How did PolitiFact determine that Trump was not talking about a monthly rate, or the rate over a decade? Making assumptions is not the same thing as fact-checking.
When a speaker uses ambiguous language, the responsible fact checker offers the speaker charitable interpretation. That means using the interpretation that makes the best sense of the speaker's words. In this case, the point is obvious: The European Union exports millions of cars to the United States.
But instead of looking at the number of cars the European Union exports to the United States, PolitiFact cherry picked German cars. That focus came through strongly in PolitiFact's concluding paragraphs:
Our rulingThat's sham fact-checking.
Trump said, "The European Union … they send us Mercedes, they send us -- by the millions -- the BMWs -- cars by the millions."
Together, Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen imported less than a million cars into the United States in 2017, not "millions."
More importantly, Trump ignores that a large proportion of German cars sold in the United States were also built here, using American workers and suppliers whose economic fortunes are boosted by Germany’s carnakers [sic]. Other U.S.-built German cars were sold as exports.
We rate the statement False.
A serious fact check would look at the European Union's exports specifically to the United States. The European Automobile Manufacturers Association has those export numbers available from 2011 through 2016. From 2011 through 2013 the number was under 1 million annually. For 2014 through 2016 the number was over 1 million annually.
Data through September 2017 from the same source shows the European Union on pace to surpass 1 million units for the fourth consecutive year.
Does exporting over 1 million cars to the United States per year for three or four consecutive years count as exporting cars to the United States by the millions (compare the logic)?
We think we can conclude with certainty that the notion does not count as "False."
Our exit question for PolitiFact: How does a non-partisan fact checker justify ignoring the context of Trump's statement referring specifically to the European Union? How did the European Union get to be Germany?