FactCheck: The 4th Republican primary debate


In the last Republican presidential primary debate of 2023, the
candidates argued over their positions on gender-affirmation surgery,
legal immigration and more:

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cherry-picked comments from Nikki Haley, a
    former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to claim she did not
    oppose “gender mutilation for minors.” Haley has said children should
    not be allowed to undergo a “gender-changing procedure” until they are
    at least 18 years old.
  • Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said it was “false” for Haley to claim
    that she “never said government should … require” social media users to
    disclose their names. Haley did initially suggest that all social media
    users should be required to use their names online, before later
    clarifying that only Americans should be allowed to post anonymously.
  • Haley wrongly accused DeSantis of supporting a Florida bill that
    would have required political bloggers to register with the state. He
    actually said at the time that he didn’t support the bill, and it later
    died in committee.
  • DeSantis claimed Haley said “there should be no limits on legal
    immigration.” She didn’t. She said it should be based on “merit,” not “a
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie disputed that he backed
    guidelines supporting transgender students against the wishes of
    parents. Christie signed a law providing wide-ranging protections for
    transgender students, but specific guidelines regarding parental consent
    were issued after he left office.
  • Ramaswamy wrongly said that Haley was “bankrupt when you left the U.N.”
  • DeSantis falsely claimed that “there was no data to support” the
    Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the mRNA COVID-19
    vaccines for 6-month-old babies. Both Pfizer and Moderna tested
    lower-dose versions of their vaccines for young children in clinical
  • Ramaswamy embraced the baseless conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job.”
  • Ramaswamy repeated claims he has made before about climate change and transgender people.

The Dec. 6 debate was hosted by NewsNation and held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.


DeSantis distorts Haley’s position on gender-affirmation surgery for minors

DeSantis claimed that Haley opposed a bill he signed prohibiting
gender-affirming surgeries — or as he put it, “gender mutilation” — for
minors. That’s a distortion of Haley’s position. Haley has said any
“permanent change” for transgender people should only be allowed after a
child has turned 18.

DeSantis raised the issue twice in the debate, both times leading to
fiery exchanges in which Haley said DeSantis was distorting her position
and DeSantis insisted he had video evidence to back up his claim.

DeSantis: I did a bill in Florida to stop the gender
mutilation of minors. It’s child abuse and it’s wrong. She opposes that
bill. She thinks it’s fine and the law shouldn’t get involved with it.
If you’re not willing to stand up for the kids, if you’re not willing to
stand up and say that it is wrong to mutilate these kids, then you’re
not going to fight for the people back home. I will fight for you and I
will win for you. …

She didn’t respond to the criticism. It wasn’t about the parents
rights education bill. It was about prohibiting sex change operations on
minors. They do puberty blockers, these are irreversible. … That is
what Nikki Haley opposed. She said the law shouldn’t get involved in
that. And I just asked you if you’re somebody that’s going to be the
president of the United States and you can’t stand up against child
abuse, how are you going to be able to stand up for anything?

Haley: I never said that.

DeSantis: That is the truth.

Haley: I never said that.

DeSantis: We have it on video.

Haley: I said that if you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, you should have to be 18 to have anything done to change your gender.

Later in the debate, DeSantis again raised the issue.

DeSantis: As a parent you do not have the right to
abuse your kids. … This is mutilating these minors, these are
irreversible procedures. … I signed legislation in Florida banning the
mutilation of minors because it is wrong. We cannot allow this to happen
in this country. … Nikki disagrees with me. She opposes the bill that
we did to ban that, she said the law shouldn’t get involved with it.

Haley: I did not.

In May, DeSantis signed into law a bill that
prohibited “sex-reassignment prescriptions and procedures for patients
younger than 18 years of age.” The ban includes both surgeries as well
as puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones.

The video evidence DeSantis cites to back up his claim about Haley is an interview she
did with CBS News on June 5, but he’s cherry-picking her response. In
the interview, CBS News’ Tony Dokoupil asked Haley “what care should be
on the table when a 12-year-old child in this country assigned female at
birth says, ‘actually I feel more comfortable living as a boy.’ What
should the law allow the response to be?”

“I think the law should stay out of it and I think parents should
handle it. This is a job for the parents to handle,” Haley said. “And
then when that child becomes 18, if they want to make more of a
permanent change, they can do that. But I think up until then, we see
with our teenage kids, they go through a lot during puberty. They go
through a lot of confusion, they go through a lot of anxiety, they go
through a lot of pressures. We should support them the whole way
through, but we don’t need to go and enforce something in schools. We
don’t need schools sitting there hiding from the parents what gender
pronoun they are using. We don’t need to have those conversations in
schools. Those are conversations that should be had at home.”

A super PAC backing DeSantis also cited to us comments Haley made in a June 4 CNN town hall when
speaking on the transgender issue. “I want everybody to live the way
they want to live,” Haley said. “Let’s get them the help, the therapy,
whatever they need so that they can feel better and not be suicidal.”

In neither case did Haley advocate gender-affirming procedures for minors.

In fact, in a May 3 interview with
ABC News, Haley specifically said, “You shouldn’t allow a child to have
a gender-changing procedure until the age of 18 when they are an

Haley on IDing social media users

Moderator Megyn Kelly asked Haley to “speak to the requirement that
you said that every anonymous internet user needs to out themselves.”

Haley said her original comments, made in a Nov. 14 “Voters’ Voices” segment
on Fox News, were that “social media companies need to show us their
algorithms.” She added, “I also said there are millions of bots on
social media right now. They’re foreign, they’re Chinese, they’re
Iranian. I will always fight for freedom of speech for Americans. We do
not need freedom of speech for Russians and Iranians and Hamas.”

When Ramaswamy accused Haley of misrepresenting her original remarks,
Haley went on to say that she believes social media companies have to
“fight back on all of these bots that are happening” and that social
media “would be more civil” if people had to include their names
alongside their online comments.

“But having said that, I never said government should go and require anyone’s name,” she said.

Ramaswamy called her response “false,” and DeSantis also jumped in to
say that Haley had said one of her first acts as president would be to
ask for people’s names on social media.

In that Fox News interview,
when responding to an audience question, Haley did suggest that all
social media users should be required to identify themselves. (Her
response starts at about 5:07 in the video.)

Haley, Nov. 14: When I get into office, the first
thing we have to do, social media accounts — social media companies,
they have to show America their algorithms. Let us see why they are
pushing what they are pushing.

The second thing is, every person on social media should be verified
by their name. That’s, first of all, it’s a national security threat.
When you do that, all of a sudden people have to stand by what they say
and it gets rid of the Russian bots, the Iranian bots and the Chinese
bots. And then you’re going to get some civility, when people know their
name is next to what they say, and they know their pastor and their
family members are going to see it. It’s going to help our kids and it’s
going to help our country.

After there was a backlash to her comments, including from some of her GOP primary opponents, Haley, in a Nov. 15 CNBC interview, added a caveat about allowing anonymous online posting by Americans only.

“I want freedom of speech for Americans,” she said. “I don’t want
freedom of speech for Russia and Hamas. And that is what is happening
right now. And so the way you fix that is, we need our social media
companies to verify everybody so that we can get all of those bots out.”

When CNBC’s Joe Kernen asked if Haley was “really saying that people
can’t tweet anonymously,” she said she had no issue with Americans doing

“I mean, do I think life would be more civil if we were able to do
that? Yes. … You should stand by what you say,” she said. “But … I don’t
mind anonymous American people having free speech. What I don’t like is
anonymous Russians and Chinese and Iranians having free speech.”

That’s different from what she first said on Fox News.

Haley wrong on DeSantis support for blogger registration

Haley claimed that DeSantis had said “bloggers should have to
register with the state if they’re going to talk about or write about
elected officials.”

“Check your newspaper, it was absolutely there,” she said, suggesting
that there was evidence of DeSantis’ support for the measure.

But there isn’t.

Here’s what happened:

Jason Brodeur, a Republican in the Florida Senate, introduced a bill in
late February that would have required “bloggers” to register with the
government if they were being paid to write about elected officials.

“If a blogger posts to a blog about an elected state officer and
receives, or will receive, compensation for that post, the blogger must
register with the appropriate office,” the bill said.

The bill didn’t get much traction and died in committee in May.

But there was a brief flap over the bill in March, and some news outlets ran articles with pictures of DeSantis and references to him in their headlines. The New Republic, for example, published a story with the headline: “Florida GOP Bill Would Require Bloggers Who Write About Ron DeSantis to Register With the State.”

We couldn’t find any news stories reporting that DeSantis had
supported the bill, but articles with a photo of the governor that
mention him in the headline might give the impression that he was

Actually, though, a spokesman for DeSantis told the Tampa Bay Times on March 3 that the governor would “consider the merits of a bill in final form if and when it passes the Legislature.”

Then, at a press conference on March 7, DeSantis distanced himself further, saying,
“Every person in the legislature can file bills, right? I see these
people filing bills, and then there’s articles with my face on the
article saying that … bloggers are going to have to register for the
state and it’s, like, attributing it to me. And I’m like, OK, that’s not
anything that I’ve ever supported, I don’t support.”

“I don’t control every single bill that’s been filed,” DeSantis said.

Fact-checkers at the Associated Press and Reuters addressed this issue at the time.

So, Haley was wrong about DeSantis’ support for the measure, and there have been news articles about the issue since March.

DeSantis distorts Haley comment on immigration

In yet another disagreement on Haley’s policy positions, DeSantis
claimed she had said “there should be no limits on legal immigration and
that corporate CEOs should set the policy.” Haley interjected, “That’s
not true.”

DeSantis, who has made this claim before,
is distorting Haley’s comment. She didn’t say there should be “no
limits”; she said legal immigration should be based on “merit” rather
than a quota.

At a Nov. 2 town hall in New Hampshire, Haley said:
“So for too long, Republican and Democrat presidents dealt with
immigration based on a quota. We’ll take X number this year. We’ll take X
number next year. The debate is on the number. It’s the wrong way to
look at it. We need to do it based on merit. We need to go to our
industries and say: ‘What do you need that you don’t have?’ So think
agriculture, think tourism, think tech. We want the talent that’s going
to make us better. Then you bring people in that can fill those needs.”

The U.S. has an “alphabet soup of visa categories” for legal immigration, the Migration Policy Institute explains.
“Family relationships, ties to employers, or the need for humanitarian
protection are the top channels for immigrants seeking temporary or
permanent U.S. residence. And to a lesser extent, people can come if
they possess sought-after skills or are selected in the green-card
lottery. Visa categories have varying requirements, are subject to
different numerical caps, and offer differing rights and
responsibilities,” MPI says.

Christie spins his support of transgender students

Moderator Kelly asked Christie about his support for transgender
students against the wishes of parents while he was governor of New
Jersey. Christie did sign a bill in 2017 providing protections for
transgender students. But the specific guidelines were not issued until after he left office.

“When you were governor in 2017, you signed a law that required new
guidelines for schools dealing with transgender students. Those
guidelines required schools to accept a child’s preferred gender
identity, even if the minor’s parents objected,” Kelly said. “And it
said there is no duty for schools to notify parents if their son or
daughter changes their gender identity, allowing the serious issue to
remain a secret between the school and the child. How is any of that
pro-parental rights?”

Christie responded, “That’s simply not true. That law was put into
effect in 2018 and regulated in 2018, after I was out of office. … We
did not issue those guidelines and you’re wrong about that, simply
wrong.” He added, “I stood up every single time for parents to be able
to make the decisions for their minor children.”

Christie, who served as New Jersey governor from 2010 to 2018, signed a law in
July 2017 that required the state’s education commissioner to develop
guidelines to provide protections for transgender students. But the
guidelines themselves were issued in late September 2018, after Christie had left office.

The law, NJ S3067,
said the guidelines would “provide direction for schools in addressing
common issues concerning the needs of transgender students, and to
assist schools in establishing policies and procedures that ensure a
supportive and nondiscriminatory environment for transgender students.”

The law said the guidelines should address “confidentiality and
privacy concerns, including ensuring that school personnel do not
disclose information that may reveal a student’s transgender status
except as allowed by law, and advising schools to work with the student
to create an appropriate confidentiality plan regarding the student’s
transgender or transitioning status.”

At the time, Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, said the organization was “pleasantly surprised”
by Christie’s signing of the transgender student bill. Christie had
previously said policies concerning transgender students should be
decided by school districts, and he didn’t support statewide “edicts” on
the matter, Politico reported.

The guidelines issued in September 2018 said, “A school district
shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is
not required.”

Ramaswamy’s ‘reasonable peace deal’ for Ukraine

Christie derided Ramaswamy’s plan for ending Russia’s war in Ukraine,
saying it would concede to Russia “all the land they’ve already stolen”
and keep Ukraine from joining NATO (although Christie misspoke, saying
the plan would keep Ukraine out of Russia). In exchange, Christie said,
Ramaswamy would trust Russian President Vladimir Putin “not to have a
relationship with China.”

Ramaswamy shot back, “That’s not my deal.”

But it seems to be a mostly accurate synopsis of what Ramaswamy had
proposed in June and refers to as the “reasonable peace deal.”

Ramaswamy appeared on the June 1 episode of Kim Iversen’s podcast, which has a history of promoting conspiracy theories. There, he gave a preview of his proposed peace deal, which he then rolled out during a speech in New Hampshire.

“Here’s the deal that we can do with Putin,” Ramaswamy said in his speech.
“We will stop providing aid to Ukraine; we will freeze the current
lines of control, that means he gets the Donbas region, it means he gets
the Crimea; and we will make a permanent commitment to tell Ukraine
that you will not be admitted to NATO — not now, not ever. Those are big
concessions to Russia. But we have a big ask in return — that you will
exit your treaty with China.”

The treaty to which he is referring is the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, which was first signed in 2001 and extended in 2021.

According to a paper from
the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the agreement followed a
border dispute and “set forth a bilateral relationship based on ‘mutual
respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ noninterference in
internal affairs, equality, and mutual benefit.” 

So, it’s true that Ramaswamy had proposed a plan to end the war in
Ukraine by allowing Russia to keep all the land it has taken and
preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. Christie was less clear — but
broadly accurate — when he described what Russia would have to give up
in exchange, although Christie clearly would not trust Putin to end
Russia’s relationship with China.

Haley wasn’t ‘bankrupt’ when leaving the U.N.

While making an allegation that Haley is “corrupt,” Ramaswamy wrongly said that Haley was “bankrupt when you left the U.N.”

Ramaswamy: Nikki, you were bankrupt when you left
the U.N. After you left the U.N. you became a military contractor. You
actually started joining service on the board of Boeing whose back you
scratched for a very long time and then gave foreign multinational
speeches like Hillary Clinton is and now you’re a multimillionaire. That
math does not add up. It adds up to the fact that you are corrupt.

Like a lot of politicians, Haley went on the lecture circuit after leaving office, and joined the board of a major corporation, in her case the Boeing Company. But she said she and her husband did not go bankrupt.

“First of all, we were not bankrupt when I left the U.N.,” Haley
said. “We’re people of service. My husband is in the military, and I
served our country as U.N. ambassador and governor. It may be bankrupt
to him, but it certainly wasn’t bankrupt to us.”

When Haley left the U.N. after just two years, there was some speculation that she did so for financial reasons. Money Magazine wrote that her 2018 financial disclosure form, which she filed in May 2018 and covered the preceding calendar year,
showed she and her husband had a mortgage, credit card debt and a line
of credit that put her total indebtedness in the range of $525,000 to
$1.1 million.

At the time, Haley’s spokesperson released a statement that said:
“Their current debt level is well below $500,000, and it had no bearing
whatsoever on Ambassador Haley’s decision to leave her position.”

So, Haley left office with some level of debt, but we could find no evidence that she and her husband filed for bankruptcy.

DeSantis on COVID-19 vaccines for young kids

DeSantis, who has argued against COVID-19
vaccination in Florida, particularly for younger people, falsely
claimed that there was no basis for the FDA to authorize the shots for

“You also have the FDA approving an mNRA shot for 6-months-old
babies,” he said, incorrectly referring to the mRNA, or messenger RNA,
design of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. “There was no data
to support that. They’re doing it because Big Pharma will make money.”

The FDA first authorized COVID-19
vaccines on an emergency basis for children down to 6 months on June
17, 2022, based on the results of clinical trials conducted in young
children. As is standard for
vaccines, the testing in young children followed testing in adults and
older children. This step-down approach helps ensure any safety issues
are caught first in adults.

For safety, the clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine included about
4,800 vaccinated kids, while the Pfizer trial included about 3,000
vaccinated kids. Both companies tested their vaccines in two age
subgroups, one of which was a group for ages 6 months to 2 years.

The primary way the vaccines were evaluated for effectiveness was
through a so-called immunobridging approach, in which young children
were tested for their antibody responses to the vaccines. If their
antibody levels were similar to those of young adults who had received
the adult dose, and a similar proportion of children mounted an antibody
response, then it is inferred that the vaccine works in younger
children. Both vaccines met the criteria for effectiveness using this

The companies also reported traditional efficacy numbers for
preventing symptomatic disease from their randomized controlled trials.

Reviewing all the information, the FDA concluded that the benefits of
the vaccines for young children outweighed the risks. Independent
panels of experts advising the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention agreed. Subsequent safety monitoring has continued to
demonstrate that the vaccines are safe.

Ramaswamy wrong on Jan. 6

In an attack on federal workers, which he collectively called the
“deep state,” Ramaswamy embraced the conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6,
2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job.”

“[I]f you want somebody who’s going to speak truth to power, then
vote for somebody who’s going to speak the truth to you,” he said. “Why
am I the only person on the stage, at least, who can say that Jan. 6 now
does look like it was an inside job?”

Some conservatives have tried to blame
undercover FBI agents for allegedly provoking the pro-Donald Trump
crowd to attack the Capitol that day. But there is no evidence of such a
government conspiracy, and, as we’ve written, FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, unequivocally denied the claim.

“To the extent that there’s a suggestion, for example, that the FBI’s
confidential human sources or FBI employees in some way instigated or
orchestrated Jan. 6 — that’s categorically false,” Wray said at a congressional hearing in November 2022.

The simple fact is that a throng of Trump supporters descended on the
U.S. Capitol convinced by Trump that the election had been stolen.
Trump made false claims about rampant voter fraud months before the Nov.
3, 2020, election, and long after it — including in his falsehood-filled speech at a rally on the day of the riot. (For a timeline, see our article “Road to a Second Impeachment.”)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed
Trump for provoking what he called an act of “terrorism” to prevent
Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, from certifying Joe Biden as winner of the
2020 election.

“They did this because they’d been fed wild falsehoods by the most
powerful man on Earth because he was angry he lost an election,”
McConnell said
in a floor speech on Feb. 13, 2021. “Former President Trump’s actions
[that] preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of


  • As he did in the second debate — and using a term that some advocacy groups say should
    be avoided — Ramaswamy incorrectly said that “transgenderism is a
    mental health disorder.” Being transgender is not a mental illness, but
    some trans people experience gender dysphoria, which is a diagnosis in
    the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It refers to
    intense distress over the mismatch between a person’s sex and their
    gender identity. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the
    diagnosis requires “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
  • In once again calling “the climate change agenda … a hoax,” Ramaswamy also repeated two of his favorite cherry-picked climate stats —
    that there’s been a “98% reduction in the climate disaster-related
    deaths in the last century,” and that eight times as many people
    currently die of cold temperatures than warm ones. Both statements are
    true, at least according to some data, but they don’t mean that
    continuing to warm the planet by burning fossil fuels and emitting
    greenhouse gases is a good idea. Climate change is expected to have
    numerous negative impacts, including on human health.