I had 24 to 25 hours of private meetings with him when I was vice president, I traveled 17,000 miles with him. I know him very well.
Biden, in a meeting with Norah ODonnell from CBS News, February 7
I spent more time with Xi Jinping, at least before we left, than any world leader. I have traveled 17,000 miles with him, the President of China. we have traveled all over the world together, to the United States and China.
During his recent town hall on CNN, President Biden made a number of false allegations and claims. He suggested that racehorse owners receive tax breaks worth $ 9 billion, almost enough to pay for free community college attendance, a claim that left tax experts scratch their heads. He said the minimum wage of $ 7.25 set in 2009 would be worth $ 20 if indexed to inflation, a statement that only makes sense if you measure from 1968. He wrongly stated that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants were not Hispanic.
We were interested in the claim that he had traveled 17,000 miles with Chinese President Xi Jinping. We first noticed it when the president was interviewed by Norah ODonnell, but it looked like typical Biden messy. After that, it didn’t make much sense because world leaders don’t often travel together. But then he repeated it. While researching the question, we discovered that he also used the same phrase during the presidential election campaign and the same number even before that.
When a politician says the same thing at least three times, it cannot be ignored as a verbal stumble. What is Biden talking about?
Biden is rightly proud of his long relationships with many world leaders. He came into office with a list of overseas contacts unmatched by any predecessor since George HW Bush, also a two-term former vice president. Prior to being elected vice president, Biden served as chairman or a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for more than two decades.
Under the Obama administration, it became clear that Xi, then vice president, was on his way to becoming China’s next ruler. He was largely a mystery to US officials, so Biden was given the task of knowing him.
In 2011, Biden traveled to china and over the course of three days, met Xi in various settings. They had a bilateral meeting and an official dinner in Beijing on August 18, co-hosted a business dialogue on August 19, and then visited Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, as well as a high school around 80 km in an area where a 2008 earthquake had 86,000 dead or missing. They also had a long dinner together in Chengdu. Then Biden flew to Mongolia.
In 2012, Xi visited the United States. On February 14, Biden and Xi gathered at the White House for meetings, including with President Barack Obama, had lunch at the State Department, held a business roundtable, and finally had dinner at the residence of the vice-presidents of the Naval Observatory. Xi then traveled elsewhere in the United States, including Iowa, before arriving in Los Angeles. Biden flew to Los Angeles to meet Xi on February 17; they had dinner, among other events.
It’s certainly an impressive amount of face time with Xi. But Bidens’ number of miles kept us puzzled until our riddle was painful.
As far as we can judge, the only time Biden and Xi seem to have traveled together is when they visited Qingchengshan High School in Dujiangyan. In theory, one could add in the journey from Beijing to Chengdu, a distance of about 1000 miles. But when Xi arrived in the United States, Biden and Xi didn’t even follow a parallel route to Los Angeles.
We found a clue as to what Biden was trying to say when we searched for as many archival transcripts as we could and found a statement Biden made at a Hillary Clinton campaign event on November 4, 2016: Because former President of China and President Obama seven years ago, I thought we should get to know each other, I drove 17,000 miles through his country and our country for nine days.
A White House official admitted that Bidens’ travel line with Xi was not accurate. This was a reference to the total number of round trips both within the United States and to China, as well as internationally for the meetings they held together, a he declared. Some trips were made in parallel, others separately to common destinations.
Try as best we could, however, we still couldn’t get the trip to add up to 17,000 miles.
If you take the 2016 Bidens formulation of internal trips to China and the United States, here are the numbers.
- Flight distance from Beijing to Chengdu: 950 miles
- Round trip between Chengdu and Dujiangyan: 100 miles
- Flight distance from Washington to Los Angeles: 2300 miles
It’s only about 3,300 miles. It drops to 5600 if you decide to add the Bidens round trip flight from LA. It’s still 17,000 miles away.
During this time, the flight distance from Washington to Beijing is 6,900 miles, or approximately 14,000 miles round trip. So adding two trips to Bidens to see Xi would add 28,000 miles in total.
The White House has not explained how Biden calculated 17,000 miles. But clearly, this is a number he deems important enough to be repeated often.
We requested a comment from the Chinese Embassy, but received no response.
The Pinocchio test
Some readers may object that this is of no consequence. Biden, you might say, uses the phrase to travel together in a more expansive sense of flying to meet in various places. Moreover, his larger point is undisputed that he once spent an unusually long time with Xi for someone who has just taken office.
So Bidens’ contention is not completely tissue-wide. He met Xi in various cities in China and the United States, in some cases traveling significant distances.
But numbers are numbers. Biden is using a figure that cannot be deceptively verified. He rightly notes that he has spent hours in private talks with Xi, including outside capitals, on different occasions. It’s substantial bragging rights that make his apparent need to gild the lily with an invented figure so confusing.
The president wins three pinocchios.
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