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Donald Trump and Iraq: Not loud, not strong, and no headlines

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee

February 25, 2016 at 3:00 AM

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

"I was totally against the war in Iraq."

–Donald Trump, NBC's forum on national security, Sept. 7, 2016

Donald Trump has said — and said he has said — a lot of things about the Iraq War. Since he entered the presidential race, Trump has touted his early opposition to the war in 2003 prior to the invasion, demonstrating his wisdom and foresight. Trump even claimed that the Bush White House approached him prior to the invasion to ask him to tone down his rhetoric – a wildly unsupported claim that received Four Pinocchios.

Still, Trump continues to say he made "headlines" in 2003 and 2004 with his early opposition. He certainly made headlines in 2004, but there's no sign that Trump opposed the invasion or was vocal about it prior to the invasion.

In light of new evidence surfaced by BuzzFeed News and FactCheck.org, and since Trump insists his early opposition in 2003 that made "headlines," we wanted to provide our readers a detailed compilation of his statements about Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq War leading up to the March 2003 invasion and through 2003. All of Trump's statements are in Italics.

The Facts

July 2001: Trump announced his plan to build a 78-story skyscraper called Trump Tower Chicago at the Chicago Sun-Times building site.

Sept. 11, 2001: World Trade Centers and the Pentagon are attacked. After the attacks, people began worrying about skyscrapers and believed other tall buildings in major cities could be at jeopardy for future attacks. Responding to those fears, Trump scaled down the construction and reduced the size of the tower.

Spring 2002: Much of Trump's interviews in 2002 centered on his Atlantic City business deals, Miss America pageants or the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Trump was asked a handful of other times about the terrorist attacks, but only in the context of the rebuilding of the site.

In the spring, there were discussions of what to do with the former site of the twin towers. Trump was interviewed on TV shows for his opinion on future plans for the site. Here are two examples of his comments about the rebuilding effort:

"The World Trade Center, as you know, was not great architecture until September. After September, we all look at it and say it was so incredible. I don't think you will see height that you had at World Trade Center. … I don't think there is a market for office space. It will be years before you fill it. … Most importantly, they will build a memorial, which will be an important one I think, and I hope." (March 4, 2002)

"The World Trade Center before Sept. 11 was never considered great architecture. On Sept. 11 everyone said the greatest and unbelievable. Even looking back now, say boy, those buildings were magnificent. But they were never appreciated before Sept. 11. I don't think you'll ever see that again." (March 11, 2002)

Aug. 26, 2002: Vice President Richard B. Cheney gives speech in which he declared, "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends … and against us."

Sept. 7, 2002: Trump had a lengthy interview with Fox News host Rita Cosby about the terrorist attacks, security concerns, the post-9/11 economy and the rebuilding effort. If Trump truly was opinionated against the invasion, he didn't mention it at all in this interview.

Sept. 8, 2002: National security adviser Condoleezza Rice appears on television and warns Iraq may be acquiring nuclear weapons: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Sept. 11, 2002: Trump is asked publicly about his stance on the invasion, apparently for the first time. In a recently revealed audio clip of the interview, Trump gives a lukewarm support for the war.

Stern: "Are you for invading Iraq?"
Trump: "Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly."

Sept. 25, 2002: President Bush declares, "You can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."

2003: Trump begins appearing on TV interviews more in 2003, mostly relating to the announcement of his new TV show, "The Apprentice." But there are a few instances where Trump was asked about the coming invasion. There is no sign that Trump made headlines about his vocal Iraq War stance in 2003.

Jan. 28, 2003: In an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, Trump is asked about President George W. Bush's upcoming State of the Union address. Trump says he believes the president will talk about Iraq and the economy, but he believes Americans are more focused on the economy than on Iraq. Trump says Bush should make a decision, "Either you attack or don't attack," but doesn't say whether Bush should. Here's the full transcript:

Cavuto: "If you had to sort of break down for the president, if you were advising him, how much time do you commit to Iraq versus how much time you commit to the economy, what would you say?"
Trump: "Well, I'm starting to think that people are much more focused now on the economy. They are getting a little bit tired of hearing, we're going in, we're not going in, the — you know, whatever happened to the days of the Douglas MacArthur. He would go and attack. He wouldn't talk. We have to — you know, it's sort like either do it or don't do it. When I watch Dan Rather explaining how we are going to be attacking, where we're going to attack, what routes we're taking, what kind of planes we're using, how to stop them, how to stop us, it is a little bit disconcerting. I've never seen this, where newscasters are telling you how — telling the enemy how we're going about it, we have just found out this and that. It is ridiculous."
Cavuto: "Well, the problem right there."
Trump: "Either you attack or you don't attack."
Cavuto: "The problem there, Donald, is you're watching Dan Rather. Maybe you should just be watching Fox."
Trump: "Well, no, I watch Dan Rather, but not necessarily fondly. But I happened to see it the other night. And I must tell you it was rather amazing as they were explaining the different — I don't know if it is fact or if it is fiction, but the concept of a newscaster talking about the routes is — just seems ridiculous. So the point is either you do it or you don't do it, or you — but I just — or if you don't do it, just don't talk about it. When you do it, you start talking about it."
Cavuto: "So you're saying the leash on this is getting kind of short here, that the president has got to do something presumably sooner rather than later and stringing this along could ultimately hurt us."
Trump: "Well, he has either got to do something or not do something, perhaps, because perhaps shouldn't be doing it yet and perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations, you know. He's under a lot of pressure. He's — I think he's doing a very good job. But, of course, if you look at the polls, a lot of people are getting a little tired. I think the Iraqi situation is a problem. And I think the economy is a much bigger problem as far as the president is concerned."

[Update: During the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016, Trump cited this January 2003 Fox News interview as proof of his early opposition. The following, Fox News also cited this clip, declaring it "backs up Trump on Iraq War opposition."

Yet on Feb. 18, 2016, Cavuto replayed the clip and said it wasn't clear Trump was against the war then: "When I interviewed him back in January 2003, couple of months before we formally got involved in Iraq, he could've left you with a different impression."

Cavuto said that in the January 2003 interview, Trump was "not bashing the president back then, nor is he fully endorsing Iraq. But he is saying some clear decision is required." Meghan McCain, appearing in the segment, said in response: "He speaks now though, like he was protesting with Code Pink in the street, like he was adamantly against the war in Iraq. Like he was this huge person in the media stage, protesting against President Bush and going into Iraq."]

Feb. 5, 2003: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell makes the case for military action in front of the United Nations.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

March 16, 2003: Cheney tells NBC, "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."

March 17, 2003: Stocks soared on investor bets that the war with Iraq was imminent and will end quickly.

March 20, 2003: Invasion of Iraq begins. Throughout 2003, Trump is asked about his views on Iraq. He's not clearly outspoken against it.

Trump would go on to explain in 2016 that a Howard Stern interview was the first time he was asked about the war, and claim that by the time the war started in 2003, he was "totally against it." But the evidence isn't there.

March 21, 2003: Trump actually praises the invasion in an interview with Fox News. BuzzFeed News published an audio clip, where Trump says:

"Well, I think Wall Street's waiting to see what happens but even before the fact they're obviously taking it a little bit for granted and it looks like a tremendous success from a military standpoint and I think this is really nothing compared to what you're gonna see after the war is over. … I think Wall Street's just gonna go up like a rocket, even beyond, and it's gonna continue and, you know, we have a strong and powerful country and let's hope it all works out." 

March 25, 2003: Trump is quoted in The Washington Post's coverage of the Oscars after-party.

Donald Trump, with Amazonian beauty Melania Knauss at his side, pronounces on the war and the stock market: "If they keep fighting it the way they did today, they're going to have a real problem."

Looking as pensive as a "Nightline" talking head, the Donald concludes, "The war's a mess," before sweeping off into the crowd.

From April through July 2003, most of Trump's comments relating to events in Iraq deal with his real estate business, and actually praises Bush: (Hat tip to FactCheck.org for some of these findings below.)

April 8, 2003: Reuters reports that Trump is optimistic for his casinos despite the war.

"The economy is not good," he said. "Hopefully after the war it can get better … I think interest rates will stay down for a while, for another year or two; otherwise, the economy will tank."

April 30, 2003: Dow Jones News Service reports net income losses for Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc., in first quarter of 2003.

Trump also said the war in Iraq and the current economy as well as higher insurance costs, utilities and real estate taxes all hurt income from operations and EBITDA for the period.

"With the winter behind us and the war virtually over and possible signs of a strengthening economy, I am confident that we will rebound through the remainder of the year," Trump concluded.

July 1, 2003: Trump on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on MSNBC:

"I think the president is doing a very good job. I would love to see New York City and some of the cities and some of the states get some of the money that's going toward Iraq and other places, because you know, they really need and it they need it badly."

July 24, 2003: The Evening Standard reports that Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts experienced losses in the second quarter of 2003. Trump Hotels says "the war was partly to blame" for its loss in revenues, because it led to a slowdown in gambling.

Sept. 11, 2003: Trump on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country:"

"It wasn't a mistake to fight terrorism and fight it hard, and I guess maybe if I had to do it, I would have fought terrorism but not necessarily Iraq."

November 4, 2003: Trump on "Hardball with Chris Matthews:"

Matthews: What is the economic impact? Is it the cost factor of about $100 billion a year for the military and the rebuilding, is that the cost, or is it psychological?

Trump: Well, I think it's psychological. It is also tremendous amounts of money being pumped into Iraq. I mean, you look at states like New York and California, where they can't afford school systems, and we are giving $87 billion to Iraq and that is just the beginning. So, you know, it is a tremendous cost to this country, what's gone on there, and again, we are getting some very, very unpleasant surprises in Iraq, and hopefully something is going to be done about it quickly.

Dec. 13, 2003: Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein captured by U.S. troops.

Dec. 15, 2003: Trump appears on Fox News:

"Well, look, you have a lot of questions and a lot of people questioning the whole concept of going in, in the first place, Neil. But we are in, we went in, you had to find him. If he was alive, you had to find him. And you know, they fulfilled the pledge of finding Saddam Hussein.… [You have people who are] going to say we shouldn't have been there regardless. And you have others that are saying, well, we are there and we have to do the best. I mean, we are there, regardless of what should have been done."

2004: Trump clearly was outspoken about his opposition starting in 2004, the year he reportedly considered a presidential bid. (Instead, he launched his popular TV series, "The Apprentice.") Trump sharply criticized the war in Iraq in the August 2004 cover story of Esquire magazine, titled  "Donald Trump: How I'd Run the Country (Better)." But by then — 17 months after the invasion — many Americans had turned against the war, making Trump's position not particularly unique.

Trump has repeatedly cited this August 2004 story to support his claim that he was "totally" against the war. In light of his repeated false claim citing this article, Esquire added an editor's note to its August 2004 story. The note reads: "The following story was published in the August 2004 issue of Esquire. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, and he has cited this story as proof. The Iraq War began in March 2003, more than a year before this story ran, thus nullifying Trump's timeline."

February 2016: Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump continues to say that he was against the war from the beginning.

For a brief period in February 2016, however, Trump appeared to be walking back some of the comments about his early opposition. Trump was confronted about his 2002 comments while being interviewed at a CNN town hall on Feb. 18, but his excuse didn't make much sense. Trump explained that he "may have" said he supported invading Iraq:

"When you're in the private sector, you know, you get asked things and, you know, you're not a politician and probably the first time I was asked. By the time the war started, I was against it. And shortly thereafter, I was really against it."

Yet, that didn't jibe with Trump's comments during the Feb. 14, 2016, debate that he opposed the invasion, despite being in the private sector:

"I'm the only one on this stage that said, 'Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.' Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn't a politician, fortunately. But I said it, and I said it loud and clear, 'You'll destabilize the Middle East.' That's exactly what happened."

And after February 2016, Trump continued to falsely claim that he opposed the invasion from the beginning.

The Pinocchio Test

As our timeline shows, Trump was not "totally" against the Iraq War. Trump expressed lukewarm support the first time he was asked about it on Sept. 11, 2002, and was not clearly against it until he was quoted in the August 2004 Esquire cover story. (We even made a video documenting how this is a bogus claim.) Yet he repeatedly claims he opposed the war from the beginning — and thus, earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a national political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post.

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