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Donald Trump’s baseless claim that the Bush White House tried to ‘silence’ his Iraq War opposition in 2003

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

“We should have never gone into Iraq. I’ve said it loud and clear. I was visited by people from the White House asking me to sort of, could I be silenced because I seem to get a disproportionate amount of publicity. I mean, I was very strong, though: ‘You’re going to destabilize the Middle East.’”

— Businessman Donald Trump, interview on Fox News, Oct. 6, 2015

“You know, I was the one, and I said it very strongly, and you know this, and it was reported by everybody, because unfortunately, I get a disproportionate amount of publicity. But in 2004, I said, ‘Don’t go into Iraq,’ and earlier, 2003, ‘Don’t go into Iraq. You’re going to totally destabilize the Middle East.’”

— Trump, interview on CNN, Oct. 6, 2015

“I said going into Iraq — that was in 2003 — you can check it out, check out — I’ll give you 25 different stories. In fact, a delegation was sent to my office to see me because I was so vocal about it. I’m a very militaristic person, but you have to know when to use the military. I’m the only person up here that fought against going into Iraq. I think it is very important. I think it is important because it is about judgment. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. It is about judgment. Because what I said, ‘You’re going to destabilize the Middle East,’ and that’s what happened.”

— Trump, GOP debate on CNN, Sept. 16, 2015

This Trump brag line goes like this: He had the vision and foresight to oppose the Iraq War ahead of the invasion in 2003. His opposition was so vocal, and his reach so great, that the White House approached him and asked him to tone it down.

Really? We examined the slim evidence.

The Facts

At The Fact Checker, we place the burden of proof on the speaker. Trump has not responded to repeated requests by us or other media outlets for proof of his early opposition to the invasion.

Military action began on March 20, 2003. An extensive review of 2003 news coverage prior to March 20 surfaced just two references of Trump and his views on the invasion, as BuzzFeed News found during the GOP debate. The Huffington Post also wrote an analysis of Trump’s Iraq claims during the GOP debate, and again after Trump’s claims in October. There was a two-sentence reference in a March 25, 2003, article 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.

Then, Trump said on Fox News during the weekend after the invasion: “I think the market’s going to go up like a rocket!”

There were two other references in 2003 after the invasion that tangentially were related to Trump and the Iraq War. On April 1, 2003, the New York Post wrote of a “glitzy dinner” and a Paul Anka concert that Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. Anka dedicated his concert to Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and American soldiers, and at one point received “thunderous applause” when he asked the crowd of 500 “well-heeled” guests: “Isn’t George W. doing a marvelous job?”

In a July 24, 2003, business news round-up compiled by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc., announced second-quarter revenue losses, in part due to decreased demand among gamblers after the Iraq invasion.

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.

On the campaign trail, Trump has pointed several times to a July 2004 Reuters article as proof he opposed the war from the outset. The Reuters article is a preview of the August 2004 Esquire cover story. Trump wrote in a Sept. 8, 2015, op-ed in USA Today that he “was against the war from the very beginning, all the way back in 2004.” When he recounted this a week later during the GOP debate, 2004 had turned to 2003 and there even was a White House meeting.

There is no documented evidence that White House officials met with Trump to ask him to tone down his anti-war rhetoric. We requested information from Trump’s spokeswoman several times, and asked for any details that could show when and with whom this meeting may have taken place. The campaign did not provide any information.

So we checked with former senior White House officials. None of the dozen people we contacted directly or through former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer could recall a meeting with Trump, concerns about his opposition, or even Trump’s views being on their radar prior to the Esquire article.

Karl Rove, Bush’s influential senior adviser at the time, told The Fact Checker:

“I have no recollection of any such outreach and believe it unlikely any White House staffer visited Mr. Trump.
There is no evidence Mr. Trump spoke against the Iraq War while the Congress was debating the Authorization of the Use of Force resolution in September and October 2002, nor any evidence he spoke against it after Congress voted and before military action began March 20, 2003.
When Mr. Trump was first quoted in opposition to the war in the August 2004 Esquire — nearly 23 months after the Congressional vote and roughly 17 months after the war began — President Bush was engaged in a tough re-election battle against Sen. John Kerry and Mr. Trump’s late-forming opinions would have mattered little to the debate.”

Barry Jackson, another former Bush senior aide, said: “I have no recollection of anyone from the White House contacting Mr. Trump about the invasion. Not aware of it, never heard anybody doing it. So I’m not sure where this would come from.”

Of course, it is possible, though not probable, that a junior-level staffer — or maybe an outside adviser known to be close to the president — informally spoke with Trump. But that would be inconsistent with Trump’s characterization that the White House sent a “delegation” so he can “be silenced.”

“I don’t recall him saying much of anything until 2004 — way after the debate to authorize force took place and way after the war began. If he chimed in when it mattered, I don’t recall it,” Fleischer said. “I also think if his staff can’t name who he says the White House sent to him, then perhaps his memory is faulty.”

[Update: On Sept. 11, 2002, Trump actually said he supported the invasion. Buzzfeed released an audio clip on Feb. 18, 2016, of the Trump interview with Howard Stern.  Stern asks: “Are you for invading Iraq?” Trump answers: “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly.”

When asked about the recording, 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.”

Further, another recording obtained by Buzzfeed casts further doubt on Trump’s assertion that he opposed the invasion in 2003.

The newly published audio recording is an interesting twist to Trump’s long-held assertion that he opposed the Iraq War ahead of the invasion in 2003. Still, Trump continues to repeat his false claim that his opposition made “headlines” in 2003. In an interview with Fox News, which appears to be the same interview we cited in our fact-check, Trump called the invasion “a tremendous success from a military standpoint”:

“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.”

For more, check out our complete timeline of Trump’s comments prior to 2004.]

The Pinocchio Test

We use a reasonable person standard at The Fact Checker. Without having attended the alleged White House meeting, we are left with Trump’s account and those who may have known of such an event. Trump did not respond to our requests, and a dozen former White House officials could not recall such an outreach taking place.

There is scant media coverage of his supposed opposition ahead of the Iraq War, though he claims there are “25 different stories.” There is no evidence the White House sent a “delegation” out of concern over his “vocal” opposition, though he publicly said at least twice that it happened. Trump has made no effort to clarify his statements or prove he was telling the truth, after repeating this claim to millions of debate watchers and in subsequent TV interviews.

We previously awarded Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Four Pinocchios for making an incendiary claim about Mitt Romney’s taxes without any evidence to back it up. We hold Trump to the same standard. The burden of proof is on Trump, and he has not followed through. He earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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