This story has been updated.
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — To explain his support for waterboarding and other heavy-handed interrogation tactics, Donald Trump told a rally audience a story Friday night that involved U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing, a terrorist attack in the Philippines more than a century ago, 50 terrorists and bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.
It’s a tale that has circulated on the Internet for years — and is most likely not true.
The story came up as Trump reiterated his support for waterboarding, the advanced interrogation technique that the Obama administration considers torture and has ceased using. Earlier this week, Trump said he supports this controversial method, along with those that are “much worse,” because “torture works.” Proponents of waterboarding have long been careful to not label it as torture, which is strictly forbidden by U.S. and international law.
“The big question is: Is it torture or not?” Trump said at a rally at a convention center here, the night before the South Carolina primary. “It’s so borderline. It’s like your minimal, minimal, minimal torture.”
Trump criticized his Republican rivals for not embracing waterboarding as enthusiastically as he has, which he says sends the wrong message to terrorists who use barbaric techniques like chopping off the heads of their foes.
“You know, I read a story — it’s a terrible story, but I’ll tell you,” Trump said. “Should I tell you? Or should I not?”
As the crowd cheered him on, Trump told them about Pershing — “rough guy, rough guy” — who was fighting terrorism in the early 1900s. Trump didn't say where this happened, but variations of this story online usually state that it happened in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War — part of the island nation's protracted battle for independence — early in Pershing’s career.
“They were having terrorism problems, just like we do,” Trump said. “And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood — you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.”
At one point in telling this story, Trump said: “By the way, this is something you can read in the history books — not a lot of history books because they don’t like teaching this.”
Although Trump never used the word “Muslim” in this story, he was clearly referring to Muslim terrorists and at one point commented: “There’s a whole thing with swine and animals and pigs, and — you know the story, you know they don’t like that.” Pigs are deemed impure by the Koran.
Trump finished the story with this message: “So we better start getting tough, and we better start getting vigilant, and we better start using our heads, or we’re not going to have a country, folks. We’re not going to have a country.”
A guy in the audience then shouted: “This is the greatest country in the world.”
While the story was well received by the cheering audience, it appears to be more of a military fable than a history lesson. The website snopes.com — which investigates urban legends, myths, rumors and pretty much anything forwarded in a chain email — could find little proof that the story is true.
There are several versions of the tale circulating, including one in which the prisoners were buried with dead pigs. The pigs’ blood on the bullets, according to at least one version, would keep a Muslim from entering heaven.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations denounced Trump's remarks Saturday in a sharply worded statement that accused the billionaire of inciting anti-Muslim attacks. The group has frequently tussled with Trump over anti-Muslim rhetoric, including Trump's call to temporary prevent all Muslims from entering the country.
"Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric has crossed the line from spreading hatred to inciting violence," said Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR. "By directly stating that the only way to stop terrorism is to murder Muslims in graphic and religiously-offensive ways, he places the millions of innocent, law-abiding citizens in the American Muslim community at risk from rogue vigilantes."
Republican presidential rival Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) called the story "bizarre" and questioned its historical authenticity.
"I'm sure people are offended — I hope people are offended by that. That's not what the United States is about," Rubio said on NBC's "Today" show on Saturday morning. "Look, we're in a very weird year here. And obviously things are going on, people are saying whatever they want in politics today and there seems to be no accountability."
"The presidency is a serious job … and so I hope we can get this campaign back focused on the serious aspect of it and not the circus aspect of it," Rubio added.
Trump’s campaign had yet to respond to a request for comment Saturday afternoon.
The real estate mogul found himself mired in multiple controversies in the days leading to Saturday's South Carolina primary. On Friday, he called for a boycott of Apple products over the tech firm's refusal to assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters. On Thursday, he had sharp words for Pope Francis after the holy leader seemingly condemned Trump's calls to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The billionaire tweeted a message Saturday morning that knocked President Obama for not attending Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's funeral — and echoed past statements made by himself and others questioning the president's Christian faith.
"I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque? Very sad that he did not go!" Trump tweeted.
DelReal reported from Greenville, S.C.