Then he offered this aside.
"Everyone who helped clear the rubble -- and I was there, and I watched, and I helped a little bit -- but I want to tell you: Those people were amazing," Trump said. "Clearing the rubble. Trying to find additional lives. You didn't know what was going to come down on all of us -- and they handled it."
That modifier "a little bit" does a lot of work: Did he mean he picked up a few chunks of concrete? Sent staff to assist? It's not clear.
Particularly coming in the middle of an exposition of the courage of first responders, Trump's statement that he "helped a little bit" is an interesting one. The implication is clear: Trump was helping to clear the rubble, worried that damaged buildings surrounding the site were going to topple over "on all of us." In a normal context, Trump would seem to be asking the listener to offer him some of the credit he's giving to those that were on the scene. In the context of a presidential campaign? That becomes more fraught.
Donald Trump unquestionably went to Ground Zero after the attacks. New York Newsday reported on an appearance the previous day in its Sept. 14 paper.
The workers are so worn out that they barely glance at the sight of Donald Trump, every hair in place and impeccably dressed in a black suit, pressed white shirt and red tie, walking into the plaza with his cellular phone to his ear."No, no. The building's gone," he says into the phone.
A blogger spotted him the same day on West Street, which runs along the western edge of the site. That appears to be where Trump conducted an interview with German news media that day.
The reporter at one point asks, "Will you be involved, will you take any efforts, any steps to reconstruct the area?"
"Well, I have a lot of men down here right now," Trump replies, apparently misunderstanding the reporter's question. "We have over 100 and we have about 125 coming. So we'll have a couple of hundred people down here."
Trump also says that he "just went to what they call 'Ground Zero'" as the interview begins. His hair is a bit more unkempt than is the norm, but his suit doesn't appear too mussed.
Beyond that, most of the contemporaneous news reports about Trump and Ground Zero are reports about Trump's vision for the site once rebuilt. A week after the attacks, Trump led the New York Post's Page Six gossip column.
"At first, Donald Trump didn’t want to talk about the terrible events that have changed our city’s skyline more than anything the mega-developer has ever erected," it begins. "But yesterday, we did talk on the phone about what should happen at the site of the World Trade Center." Trump's vision is that "what goes up there should be a form of memorial to the dead." There's no mention of his assisting at the site.
Trump has mentioned the attacks in other contexts on the campaign trail. The Daily Beast looked at his claims that he'd lost "hundreds of friends" in the attacks, which seems fairly obviously hyperbolic. And, of course, there was his infamous assertion that he watched Muslims in New Jersey celebrating as the buildings fell. That claim has been repeatedly debunked.
We reached out to the Trump campaign for an explanation of what Trump was referring to when he said he "helped." If we receive a response, we'll add it.