A common refrain of Donald Trump’s criticisms of the war in Iraq has been that the United States should have repaid itself for the costs of the invasion by seizing the country’s oil. In some iterations of the argument, Trump suggests that the revenue from the oil then be given to American troops who were injured in combat. (See this August “Meet the Press” transcript, for example.)
During a rally on Tuesday night in North Carolina, Trump took the argument in a different direction.
“Remember this,” he said of the war in Iraq. “When we got out, we should have taken the oil. Most of the pundits — they don’t have the brains they were born with — they said, ‘They’re talking about a sovereign country!’ Iraq. Crooked as hell,” he said with disdain.
Then he pivoted to a controversial practice employed by the government during the rebuilding period, in which pallets of cash largely drawn from Iraqi government accounts in the United States were flown to Baghdad. Over time, the total added up to billions of dollars — $12 billion to $14 billion, according to the New York Times; 363 tons of cash, per the Guardian — in shrink-wrapped bundles of $100 bills. It was sent to Iraq with the intent that the money be used to help introduce some liquidity into the local economy and to use as a form of petty cash. An investigation from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, SIGIR, found that a large portion of the money had gone missing. (More than a billion later turned up in a bunker in Lebanon.)
“How about bringing baskets of money, millions and millions of dollars, and handing it out,” Trump said Tuesday night. “I want to know: Who were the soldiers that had that job? Because I think they’re living very well right now, whoever they may be.” Update: The Guardian's Ben Jacobs reported that Trump made a similar argument in New Hampshire last September.
Trump’s use of the word “soldiers” immediately prompted questions about the people to whom he was referring. Was he accusing U.S. soldiers of having dipped into the cash, enriching themselves in the process? Ben Kesling, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a Marine veteran, heard it that way.
A presidential candidate just accused me and thousands of other troops of embezzlement while in a combat zone. https://t.co/Seiu5P0KcB
— Ben Kesling (@bkesling) June 15, 2016
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks told NBC’s Alexandra Jaffe that Trump wasn’t disparaging U.S. troops, but was instead referring to “Iraqi soldiers.”
But in this case, Trump’s statement as interpreted had some basis in fact. There were a number of U.S. troops that were convicted of having skimmed off of the top during the rebuilding effort, having pocketed part of those stashes of cash.
Some of that took the form of setting aside fuel shipments for resale to locals, as Slate detailed in a lengthy report last year. Some took the form of bribes. In some cases, troops sold supplies or ordered substandard (and therefore cheaper) equipment.
And in some cases, they took cash. Capt. Michael Dung Nguyen, a graduate of West Point, was one of those put in charge of routing cash sent from the United States to security forces and projects near Baghdad. In 2009, he was indicted for “packing cash into boxes and mailing them to his family’s home in Beaverton, Ore.,” as the Los Angeles Times reported that year. In total, Nguyen made off with an estimated $690,000, but he was not then “living very well.” In March 2010, Nguyen was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.
In 2011, the Associated Press detailed other examples of cash moving from Iraq back to the United States. One Marine apparently stuffed $43,000 into a foot locker alongside some American flags for shipment home.
Some of the cash distributed by U.S. forces did go to partners in Iraq, so some of it was probably redirected to unintended purposes once it left U.S. control. In that sense, Trump’s revised statement is also probably accurate; that we don’t know how all of it was spent means that there was almost certainly an element of corruption involved. Overall, SIGIR estimates that at least $8 billion was wasted in the rebuilding effort.
It’s critical to note that Nguyen and any others who took cash from the pile were in the small minority. Corbin Reiff, an Army veteran who writes about music for a number of publications, expressed his frustration with Trump’s comments on Twitter. (The thread begins here; we’ve compacted it below for legibility.)
I spent five years, from 2006-2011 as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army.
— Corbin Reiff (@CorbinReiff) June 15, 2016
When I deployed to Iraq in 2009 I was made Non Commissioned Officer in Charge of Foreign Claims for the entirety of Western Baghdad. That’s an area that covers roughly 5 million people. I was 21 years old and will admit, very much in over my head. My job for a whole year was to assess damage to Iraqi citizen’s property, and person and compensate them monetarily. So if a helicopter dropped a flare and burned a kid, or an MRAP ran into a generator or someone's goat while on patrol or we killed someone in the line of fire, it was my job to make it right. ...
Every mission out into the city carried with it tremendous risk, but we had a job to do, and forcibly put that out of our minds. In the course of my job, I was entrusted with a lot of taxpayer money, all in American cash. As a result, we instantly became a high value target for insurgents who wanted to relieve us of said cash at one of our weekly gatherings. [Donald Trump], a man who never served in any capacity said this about me and my brethren that served in Iraq. ...
In my time overseas, the procedures that were put in place to prevent that from happening were frustratingly thorough. The idea that Trump would call out the integrity of those who answered the call of service and deployed to a war zone is repellant.
This is the problem for Trump: His efforts to position himself as an opponent of the war in Iraq — and, therefore, of Hillary Clinton’s support for it — have been a bit spotty, often centering on the false claim that he was demonstrably opposed to the war at the outset.
This incident is a reminder that there’s also little political benefit in criticizing the U.S. military, and certainly no benefit in appearing to smear members of the armed forces haphazardly. A politician doesn’t want to find himself in the position of having to explain that, no, he wasn't implying that U.S. troops were thieves.