Of all the myths of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, few are as enduring as his claim to have opposed the war in Iraq from its inception. Trump used his alleged opposition to the invasion as a bludgeon in the Republican primary, tearing down challengers such as Jeb Bush and positioning himself as a prescient foreign policy thinker. Since winning the nomination, he's repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton for supporting the war. And he again insisted that he opposed the invasion during Monday's presidential debate.
The problem is that there's no evidence that Trump voiced his opposition to the war like he says he did; the only statements he gave prior to the invasion were supportive of it. And his own explanations of his position have in turn opened up even more contradictions in his record.
Here's a quick guide to Trump's various position on the war:
"I'm no warmonger. But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion. When we don't, we have the worst of all worlds: Iraq remains a threat, and now has more incentive than ever to attack us." (Trump's 2000 book, The America We Deserve)
"Yeah, I guess so; I wish the first time it was done correctly." (Interview with Howard Stern, 2002)
"Either you attack or you don't attack." (Interview with Neil Cavuto, 2003)
"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." (Same interview)
"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." (Fox News, one day into the 2003 invasion)
"Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we're in. I would never have handled it that way. Does anybody really believe that Iraq is going to be a wonderful democracy where people are going to run down to the voting box and gently put in their ballot and the winner is happily going to step up to lead the county? C'mon. Two minutes after we leave, there's going to be a revolution, and the meanest, toughest, smartest, most vicious guy will take over. And he'll have weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam didn't have." (Esquire, 2004)
"How do they get out? You know how they get out? They get out. That's how they get out. Declare victory and leave. Because I'll tell you, this country is just going to get further bogged down. They're in a civil war over there, Wolf. There's nothing that we're going to be able to do with a civil war. They are in a major civil war." (CNN, 2007)
Trump's evolution on Iraq tracks closely with that of many Americans. As the Washington Post has pointed out, his public criticism of the invasion coincided with the broader shift in American public opinion on the war's conduct. But as he mounted his bid for the presidency, Trump began to tell a very different story—that of a lone truth-teller. Last September he said that his debate audience could find "25 different stories" on his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, and he introduced a new bit of drama that had not been disclosed previously: Trump's vocal criticism of the march to war in the press had so unnerved President George W. Bush that he sent a delegation to Trump Tower to calm him down.
"We should have never gone into Iraq," he told Fox News in 2015. "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: 'You're going to destabilize the Middle East.'"
At a Republican debate in February, he reiterated his position, bragging that his outspoken statements of dissent were particularly noteworthy because he was only a private citizen. "I'm the only one on this stage that said, 'Do not go into Iraq, do not attack Iraq,'" Trump said. "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."
But when he was confronted with his 2002 comments on Howard Stern (Stern: "Are you for invading Iraq?" Trump: "Yeah, I guess") later that month, Trump seemed at a loss. "I really don’t even know what I mean because that was a long time ago and who knows what was in my head," he told Chuck Todd.
Trump continued to talk up his Iraq opposition on the stump, though, and by the time he was confronted with his 2002 comments again in May, by Fox News' Bret Baier, he had a (slightly) more fluid response. "I'm talking to Howard Stern, weeks before, the first time anybody had ever asked," he said. "And don't forget, I was a civilian. The first time anyone ever asked me about the war, about should we go in, because it was a question, are we going in? And I said very weakly, 'Well, blah, blah, blah, yes, I guess.'"
By June, Trump had locked up the nomination, but he still hadn't offered up any of the supposed two-dozen articles that he claimed would vindicate his claim of having opposed the war from the start. He told CNN's Jake Tapper that there were plenty of articles attesting to his criticism from 2004 and on (true) and said of the infamous Stern interview, "even that, it wasn't like, 'oh yeah, we should go in.' It was a very, like, 'yeah, maybe.'"
Trump has still never produced an article or an interview from before the invasion that back up his claims of "loud and clear" criticism. And in recent months, surrogates have excused the absence of evidence by noting that Trump was just a simple businessman—so of course no one asked him. But in September, Trump threw yet another explanation into the mix. He did speak out—he just did it in private phone conversations with Sean Hannity.
"I spoke to other people and if you look also…speak to Sean Hannity, who's a terrific guy by the way, speak to him, and he and I used to have arguments about the Iraq War," he said to Fox News' Howard Kurtz. "As, you know, Sean wanted—he believed in the Iraq War and, you know, that's—that's what his belief was. We used to have arguments about it, big arguments, and you could speak to Sean and that was before the war started."
In an ideal world, at least one major-party candidate would have opposed the greatest American foreign policy disaster of the last half century. But as someone once said, you go to war with the army you have.
Trump's campaign now insists that Trump's birther crusade ended in 2011, after the president released his long-form birth certificate. Trump considered the shorter certificate of live birth that Obama released in 2008 a possible fraud. In reality, the release was only the beginning for Trump. He continued to fan speculation of the president's not-so-mysterious place of birth, suggesting that "Israeli science" had shown the certificate to be fake and announcing that he had sent a team of investigators to Hawaii to get to the bottom of it.
As Romney reeled from super-PAC attacks on his record at Bain Capital and from his closed-door comments about the "47 percent," Trump believed certain secrets about Obama's past were the best bet to turn things around.
.@MittRomney must ask for Obama's college records & applications--why is he not doing this?
Trump was obsessed with the president's college records because he believed they would confirm that Obama was foreign-born. (He has suggested the president's real name was "Barry Soetoro," or sometimes "Barry Soweto," even though Soetoro was Obama's stepfather's name and Soweto is a famous township in South Africa.) "Obviously he wasn't born in this country or, if he was, he said he wasn't in order to receive financial aid and in order to have a clear and very easy path into a college or university," Trump explained to WorldNetDaily a few days before the 2012 election.
Romney continued to ignore Trump's advice for the second and third debates. But tonight, on the heels of Trump's bizarre press conference on the issue and the Hillary Clinton campaign's repeated attacks on birtherism, Trump might finally get the chance to raise the issue during a presidential debate.
The polls are tightening and the freak-out is beginning. With hours to go before the first presidential debate, FiveThirtyEight's polls-plus forecast gives former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just a 53.4 percent chance of winning the election. It's the closest the race has been since the elections site unveiled its model in June. The "bedwetting cometh," tweeted New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin.
But Democrats have been here before. In 2012, President Barack Obama held a modest but consistent lead over Republican nominee Mitt Romney heading into the first debate, only to uncharacteristically collapse. Within a few days, the lead had evaporated—according to FiveThirtyEight, Obama's chances went from 86.1 percent to 61.1 percent, the steepest drop of the campaign—and his supporters started to lose it. No one captured this liberal angst better then Andrew Sullivan, then of the Daily Beast, who had championed Obama in 2008 and joyfully called him "the first gay president" in a Newsweek cover story.
Following Obama's first debate with Romney, Sullivan was inconsolable:
Maybe if Romney can turn this whole campaign around in 90 minutes, Obama can now do the same. But I doubt it. A sitting president does not recover from being obliterated on substance, style and likability in the first debate and get much of a chance to come back. He has, at a critical moment, deeply depressed his base and his supporters and independents are flocking to Romney in droves.
I've never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before. Gore was better in his first debate—and he threw a solid lead into the trash that night. Even Bush was better in 2004 than Obama last week. Even Reagan's meandering mess in 1984 was better—and he had approaching Alzheimer's to blame.
I'm trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it's hard to see how a president and his party recover. I'm not giving up. If the lies and propaganda of the last four years work even after Obama had managed to fight back solidly against them to get a clear and solid lead in critical states, then reality-based government is over in this country again. We're back to Bush-Cheney, but more extreme. We have to find a way to avoid that. Much, much more than Obama's vanity is at stake.
A week later, after the vice presidential debate had passed, Sullivan was even further gone. "Obama threw it all back in his supporters' faces, reacting to their enthusiasm and record donations with a performance so execrable, so lazy, so feckless, and so vain it was almost a dare not to vote for him," he wrote. And then Obama rebounded at the next two debates and won 332 electoral votes.
The race heading into the first debate tonight is closer than it was heading into the first presidential debate in 2012. If the election were held today, there's a virtually even chance that Donald Trump would win. But Clinton backers anxiously hitting refresh on FiveThirtyEight and consulting their astrologers would do well to reread Sullivan's lament. It's fine to panic, but a 7-point polling swing is nothing a few good debates can't reverse.
The first day in office is a hectic one for new presidents. It doesn't start until the late morning, and they spend hours at a formal ceremony, with hours of obligations to follow on the party circuit that night. None of their appointees have been confirmed; few of them have even been nominated. They'll probably get lost once or twice. It's a lot like any first day at a new job, in other words.
But that doesn't stop presidential candidates from making bold promises about how much they'll accomplish that day. Here's everything Donald Trump has promised to do on his first day in office (or, in a few cases, things his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has promised Trump will do):
Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, whose district includes part of the city of Charlotte, said in an interview with the BBC Thursday that black residents of the North Carolina city "hate white people because white people are successful and they're not." The day after African American protesters shut down a highway and demonstrated in Charlotte over the fatal police shooting of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, Pittenger, a second-term congressman, blamed the community's frustrations on "the welfare state."
Pittenger added, "We've put people in bondage so that they can't be all that they’re capable of being."
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