One bone of contention between 2016 GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, is that she, famously, voted in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a member of the U.S. Senate, and he, supposedly, opposed it. Trump made much of his alleged opposition to the Iraq War throughout the presidential campaign, calling the incursion a “mistake.” During a Republican debate in February 2016, Trump said, “I’m the only one on this stage that said, ‘Do not go into Iraq, do not attack Iraq.’ Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong.”
In June 2016, Trump declared that the Iraq War set in motion a chain of events that led to the rise of the terrorist group ISIS, saying that Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of it was indicative of her poor judgment. “In short, Hillary Clinton’s tryout for the presidency has produced one deadly foreign policy disaster after another,” Trump said. “It all started with her bad judgment in supporting the War in Iraq in the first place. Though I was not in government service, I was among the earliest to criticize the rush to war, and yes, even before the war ever started.”
Despite mainstream media challenges to the accuracy of the latter claim, Trump repeated it during the first presidential debate in September 2016. “I was against the Iraq war,” he fired back after moderator Lester Holt said he Trump had supported it. “The record shows that I’m right.”
Is he? Does the record show that Trump was against the Iraq War before it started? Let’s examine his public statements, beginning with his first known comment on the notion of invading Iraq, made during a 2002 radio talk show interview.
The Howard Stern Show, 11 September 2002 (six months before the war):
STERN: Are you for invading Iraq?
TRUMP: Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly.
If that remark wasn’t exactly a wholehearted endorsement of the notion of invading Iraq, it clearly wasn’t an expression of opposition to the idea either.
Fox News interview with Neil Cavuto, 31 January 2003 (two months before the war):
In January 2003, with an invasion of Iraq looming, Fox News interviewer Neil Cavuto asked Trump what kind of advice he would give to President Bush. Trump waffled, expressing neither support nor opposition to the concept of invading Iraq and offering no more cogent an opinion than that President Bush should make up his mind one way or the other:
CAVUTO: If you had to sort of break down for the president, if you were advising him, how much time do you commit to Iraq versus how much time you commit to the economy, what would you say?
TRUMP: Well, I’m starting to think that people are much more focused now on the economy. They are getting a little bit tired of hearing, we’re going in, we’re not going in, the — you know, whatever happened to the days of the Douglas MacArthur? He would go and attack. He wouldn’t talk. We have to — you know, it’s sort like either do it or don’t do it. When I watch Dan Rather explaining how we are going to be attacking, where we’re going to attack, what routes we’re taking, what kind of planes we’re using, how to stop them, how to stop us, it is a little bit disconcerting. I’ve never seen this, where newscasters are telling you how — telling the enemy how we’re going about it, we have just found out this and that. It is ridiculous.
CAVUTO: Well, the problem right there.
TRUMP: Either you attack or you don’t attack.
CAVUTO: The problem there, Donald, is you’re watching Dan Rather. Maybe you should just be watching Fox.
TRUMP: Well, no, I watch Dan Rather, but not necessarily fondly. But I happened to see it the other night. And I must tell you it was rather amazing as they were explaining the different — I don’t know if it is fact or if it is fiction, but the concept of a newscaster talking about the routes is — just seems ridiculous. So the point is either you do it or you don’t do it, or you — but I just — or if you don’t do it, just don’t talk about it. When you do it, you start talking about it.
CAVUTO: So you’re saying the leash on this is getting kind of short here, that the president has got to do something presumably sooner rather than later and stringing this along could ultimately hurt us.
TRUMP: 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. But, of course, if you look at the polls, a lot of people are getting a little tired. I think the Iraqi situation is a problem. And I think the economy is a much bigger problem as far as the president is concerned.
Fox News interview with Neil Cavuto, 21 March 2003 (one day after the war began):
One day into the invasion of Iraq, Trump appeared again on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News program. He again did not criticize or condemn the war effort, calling it instead a “tremendous success”:
CAVUTO: What do you make of, just, how Wall Street’s been reacting to what our military guys have been doing?
TRUMP: 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.
Esquire Magazine interview, August 2004 (18 months after the war began):
Here, finally, are Trump’s first published remarks critical of the Iraq War, which appeared almost a year and a half after the military action began. By then, this was not a particularly controversial stand to take:
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.
What was the purpose of this whole thing? Hundreds and hundreds of young people killed. And what about the people coming back with no arms and legs? Not to mention the other side. All those Iraqi kids who’ve been blown to pieces. And it turns out that all of the reasons for the war were blatantly wrong. All this for nothing!
The record shows that Donald Trump’s public stand against the Iraq War did not occur until August 2004, long after the war was underway, and only after he had on multiple previous occasions expressed either support for the war or non-committal opinions about its merits. The record does not support his contention that he was against the Iraq War “from the beginning.”