On 11 September 2018, our readers asked for verification of a meme circulating on social media that reported Donald Trump had helped with search-and-rescue efforts in the rubble of the Twin Towers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks 17 years prior: “2 days after the September 11th attacks Donald Trump was at ground zero with hundreds of workers that he payed for to help find and identify victims. Share this photo to remind people exactly what kind of American our President is!”
Although the image used in the meme above was taken on 18 September 2001 outside the New York Stock Exchange, the meme reflects comments Trump made two days after the attack, when he told an interviewer for a German television station about his efforts to help:
Well I have a lot of men down here, right now. We have over 100 and we have about 125 coming. So we’ll have a couple of hundred people down here. And they are very brave and what they’re doing is amazing. And we’ll be involved in some form in helping to reconstruct.
Trump made similar remarks to an NBC News reporter:
Trump: I have hundreds of men inside working right now and we’re bringing down another 125 in a little while. And they’ve never done work like this before. And they’re hard-working people but they’ve never seen anything like it. And they’ve never done work like this before, it’s terrible.
Reporter: Have you spoken to any of your men? Do you know how they’re reacting to this, because emotionally this must be so incredibly difficult.
Trump: Well there are a lot of them but they’ve never seen bodies like this — bodies all over. The great thing is when they find somebody that’s alive like the five firemen that they just found a little while ago. So that’s the great thing, and that’s what they were all striving for. But generally speaking that’s not the case. So, they are working very, very hard, but it’s a very depressing situation for these folks.
President Trump described it a little differently during a speech at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2019, saying he went down to Ground Zero on the day of the attacks “with men who worked for me to try to help in any little way that we could.”
Trump’s statements were vague, so they didn’t provide any specifics that would help verify who the men he referenced were, what their relationship to him was, and whether he “paid for” their labor, making it difficult to tease out the accuracy of what he said. His claims about what he did and witnessed on the day terrorists flew jetliners into the World Trade Center buildings have been sources of confusion or consternation since the real estate mogul launched his bid to seek the presidency in 2015.
Richard Alles, a retired deputy chief with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), who now serves as director of 9/11 community affairs for the law firm Barasch McGarry Salzman and Penson, told us that in all the hours, days and months he spent at Ground Zero as an FDNY battalion chief starting 20 minutes after the buildings collapsed, he never witnessed a large group of workers hired by Trump at the site helping with search and rescue. “This is the first I’m hearing of it,” Alles told us by phone. “There would have been no need for that. Between police, fire and the construction crews, we had it all covered.”
Alles added that the construction crews he saw at Ground Zero who came to help rescue workers were from the trade unions and were not hired by Trump.
John Feal, founder of the 9/11 first responder health advocacy non-profit the FealGood Foundation, responded to Ground Zero on 12 September 2001 as a construction demolitions expert. He also told us he didn’t see evidence of hundreds of workers hired by Trump at the site, and added that by 15 September 2001 the area was on lock down. “There was no way anyone could get in and out of there without a [government-issued] badge,” he told us. (Feal was forced off the site as of 17 September 2001 when he suffered a life-threatening injury caused by a 4-ton piece of steel falling on his foot, crushing it and resulting in a major infection.)
According to the New York Times, the entire Trump organization didn’t even encompass enough people in 2001 to have assisted in the manner described:
[Timothy] O’Brien, the author [of TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald], said the size of the Trump Organization at the time was “a little bit over a dozen people,” which would have made it impossible to send hundreds of people to participate in the relief effort. At the time, Mr. Trump had a large number of casino workers based in Atlantic City, but there is no documented evidence of him marshaling his resources to aid in the relief effort.
“He’s very comfortable propagandizing that event for political purposes,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Even in the face of tragedy, he can’t help but self-promote and self-aggrandize.”
We reached out to the White House Press Office and the Trump Organization asking for corroborating evidence of these claims but received no response, although we don’t know of anyone who raised questions about the veracity of his statements at the time they were made. But now that Trump is president, his political opponents seized on the opportunity to proclaim that he was lying about having helped in the aftermath of 9/11:
— Scott Dworkin (@funder) September 11, 2018
It’s not the first time Trump’s accounts of his experiences in New York related to the 11 September terrorist attacks have been called into question.
In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, some critics cited a TIME magazine report that placed Trump in Chicago at the time of the attacks — but that was due to an error in the report. For his part, Trump claimed at a campaign rally in 2015 that he watched from his apartment in Trump Tower as people jumped from the burning WTC buildings to their deaths, but multiple news organizations pointed out that would have been an impossibility because Trump Tower is four miles away from Ground Zero:
I have a window in my apartment that specifically was aimed at the World Trade Center, because of the beauty of the whole downtown Manhattan. And I watched as people jumped, and I watched the second plane come in
Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.