After all the clamor for moderators to fact-check the candidates during Monday night's presidential debate, Donald Trump flipped the script on Lester Holt by rejecting his assertion Trump backed the war in Iraq - and history backs The Donald.
Holt began one question by stating that Republican nominee Trump “had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion,” a frequent claim from critics that Trump has adamantly disputed during the primary and general election seasons. Holt on Monday, and many in the media before him, pointed to a September 2002 interview Trump gave to Howard Stern in which he said “Yeah, I guess so” in response to a question about whether President Bush should go to war.
When Trump pushed back on Holt, saying “I was against the war in Iraq,” Holt countered: “The record does not show that.”
Then Trump laid out his case.
“The record shows that I’m right,” he said. “When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, first time anyone’s asked me that, I said, very lightly, ‘I don’t know, maybe, who knows?’ essentially. I then did an interview with Neil Cavuto. We talked about the economy is more important [than going to war].”
Holt repeated that his reference was to 2002 and then tried to move the discussion along.
But Cavuto himself picked up the thread post-debate on Fox Business Network, unearthing the clip Trump referenced, from January 28, 2003 – Nearly two months before the Iraq War began on March 20. In the video, Cavuto asks Trump how much time President Bush should spend on the economy vs. on Iraq.
“Well, I’m starting to think that people are much more focused now on the economy,” Trump said. “They’re getting a little bit tired of hearing ‘We’re going in, we’re not going in.’ Whatever happened to the days of Douglas MacArthur? Either do it or don’t do it.”
Trump continued: “Perhaps he shouldn’t be doing it yet. And perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations.”
After the invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent fallout, Trump became a much stronger and far more vocal critic of the war.
“Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we’re in,” he said in an August 2004 issue of Esquire. “I would never have handled it that way…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 [Hussein] didn’t have.”
Yet despite the Cavuto clip, and the ambivalence of Trump’s own on-the-fence answer during the 2002 Stern interview, post-debate fact-checkers nearly universally wrote that Trump had lied during the exchange with Holt.
Politifact rated the claim “False.” The website even noted the Cavuto exchange, while remarking “At most he suggested waiting for the United Nations to do something.”
Politico blared: “Trump [again] says he opposed the Iraq War. That’s still false.”
Trump seemingly launched his own preemptive strike against the fact-checkers, however, complaining to Holt that the prevailing “Trump/Iraq” narrative was “nonsense.”
“That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by [Hillary Clinton],” Trump said during Monday’s debate. “Because she – Frankly, I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.”