NEW YORK -- Donald Trump has repeatedly implied -- on the campaign trail, in television interviews, at last month's presidential debate and in a recent op-ed -- that he was ahead of the curve for opposing the Iraq War in July 2004, even though the U.S. invasion began 16 months earlier.
“In July of 2004, I came out strongly against the war in Iraq because it was going to destabilize the Middle East," he said at the Aug. 6 Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News. "I am the only one on this stage who knew that and had the vision to say it. And that’s exactly what happened. The region became totally destabilized.”
The media has largely given Trump a pass for his suggestion that he was the lone voice of dissent about the war, long after the U.S. invasion. Several journalists noted during real-time debate coverage online and on Twitter that the Iraq War started over a year before he said he was against it. But similar fact-checking has been absent from recent TV news interviews, in which Trump has seized upon his summer 2004 position to trumpet his foreign policy foresight as he campaigns to be the next commander-in-chief.
There's some evidence Trump wasn't happy with the war effort early on. About a week after the March 19, 2003 invasion, he described the war as a “mess” when The Washington Post approached him at an Oscar after-party.
But recently, Trump has primarily cited an article published by Reuters in July 2004 -- entitled "Donald Trump Would ‘Fire’ Bush Over Iraq Invasion" -- to illustrate his farsightedness about the war.
The oft-cited Reuters story doesn't provide a comprehensive look at Trump’s foreign policy worldview. It’s a brief article that references his comments in an Esquire cover story published the same week. The Daily News, and other outlets, also ran stories quoting Trump’s provocative comments to Esquire.
In the Esquire interview, Trump called the Iraq War a “mess," while also harshly criticizing how the Bush administration handled it. He dismissed the idea of Iraq becoming truly democratic, and predicted the U.S. withdrawal would lead to “a revolution, and the meanest, toughest, smartest, most vicious guy will take over.”
“What was the purpose of this whole thing?” Trump asked at the time. “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!”
Trump's rebuke of the Bush administration was particularly tough stance for a Republican at the time -- especially in the midst of Bush's re-election campaign. And he was correct about how the Iraq War further destabilized the region.
Yet by the summer of 2004, criticism of the decision to invade Iraq, and the administration's bungling of it, was fairly widespread in the media. Even boosters of the war, like The New Republic, had already issued a mea culpa prior to Trump's Esquire interview.
Trump may have privately opposed the war prior to the March 2003 invasion, but no public evidence of his opposition could be found through a Lexis-Nexis search of news articles and transcripts.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about whether he was on the record opposing the war before it began.
Yet the media mogul has touted the Reuters story for months as evidence of his prescient Iraq position, doing so even before he officially entered the presidential race.
During a May 19 interview on “Fox & Friends,” Trump said Reuters did “a big story” in 2004 showing how he would never have gone into Iraq, tweeting a link to the article later that day. The next month, in his first interview after announcing his candidacy, he told Bill O'Reilly he said, in 2004, that the U.S. “should not go in and do that whole thing with Iraq.”
"In 2004, I was totally against going in," Trump told CNN's Anderson Cooper in July. "If you look, July of 2004, Reuters -- probably stuff before that -- but [in] July of 2004, Bush actually sent a group to talk to me, because I was getting a lot of publicity on the fact that we shouldn't be doing Iraq."
Some journalists questioned Trump's claims of being an early opponent of the war during his Aug. 6 debate appearance, but his anti-war assertions in subsequent interviews have gone unchallenged.
“You go back to 2004, July, and you will see a major, major article that Donald Trump said, ‘Don’t go into Iraq, because if you go into Iraq, and if you decimate Iraq, you’re going to lose the balance of the whole Middle East.’ I turned out to be right,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” by phone on Aug. 10.
“Nobody else -- very few people can say that,” he added.
"Morning Joe" co-host Joe Scarborough switched topics to discuss Trump’s feud with Fox News. But the subject resurfaced shortly thereafter, when Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a “Morning Joe” guest, asked Trump about sending U.S. soldiers back to the war-torn country.
“I didn’t want to go into Iraq in 2004 and we went there,” he responded. “So now we totally knocked out the balance. What we’ve done in the Middle East is incredible.”
On Aug. 12, Trump referenced the Reuters article in three separate cable news interviews when discussing how he would now handle Iraq, a portion of which is controlled by Islamic State militants.
“Unlike Jeb Bush, unlike the brother ... who got us into the whole war, I was totally opposed to the war,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “You look at 2004, Reuters, in July of 2004, headline: ‘Trump Opposes War in Iraq.’”
He said the same thing to Fox Business Network's Lou Dobbs. "As you know, I was never in favor of going in," he told Dobbs. "I told you years ago. Going into Iraq was a huge mistake because you're going to destabilize the whole Middle East. So I'm the only one. In fact, they have major articles in 2004, in Reuters, in fact, July of 2004."
And Trump also cited the article when speaking to Fox News' Sean Hannity. "I’d like to go back into history a little bit,” he said. “In 2004, Reuters wrote an article, in July of 2004. It was an article, ‘Trump Says Don't Go Into Iraq.’ I was totally against it."
During an Aug. 19 primetime special on CNN, Trump told anchor Chris Cuomo that he’d “been against [the Iraq War] for years” and touted his 2004 “vision.” A week later, he noted “in 2003 and 2004, I said Iraq is a mistake," in an interview on Bloomberg’s “With All Due Respect."
Beyond TV interviews, the candidate has referenced the 2004 Reuters story at campaign stops in Bluffton, South Carolina, Dubuque, Iowa, and Hampton, New Hampshire, each carried live on cable news.
Trump referenced his 2004 anti-war position in print, too.
"My opposition to the war in Iraq is well documented," he wrote last Tuesday in a USA Today op-ed. "I was against the war from the very beginning, all the way back in 2004." The op-ed linked to a Nov. 2004 interview with then-CNN host Larry King, who referenced the Esquire interview when he spoke to Trump.
The next morning, Trump again criticized the Iraq invasion during a phone interview with Cuomo on CNN’s “New Day.” He suggested he’d told Cuomo back in 2003 that doing so would strengthen Iran.
“I told you that was going to happen in 2003, when you were actually at another network doing very well,” he said. “But I said that that was going to happen in 2003. I said the worst thing you could do was go in and attack Iraq because you’re going to destabilize the Middle East.”
It's unclear if Trump meant he told Cuomo on air or privately. Through a spokesperson, Cuomo didn’t respond to a request for comment.
-- Video by Ben Craw.
Judah Robinson provided research assistance.