Of all the lies Donald Trump likes to tell while running for president, the one about being an early opponent of the 2003 Iraq War may be his favorite. Despite well-documented evidence that the casino mogul spoke in support of the ill-fated war in the lead-up to the invasion, reporters have repeatedly let the Republican presidential candidate tell a revisionist version of his past stance without pushing back on the claim.
That sequence repeated itself on Wednesday night during NBC’s televised town hall, the first event featuring the two presidential candidates in back-to-back question-and-answer sessions. When it was Trump’s turn, NBC’s Matt Lauer asked the Republican candidate what about his past experiences has prepared him to be the country’s commander in chief.
Trump followed a familiar routine of dodging the question, offering vague assurances of his success, and eventually, outright lying.
“Well, I think the main thing is, I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq ― from ― you can look at Esquire magazine from ‘04, you can look at before that. I was against the war in Iraq because I said it would totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has. It has absolutely been a disastrous war.”
Lauer, who is surely aware of the factual inaccuracy of Trump’s claim, could have pointed out that 2004 was after the invasion, and therefore more of an example of Monday-morning quarterbacking than good judgment. He could have pointed to earlier interviews in which Trump voiced support for the war. Or he could have asked the candidate for another example from before the 2003 start of the war.
Instead, he just moved on to the next question.
Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski was the first to uncover Trump’s earlier remarks about the war in Iraq. In 2000, Trump called for a “principled and tough” policy toward “outlaw” states like Iraq, Buzzfeed found. In 2002, Howard Stern asked Trump outright if he favored invading Iraq. “Yeah, I guess so,” Trump said at the time. “I wish the first time it was done correctly.”
By 2004 it had become clear that ousting Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein was only the first part of a protracted U.S. military effort there, and Trump was offering a new view on the invasion. In August 2004 he told Esquire’s Cal Fussman:
“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.”
Lauer is not the first reporter to let Trump get away with his revisionist account of his early stance on the Iraq War. Buzzfeed later reported that several major news outlets ― CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Bloomberg, the New York Times and the Washington Post ― have, on at least one occasion, offered a platform for Trump to insist he was always against the Iraq War without correcting the candidate.
This is no small oversight. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to secure the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in 2008, in part, because she voted for the disastrous war that her opponent, Barack Obama, had opposed as a senator.
In this election, voters don’t have the option of electing a candidate who demonstrated better judgment about whether to invade Iraq. But during the town hall on Wednesday, Clinton owned up to her miscalculation on the Iraq War ― and reminded voters of her opponent’s refusal to do so.
“I have taken responsibility for my decision,” Clinton said. “He refuses to take responsibility for his support ― that is a judgment issue.”