There is mere accuracy, in which you don’t say things that are false. There is minimal honesty, where you make a case based on true statements but ignore all evidence (however true) that runs contrary to the argument you are making. And there is the gold standard: intellectual honesty, where you make an honest case based on accurate facts but you also acknowledge contrary facts that might lead reasonable people to disagree with your conclusion and explain why you believe your conclusion is nonetheless the best one available. And then there is intellectual honesty-plus, where after you have made your case you actually listen with open mind to someone who disagrees and you consider the possibility that they will persuade you to move in their direction.
That last standard is pretty high, and is one to which I aspire but probably often fail to achieve.
Trump’s Monday afternoon speech — in Youngstown, Ohio, on his plan to defeat ISIS — failed on all four levels. He told lies. When he said some things that were arguably true, he asserted them as if they were proven facts beyond dispute. He never acknowledged – as he never acknowledges – contrary facts or arguments. And he dismisses all who disagree with him as idiots, dupes, cowards, liars, fools and, quite possibly, traitors to the now ungreat country that “only I” can “make great again.”
A summary of his speech would be roughly this: History began on the day Barack Obama took office. (Trump never mentioned President George W. Bush, or any other previous president.) Things in the Mideast were pretty much sweetness and light with everything headed in the right direction on the day Obama took office. Since then, everything has gone to hell.
Trump has some ideas (including many things that the United States is already doing or has done but perhaps, I don’t know, some people say so, will be new and improved when Trump does them) to get things headed in the right direction again. There was some other stuff about “extreme vetting” that will keep terrorists from emigrating to the U.S. homeland.
Trump’s biggest lie
Trump commits various levels of dishonesty all the time, but I have a particular hang-up about what I consider to be Trump’s biggest lie, which is the lie that he clearly and presciently opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq from the beginning. He said it again yesterday, and dwelt on it for a while, citing “evidence” to back it up — although the evidence did not back it up, because the evidence itself is a lie. And, of course (speaking of intellectual honesty) he left out the clearest evidence that he did not oppose the Iraq war from the beginning.
Here’s what Trump said yesterday (relying on his campaign website for his remarks as prepared for delivery, although they are pretty reliable since this was one of those occasional speeches he read off a teleprompter):
I was an opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning – a major difference between me and my opponent.
Though I was a private citizen, whose personal opinions on such matters was not sought, I nonetheless publicly expressed my private doubts about the invasion. Three months before the invasion I said, in an interview with Neil Cavuto, to whom I offer my best wishes for a speedy recovery, that “perhaps [we] shouldn’t be doing it yet,” and that “the economy is a much bigger problem.”
Trump is very committed to this falsehood, which he repeats often.
No example before the war
First note that there is no example of Trump saying, before the war started with the “shock and awe” bombing attack on March 20, 2003, that Trump opposed the war. In none of the examples he offers does he say anything remotely close to ”I’m against this war” or “If I was president, I wouldn’t start a war with Iraq” or “Our country is making a big mistake by attacking Iraq” or “I don’t believe Saddam is hiding any Weapons of Mass Destruction” or, what would have been my favorite, “Now that Saddam has allowed the U.N. weapons inspectors back in and seems to be giving prompt unfettered access to all suspected sites, why don’t we hold off and see what they find before deciding whether to start a war that will sure kill a lot of people, including probably U.S. troops, and might further destabilize the whole unstable region.”
He didn’t say any of those things. He takes a few words out of context that don’t say it, that maybe imply it, out, and leaves out the surrounding words that make clear the “against the war from the beginning” claim is rubbish, rot, a lie.
And this from a candidate who likes to tag his opponents with nicknames like “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.”
If you are at all skeptical that I’m exaggerating how much Trump is lying, you should know that in his speech he left out this statement, which he made, in a radio interview in September of 2002, during the run-up to the war, when he was directly asked by host Howard Stern whether he favored invading Iraq:
Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish it was, I wish the first time it was done correctly.
The only other prewar interview that has surfaced was the one he mentioned yesterday, the Jan. 28, 2003, interview with Neil Cavuto. Even the little bit that he quotes ““perhaps [we] shouldn’t be doing it yet,” is hardly a position, what with the “perhaps” and the “yet.”
Back-and-forthing with Neil Cavuto
If you read it in full context, it’s laughably unclear whether he favors or opposes the war. His back-and-forthing, while reasonable for someone who can’t make up his mind, is hilarious in light of Trump’s claims that he clearly opposed the war from the beginning.
At the time, in January of 2003, the Cavuto-Trump interview was a curtain raiser for Bush’s State of the Union Address, which was to occur later that night. Cavuto asks Trump what he expects and Trump brilliantly says he expects to hear “a lot of talk about Iraq and the problems,” and the economy. He urges Bush to make a decision on Iraq:
“Either you attack or you don’t attack,” Trump bravely asserts, but offers no opinion on which Bush should do.
Cavuto: If you had to sort of breakdown 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, that’s 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.”
From all of that, for his big speech yesterday, the only phrases that Trump could find to back up his claim that he was clearly opposed to the war from the beginning was:
“perhaps [we] shouldn’t be doing it yet,” and “the economy is a much bigger problem.”
‘Very early in the conflict’
OK, last chapter, from yesterday’s speech, the final evidence Trump offers that he was against the war from the beginning, goes like this:
In August of 2004, very early in the conflict, I made a detailed statement to Esquire magazine. Here is the quote in full:
“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 country? 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.”
August of 2004 was not “very early in the conflict.” It is a year and a half after the war started. Saddam has been captured and is on trial. No WMD have been found and never will be. A Sunni-Shia civil war is under way. (Does the name Muqtada al-Sadr ring a bell?) The U.S. have not been greeted with candy and flowers by grateful Iraqis. U.S. soldiers are still getting killed in a war that has now been proven to have been based on a falsehood.
In a Gallup Poll that month, 48 percent of Americans say it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq, compared to 50 who say it was not a mistake. Soon the majority will pass to the other side of the question and never return.
August of 2004 is way, way too late to claim that you were against the war from the beginning, if it’s the first time you have said you are against the war. And, to be very tough on Trump, who loves toughness, he never actually said in that 2004 interview that the war was a mistake. He said: “I would never have handled it that way,” which might mean a number of things.
Maybe I’ve gone over the edge. I just can’t bring myself to let go of some vestige of the old gag that facts matter, and honesty is the best policy (or at least one of the two or three best policies, circumstances depending) and that if you tell a whopping huge lie about an important matter, and get caught, and just keep asserting that the false is the truth, people will just stop listening to you.
I was an opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning – a major difference between me and my opponent.
Yes, Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the war. It was a terrible mistake and it took her way too long to call it a mistake.
But Clinton is not attempting to claim that she voted against authorizing the war. She is either too honest or too smart or believes that we are too smart to believe her when we can look up how she voted. I hope she learned the right lesson from that vote. I fear not.
But Trump believes that he can just claim to have been against the war from the beginning, and apparently does not understand that we can look up what he said at the time. Or else he thinks we won’t care how much he lies. If he’s right, welcome to the post-fact, post-truth Book of Life, Trumpian edition.
This is not the first time I have written about this. I will try to restrain myself from writing this whole thing over again every time he repeats his favorite lie. Maybe I can just link back to this version, with a shorter rant.