One of the great stories of 2016 is how Donald Trump hacked the media: how he learned from the New York tabloids and The Apprentice; how he dictated terms to the weakened television networks; how he used Twitter and won Facebook.
Those are complex questions that we will argue about for decades.
Here is a simpler one: Could reporters stop letting him lie to their faces about the most important policy call of the last 20 years?
Donald Trump did not oppose the invasion of Iraq. Further, there’s no evidence that he’s ever been a “dove” — and a great deal that he’s been an impulsive supporter of military intervention around the world.
We know this because BuzzFeed News’ intrepid Andrew Kaczynski unearthed an audio recording of him saying he supported it. You can listen to it above. The audio quality is clear.
In the recording, made on Sept. 11, 2002, when it mattered, Howard Stern asked Trump whether he supported the invasion. His answer: “Yeah, I guess so.” On the war’s first day, he called it a “tremendous success from a military standpoint.”
It was the most recent in a series of belligerent statements about Iraq. In 2000, he opined at length in his book how U.S. airstrikes did nothing to stop Iraq’s WMD programs and said it "is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion” in the context of a new war. He said many times in the late 1990s and early 2000s that George H.W. Bush should have toppled Saddam during the Gulf War.
Trump’s opinions during that period have all the force and thoughtfulness of a man who isn’t paying much attention and whose opinion doesn’t matter. His support for the war is also totally unambiguous.
And yet, since Kaczynski found the audio recordings, most of the leading American media organizations have either repeated Trump’s lie or allowed him to deliver it unchallenged. That includes CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
This fake fact is the basis for a fake narrative, crystallized in a Maureen Dowd column over the weekend christening “Donald the Dove.”
Trump lies all the time, of course. He lies about big things, like the patriotism of American Muslims. He lies about medium-size things, like his knowledge of the Mike Tyson rape case. And he lies about tiny, absurd stuff, as when he pretends to date famous women.
The media, when not just airing his speeches unfiltered, has done a decent job of calling out these individual lies. That’s why it’s all the more perplexing how great American news organizations have allowed a flat lie about the most important American policy decision in decades ooze its way into fact.
This has happened in plain view, as when Anderson Cooper let this slip by unremarked during the March 29 debate: “I was against the war in Iraq. OK?”
It happens when Trump talks to interviewers who know a thing or two about the subject, as when the Washington Post editorial board let his claim pass unremarked, and changed the subject to the size of his hands.
And it happens in passing, as in a recent Times piece that has Trump “reminding his audience that he had opposed the Iraq War.”
Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama in 2008 because she voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. If only she’d known that she could get out of that trap simply by saying, “No, I voted against it,” and brazening it out.
The Iraq lie is now a pillar of the “Donald the Dove” thesis about Trump’s “foreign policy,” a fake data point in a set of cooked data suggesting that he would be less likely to use American force abroad than his predecessors. Trump, indeed, decided recently to grasp at this thesis, saying in his muddle of a foreign policy speech, “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct.”
But believing this narrative requires a flat refusal to believe a simpler answer, one borne out by several very good biographies of the man: that he doesn’t think before he speaks, lies without compunction, and will say literally anything. (Today, he accused Ted Cruz’s father of complicity in the Kennedy assassination.)
And with the central pillar of the “dove” thesis gone, look a little harder at the others. In particular, theories (including Trump’s) of Trump’s foreign policy instincts rest on his supposed opposition to the U.S. role in ousting dictators in Libya and Egypt. In fact, as Kaczynski reported, Trump publicly supported the Obama administration in both Libya and Egypt.
I have two modest suggestions: First, let’s stop trying to construct theories about Trump’s instincts based on his lies about his own past beliefs.
And even simpler, let us dispel once and for all this fiction that Trump opposed the Iraq war.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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