For much of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump has touted his early opposition to the Iraq War as evidence of his foreign policy judgment.
"I think it is important because it is about judgment. I didn't want to go into Iraq — it is about judgment. Because what I said, you're going to destabilize the Middle East and that's what happened," Trump said in a September debate, asserting that he was against the war before it began.
Some of Trump's past statements, unearthed by BuzzFeed News, contradict his narrative that he was against the war before it began. Trump offered tepid support in September 2002, answering a question from Howard Stern on whether he would invade Iraq by saying, "Yeah, I guess so." And one day into the war, Trump still called the invasion a "tremendous success from a military standpoint."
Trump did, however, express concerns about the invasion of Iraq by late March 2003 and repeatedly throughout the year. But many of his comments suggest he still supported aspects of the war, such as the toppling of Saddam Hussein. In April 2004 — again, in an interview on the Howard Stern Show — Trump emerged as a staunch opponent of the war, and began to push the idea he was never a supporter, claiming, "I was never a fan."
In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote that Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction was “a threat” and taking out Saddam Hussein wouldn’t be crazy if we decided it was necessary:
Consider Iraq. After each pounding from U.S . warplanes, Iraq has dusted itself off and gone right back to work developing a nuclear arsenal. Six years of tough talk and U.S. fireworks in Baghdad have done little to slow Iraq's crash program to become a nuclear power. They've got missiles capable of flying nine hundred kilometers—more than enough to reach Tel Aviv. They've got enriched uranium. All they need is the material for nuclear fission to complete the job, and, according to the Rumsfeld report, we don't even know for sure if they've laid their hands on that yet. That's what our last aerial assault on Iraq in 1999 was about. Saddam Hussein wouldn't let UN weapons inspectors examine certain sites where that material might be stored. The result when our bombing was over? We still don't know what Iraq is up to or whether it has the material to build nuclear weapons. I'm no warmonger. But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion. When we don't, we have the worst of all worlds: Iraq remains a threat, and now has more incentive than ever to attack us.
Jan. 28, 2003: Trump argued that people were "more focused now on the economy" than war, but didn't say the president shouldn't invade. "Either you attack or you don’t attack," he said.
"Well, I'm starting to think that people are much more focused now on the economy," Trump said in an interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News. "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 of 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."
He continued, "Either you attack or you don't attack."
Trump added later that President George W. Bush "has either got to do something or not do something, perhaps."
"He's under a lot of pressure," Trump said of Bush. "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."
March 22, 2003: "War is depressing."
A day after he called the war a "tremendous success," in a San-Antonio Express-News clip found by Factcheck.org, Trump said, "War is depressing, but something like the Miss USA pageant is positive and brings you out of that funk." Trump was a co-owner of the Miss USA beauty pageant, which was held that week.
March 25, 2003: "The war's a mess."
A Washington Post story from March 25 about an Oscars afterparty quoted Trump sounding critical about the war.
The Post story reads, "Donald Trump, with Amazonian beauty Melania Knauss at his side, pronounces on the war and the stock market: 'If they keep fighting it the way they did today, they're going to have a real problem.'
"Looking as pensive as a 'Nightline' talking head, the Donald concludes, 'The war's a mess,' before sweeping off into the crowd."
July 1, 2003: Trump said he'd like to see "some of the money that's going toward Iraq" go toward American states and cities.
Trump, who would become a harsh critic of Bush during the president's second term, said on MSNBC, "I think the president is doing a very good job. I would love to see New York City and some of the cities and some of the states get some of the money that's going toward Iraq and other places, because you know, they really need it, and they need it badly."
Sept. 11, 2003: "I would have fought terrorism but not necessarily Iraq."
"It wasn't a mistake to fight terrorism and fight it hard, and I guess maybe if I had to do it, I would have fought terrorism but not necessarily Iraq," Trump said in a 9/11 special on the MSNBC show Scarborough Country.
Nov. 4, 2003: Trump reiterated his point that American states needed money going to Iraq, but said the president was "on a course that has to stay."
"I believe the economy is doing well," Trump told MSNBC host Chris Matthews. "I think it could get better, but lots of surprises out on the horizon, and what is going to happen with Iraq, what is going to happen with the world situation, that could be the bigger problem that President Bush has."
The businessman added that the cost of war was both psychological and economic.
"I think it's psychological," he said. "It is also tremendous amounts of money being pumped into Iraq. I mean, you look at states like New York and California, where they can't afford school systems, and we are giving $87 billion to Iraq and that is just the beginning. So, you know, it is a tremendous cost to this country, what's gone on there, and again, we are getting some very, very unpleasant surprises in Iraq, and hopefully something is going to be done about it quickly."
But Trump concluded that, despite "more and more doves" coming forward, Bush needed to stay the course.
"He is a very committed guy, he's committed to that whole situation and I don't think he will really reconsider," he said. "I don't think he probably can at this point. Other people will, and you are going to find out at the polls whether or not those other people are right. I mean, you see more and more doves, if you call them doves. The question is whether or not we should have been in Iraq in the first place. I don't think that this president can do anything about that. He is really — he is on a course that has to stay."
Dec. 15, 2003: Trump said the war was "tougher than people thought," but spoke of the toppling of Saddam Hussein as "a huge day for our country."
Speaking to Neil Cavuto, Trump noted growing opposition to the war, but praised the Bush administration for fulfilling the pledge of taking down Hussein.
"Well, look, you have a lot of questions and a lot of people questioning the whole concept of going in, in the first place, Neil," he said. "But we are in, we went in, you had to find him. If he was alive, you had to find him. And you know, they fulfilled the pledge of finding Saddam Hussein."
He continued, "I mean, we are there, regardless of what should have been done. Some people agree and some people don't agree, but we are there. And if we are there, you have to take down Saddam Hussein. And they have done that, and they did it maybe not as quickly as they thought in terms of finding him, but they found him. And that is a huge day for this country."
Trump later added that despite the war being tougher than was initially thought, "we are there now, we have to stay, we have to win."
"Well, it is tougher than people thought. The war turned out to be easy, the initial phase of the war. But now we're still in the war, and it certainly is a war of attrition," he said. "It just seems to be something that, we are there now, we have to stay, we have to win, otherwise we just won't have the same respect. But we do have other problems."
July 2004: "Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we're in. I would never have handled it that way."
In an interview for Esquire's August 2004 issue, Trump lambasted the execution of the war and predicted the rise of a more vicious leader than Saddam Hussein after America's withdrawal.
"Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we're in," Trump said. "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."
He continued, "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!"
Nov. 24, 2004: "Hopefully, we'll be getting out."
Trump told CNN's Larry King that invading Iraq was the wrong decision, adding he hoped the US would withdraw. He suggested that America should turn its attention to North Korea and Iran.
"I do not believe that we made the right decision going into Iraq, but, you know, hopefully, we'll be getting out," he said. "Now I do think we have other problems. I think you have to do something with the nuclear weapons that are obviously being built in Iran and the nuclear weapons being built in North Korea where they're — that's not even obvious. I mean, they're saying they're building nuclear weapons, and we're bogged down in Iraq."
The reality TV star continued, "Now Iraq can solve the problem with Iran because you happen to be right next door, and, all of a sudden, Iraq maybe turns out to be a good transaction, so to speak. The fact is that Iran is building nuclear weapons and North Korea is building nuclear weapons, and that's the big quinella, and I hope President Bush can do something about that and quickly."
Christopher Massie is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Christopher Massie at Christopher.Massie@buzzfeed.com.
Megan Apper is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Megan Apper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Kaczynski is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Andrew Kaczynski at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.