CLEVELAND, Ohio — Donald Trump on Thursday defended his statement that he was publicly opposed to the Iraq war before it started — despite evidence contradicting that claim.
The GOP nominee also said he would have voted against the Iraq war had he been in Congress at the time of the 2003 invasion, a new line in Trump’s attempt to make the war a signature focus of the presidential campaign.
"Had I been in Congress at the time of the invasion, I would have cast a vote in opposition," Trump said before framing the war as a referendum on Hillary Clinton’s judgment.
Trump, at a charter school here to deliver a speech about education, brought up interviews in 2003 and 2004 in which he slowly changed his stance on the war. The invasion began on March 20, 2003.
In Sept. 11, 2002 in an interview on the Howard Stern show, Trump was asked if he supported an invasion of Iraq and responded: "Yeah, I guess so," and "I wish the first time it was done correctly." The interview was earlier reported by Buzzfeed News, which posted audio of the exchange.
"I opposed going in, and I did oppose it. Despite the media saying, 'no, yes, no,' I opposed going in," Trump said Thursday. "I was opposed to the war from the beginning, long after my interview with Howard Stern," Trump said.
The Republican nominee has been criticized for seeming revisionist history on his position on the Iraq war, which Trump has used to attack Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize the war when she was a U.S. senator.
Esquire, the magazine that published a 2004 interview in which Trump opposed the war a year after it began, earlier this month accused the GOP nominee of "lying" about claims he was always against the war.
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Clinton at an NBC Commander-in-Chief forum Wednesday said the decision to to war in Iraq, and her vote to authorize military action, was a mistake. Trump called the Iraq issue "one of the biggest differences in this race."
"Here’s the bottom line. I was a private citizen," Trump said. "I had no access to briefings or great intelligence survey that she did ... But I didn’t have access to all of the intelligence information that she did and everybody else did."
Though it wasn’t necessarily long after the September 2002 Howard Stern interview, Trump did begin shifting his stance in early 2003. But it’s not clear that he was strongly against the war before it happened.
Trump on Thursday brought up a January 2003 interview with Fox’s Neil Cavuto, before the war began, in which he said that maybe President George W. Bush should be more focused on the U.S. economy.
"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," Trump said, according to the website PolitiFact. "He's under a lot of pressure. 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."
Trump then cited an interview with the Washington Post from March 25, 2003 — days after the war began — in which he called the situation "a mess."
However, in an interview four days earlier, again with Cavuto, Trump expressed optimism on the economy in the aftermath of the war and said the invasion "looks like a tremendous success from a military standpoint, and I think this is really nothing compared to what you’re going to see after the war is over."
When asked to clarify what he meant, he told Cavuto "I think Wall Street's just going to go up like a rocket, even beyond."
Asked if he stood by those 2003 comments calling the invasion a "tremendous success," Trump told reporters at his Thursday event, "You know what that meant," before walking away.
When asked what that meant, Trump did not turn around to clarify.
At issue in his claim that he would have voted "no" on the war if he were in Congress is the fact that Trump did not express a negative opinion of the war until 2003. The vote to authorize the Iraq War was held months earlier, in October 2002.
This is the first time Trump has gone to such lengths to prove his claim, despite being asked at earlier points in his candidacy to provide proof of his stances prior to the war.
As he has on multiple earlier occasions, Trump cited a 2004 interview with Esquire, in which he gave his most forceful critique of the war in Iraq.
Trump read a quote from that article Thursday, saying, "Absolute quote: 'Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we're in.' This is right after the war started."
In the 2004 article, Trump also expressed his doubts that Iraq would become a democracy and said: “Two minutes after we leave, there's going to be a revolution, and the meanest, toughest, smartest, most vicious guy will take over."
Esquire has since added an editor’s note to the online version of the article disputing any link between the piece and Trump's claim of opposing the war in Iraq before it started.
"Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, and he has cited this story as proof," the editor's note reads. "The Iraq War began in March 2003, more than a year before this story ran, thus nullifying Trump's timeline."
And the magazine on Aug. 15 published an accompanying article titled “Once Again, Trump Claims He Was Always Against the Iraq War. He’s Lying.” — with an line below reading “And now he’s throwing Esquire into the mix.”