Until last night, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was in the habit of claiming he opposed invading Iraq even before March 2003. That position, Trump suggested, demonstrated the quality of his judgment — after all, 48 out of 49 Republican senators voted in favor of the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002, so opposing the invasion was far from a mainstream Republican stance at the time.
But Trump can’t make that claim anymore. During a CNN town hall last night, host Anderson Cooper confronted Trump about a 2002 audio clip unearthed by BuzzFeed that reveals Trump actually supported the invasion of Iraq before he opposed it.
Weeks after the invasion, Trump did tell the Washington Post “The war’s a mess” during a brief interview at an Oscars party. There’s nothing in the public record indicating he held that position before the American military effort ran into problems, however.
Regardless of what he said and when, Trump now believes that going into Iraq was a catastrophic error. During last weekend’s GOP debate, Trump drew boos from the audience when he characterized the decision to invade Iraq as a “mistake.”
“George W. Bush made a mistake,” Trump said. “We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
“They lied,” Trump continued, referring to Bush administration officials. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction and there were none. And they knew there were none.”
It’s hard to argue with any of that. A 2005 report from United Nations inspectors found that by the time Bush sent U.S. soldiers to disarm Saddam Hussein, all evidence indicated there was nothing to support the administration’s claims that he had nuclear or biological weapons. The Bush administration apparently dismissed the inspectors and their intel routinely in the run-up to the war.
None of that is particularly controversial, but given that two GOP presidential hopefuls still defend the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, Trump at least deserves credit for speaking the unvarnished truth.
For instance, during last weekend’s debate, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush defended his brother.
“While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe,” Bush said. “And I’m proud of what he did.”
During the same debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he is “forever grateful” to George W. Bush.
“You can look back in hindsight and say a couple of things, but he kept us safe,” Rubio said. “And not only did he keep us safe, but no matter what you want to say about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was in violation of U.N. resolutions… and George W. Bush enforced what the international community refused to do.”
The other GOP candidates have articulated more nuanced perspectives on the Bush administration’s decision, without going as far as Trump. During last weekend’s debate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich offered a qualified defense of Bush’s rationale but decried the consequences of the invasion, saying:
“We thought there were weapons of mass destruction. Colin Powell, who is one of the most distinguished generals in modern time said there were weapons there. But, but, the fact is we got ourselves in the middle of a civil war. The Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds, never gotten along…
The tragedy of it is that we’re still embroiled. And, frankly, if there weren’t weapons of mass destruction we should never have gone. I don’t believe the United States should involve itself in civil wars.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) avoided talking about Iraq directly during the debate, but told The Hill last year that “Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq.”
“At the time, the intelligence reports indicated that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that posed a significant national security threat to this country,” Cruz added. “That’s the reason there was such widespread bipartisan support for going into Iraq. We now know in hindsight, those intelligence reports were false.”
The Republican candidate who comes closest to Trump’s position on Iraq is neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who criticized the Bush administration’s decision on pragmatic grounds during last weekend’s debate.
“I was not particularly in favor of us going to war in Iraq, primarily because I have studied, you know, the Middle East, recognizing that those are nations that are ruled by dictators and have been for thousands of years,” Carson said. “And when you go in and you remove one of those dictators, unless you have an appropriate plan for replacing them, you’re going to have chaos.”
Trump’s criticisms of George W. Bush aren’t popular with people ThinkProgress spoke with this week during a Trump rally in Sumter, South Carolina ahead of Saturday’s crucial GOP primary. A recent poll indicates George W. Bush is the most popular Republican in the state, with an 84 percent approval rating.
“I wish he wouldn’t criticize Bush, because I did like Bush. And I think South Carolina liked Bush,” said Kay Peters of St. George. “But I’m still a firm Trump supporter.”
Carol Privette of Summerville said she’s undecided about Trump, adding that in her view, his attack of George W. Bush during last weekend’s debate was “very unfair.”
“I think it’s easier said than done, and it takes more than one man to engage a military action,” Privette said. “I think that Donald needs to realize that it takes more than one man and that people need to work together to get things accomplished.”
Kira Lerner contributed reporting