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Donald Trump’s accusation that American soldiers stole money in Iraq, explained

Something very odd happened to Donald Trump Tuesday night. He experienced a totally normal, totally banal American politics gaffe cycle in which he said something politically awkward but totally defensible and then wound up spinning away from it furiously. Specifically, speaking in North Carolina, Trump said that American soldiers in Iraq were passing out baskets full of money and implied that some of them stole that money and are now “living very well.”

This immediately prompted raised eyebrows on social media from Jeffrey Goldberg, John Harwood, and others.

That in turn prompted the Trump campaign to deny he’d ever said any such thing, arguing that Trump was accusing Iraqi soldiers of corruption:

Watch the clip and judge for yourself, but if you ask me, it’s unambiguous that Trump was saying American soldiers stole money. And guess what? He’s right! For a detailed account you can read Julia Harte’s 2015 Slate story "U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have stolen tens of millions through bribery, theft, and rigged contracts.” It’s full of gory details.

But, broadly speaking, you are talking about sending tens of thousands of people into a situation with very weak rule of law and tons of cash transactions — a recipe for disaster. It’s a bit of an odd thing to bring up on the campaign trail, but it’s arguably an example of the kind of incompetent leadership by the mainstream governing class that’s fueled Trump’s rise. But instead of explaining himself or defending himself, Trump, and his campaign, is just out there pretending he never said it.

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