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Trump’s extremely misleading tweet on Osama bin Laden, decoded

President Trump’s tweet fabricates an alternative history where he’s a far-seeing genius.

Osama bin Laden in 2001.
Osama bin Laden in 2001.
Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Donald Trump loves to brag falsely about his own prescience. He has repeatedly claimed, for example, that he opposed the invasion of Iraq before it started. In fact, he was on record supporting George W. Bush’s invasion in a 2002 interview with Howard Stern.

On Monday morning, he added to this genre in a tweet, claiming that he “pointed [bin Laden] out” in his book “just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center.” He suggested that this would have led him to get bin Laden if had been president back in 2000: “of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did,” Trump writes.

This is wildly misleading, and not only because it implies that America captured bin Laden (which never happened, as he was killed during the capture attempt). The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler dug up the relevant passage from Trump’s 2000 book The America We Deserve; in context, Trump is pointing out bin Laden is one threat among many, not elevating him:

One day we’re told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin-Laden is public enemy number one, and U.S. jetfighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan. He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it’s on to a new enemy and new crisis. Dealing with many different countries at once may require many different strategies. But there isn’t any excuse for the haphazard nature of our foreign policy. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every new conflict.

You could read this as Trump saying we should be focusing more on bin Laden than other crises. But that’s not supported by the rest of the text of the book, which doesn’t mention him at all. There are more pages mentioning Al Gore (five) than al-Qaeda (zero) in The America We Deserve.

Chapter five, the chapter on terrorism, does not discuss either bin Laden or al-Qaeda by name (the above reference is in chapter one). This is despite the fact that there had been years of significant news coverage of bin Laden and his threat to the US — President Clinton even tried to assassinate him with a cruise missile in 1998.

Now, contrast this passage with Trump’s tweet from Monday:

There are true things in this tweet. It’s true that President Bill Clinton tried and failed to kill bin Laden; it’s also true that when the al-Qaeda leader fled into Pakistan after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence did not inform US intelligence of his whereabouts. There are real concerns about the US-Pakistan relationship, and whether the military aid that the US provides that country is worth it.

And I guess it’s true, technically, that Trump “pointed out” bin Laden in his 2000 book. But it’s clear from context and the full thrust of the book that Trump wasn’t particularly preoccupied with the al-Qaeda leader, especially given that bin Laden was already a well-known public figure by the time the book was published.

It’s not exactly new that Trump is rewriting history to make himself look like a hero gifted with incredible predictive powers — it pretty much means it’s a day ending in Y — but we should never stop being angry at the brazenness with which the president regularly insults our intelligence.

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