Moderator Lester Holt called out Donald Trump on the Iraq War in what became one of the first debate’s most devastating moments for Trump. Tens of millions of Americans watched Trump squirm as he tried to explain how he was against the war, when he’d publicly said he was for it.
So naturally, Fox News decided to do damage control after the debate, publishing an article that claimed “history backs The Donald” on opposing the Iraq War. As proof, the network pulled up a January 2003 interview with Fox host Neil Cavuto, which Trump had mentioned as proof of his opposition during the debate.
But if you actually watch the clip, it shows nothing of the kind. Trump doesn’t oppose the war. He actually encourages Bush to hurry up and invade already if he’s going to do it.
This is an interpretation shared by every fact-checker who has looked at the clip — and Cavuto himself. Fox is either transparently lying or totally deluded.
Fox News’s defense of Trump is a complete lie
First, let’s be clear: Trump supported the Iraq War before it began. BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski has covered the issue exhaustively, with his most compelling evidence being a clip from a September 11, 2002, episode of Howard Stern’s radio show (yes, there’s audio):
STERN: Are you for invading Iraq?
TRUMP: Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.
During the debate, Trump tried to dismiss this moment by summarizing his answer as “who knows,” which is clearly not what he said. Then he referenced the Cavuto interview as evidence that he really was against it.
In the interview, Trump tells Cavuto that Bush should “either do it or don’t do it; that is, stop the long runup to the war, and either invade or don’t. This isn’t opposing the war — it’s actually criticizing Bush for dilly-dallying about the invasion.
The closest Trump comes in the interview to opposing the war is saying “perhaps he shouldn’t be doing it.” But “perhaps” is the key word there: Trump is acknowledging that the invasion could be a bad idea, not saying he believes it is. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the full 55-second clip and a transcript:
CAVUTO: If you had to, sort of, break down for the president — if you were advising him how much time you commit to Iraq versus how much time you commit to the economy, what would you say?
TRUMP: Well, I’m starting to think that people are much more focused on the economy. They’re getting a little bit tired of hearing, “We’re going in, we’re not going in” — whatever happened to the days of Douglas McArthur? When you’d go and attack, you wouldn’t talk.
It’s sort of like, either do it or don’t do it.
CAVUTO: You’re saying the leash on this is getting kind of short here, that the president has got to do something presumably sooner rather than later — and stringing this along could ultimately hurt us.
TRUMP: Well, he’s either got to do something or not do something, perhaps. Because perhaps he shouldn’t be doing it, yet. And perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations.
You know, he’s under a lot of pressure. I think he’s doing a very good job — but if you look at the polls, a lot people are getting very tired. I think the Iraqi situation is a problem, and the economy is a much bigger problem.
The Fox News article presents no argument as to why this clip vindicates Trump; it merely quotes a few lines from it and expects them to speak for themselves. The whole thing depends on readers looking at quotes out of context and, more generally, not knowing what words mean.
Incredibly, the Fox News article admits that its interpretation of this exchange has been rejected by every fact-checker who has looked at the issue. It omits the fact that it also has been rejected by Cavuto himself.
“Donald Trump has been campaigning largely on the theme of ‘I saw the ills and woes of going into Iraq before anyone else,’” Cavuto said in a pre-debate Fox News segment, unearthed by IJR’s Justin Green. “Yet when I interviewed him back in January 2003, a couple months before we formally got involved in Iraq — well, he could have left you with a different impression.”
Cavuto then proceeded to play the exact same clip that Fox News said vindicated Trump. The organization isn’t just at odds with the objective record and meaning of words; it’s at odds with its own staff.