The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.
Answers to Questions Nobody Is Asking
“Mark Cuban Won’t Accept a Position in Clinton Administration”–headline, TheHill, Sept. 27
News You Can Use
“Kansas Cops Remind Everyone Not to Call 911 Just Because They Hate a Candidate”—headline, Complex, Sept. 27
Trump and Iraq
This column has long argued that the journalistic genre known as “fact checking” is a corruption of journalism. “The ‘fact check’ is opinion journalism or criticism, masquerading as straight news,” we wrote in 2008. “The object is not merely to report facts but to pass a judgment.”
Eight years later, we’d amend that slightly. “Fact checking” doesn’t pretend to be straight news exactly, but something more authoritative. The conceit of the “fact checker” is that he has some sort of heightened level of objectivity qualifying him to render verdicts in matters of public controversy.
Lately the “fact checkers” have been waging a campaign to portray Donald Trump as a contemporaneous supporter of the Iraq war, contrary to his assertions that he was an opponent. In Monday’s debate, Hillary Clinton pleaded for their help: “I hope the fact checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard. Donald supported the invasion of Iraq.” Moderator Lester Holt obliged, basing a question to Trump on the premise that the matter was settled: “You supported the war in Iraq before the invasion.”
Trump somewhat inarticulately rebutted the claim: “The record shows that I’m right. When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, the first time anybody’s asked me that, I said, very lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows.”
What Trump actually said on Sept. 11, 2002, when Stern asked him if he favored an invasion, was: “Yeah, I guess so.” That was an affirmative statement, but a highly equivocal one. Is it fair or accurate to characterize it as sufficient to establish that Trump was a “supporter”? In our opinion, no. He might well have had second thoughts immediately after getting off the air with Stern.
He certainly had second thoughts in the ensuing months, and he came to oppose the invasion long before Mrs. Clinton did. Even FactCheck.org was unable to come up with any other Trump statement supportive of the decision to go to war. By December 2003, according to the site’s timeline, Trump was observing (in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto) that “a lot of people” were “questioning the whole concept of going in, in the first place.” Five years later, according to PolitiFact.com, Trump was calling for President Bush’s impeachment because, as he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “he got us into the war with lies.”
Trump repeated that last claim in a February debate in South Carolina (in the transcript at the link, the second Trump quote is erroneously attributed to moderator John Dickerson):
Trump: George [W.] Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.
Dickerson: But so I’m going to—so you still think he should be impeached?
Jeb Bush: I think it’s my turn, isn’t it?
Trump: You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
When Trump said that, it shocked many conservative commentators and intellectuals, including the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last:
Nine months ago, if you had asked Sarah Palin, Scott Brown, Jerry Falwell Jr., or Ann Coulter whether they would endorse a figure who takes the Code Pink, Michael Moore, MoveOn.org view of Iraq (”Bush lied, people died”), one suspects they all would have recoiled at the prospect. Yet in the hours after Trump insisted that George W. Bush intentionally lied the country into war, not one of the major figures who have endorsed him was willing to contradict his claim….
One needn’t be an admirer of George W. Bush, or a believer in his freedom agenda, or even a supporter of the Iraq war to understand how pernicious this is. Whatever your views on the wisdom of Iraq, no serious person believes that Bush masterminded a massive fraud, with the help of his cabinet and the entire national security apparatus; that his “lies” then managed to fool the governments and intelligence agencies of a dozen allies; and that, somehow, none of the evidence of this scheme ever managed to leak into the open.
Which leads to an obvious question: Where were the “fact checkers” in February, when Trump made that patently false claim? The only related “fact check” we could find was one from FactCheck.org, rebutting Trump’s denial, a month later, that he had said what he said: “I didn’t say lie. I said he may have lied. I don’t know.” It was a rare example of a “fact check” that simply checked a fact.
A funny thing happened after the South Carolina debate: Trump won the state’s primary and went on to win the nomination. The Republican electorate did not see Trump’s opposition to the Iraq war, or even his endorsement of the “Code Pink, Michael Moore, MoveOn.org view of Iraq,” as disqualifying.
“[Trump] secured the Republican nomination against a field of 16 candidates described last summer by George F. Will as ‘the most impressive since 1980, and perhaps the most talent-rich since the party first had a presidential nominee, in 1856,’ ” notes William Voegeli in the Claremont Review of Books:
How did Trump achieve this? One crucial difference from all those competitors is that he could deplore the Middle East policies of both Presidents Bush and Obama as “a tremendous disservice” and a “disaster.” No other GOP candidate possessed so much leeway to denounce the war in Iraq, the most recent Republican president’s “signature idea,” as the New York Times’s Ross Douthat termed it. At the other end of the spectrum of 17 candidates, Jeb Bush’s campaign never recovered from making a terrible first impression: the 12 years since the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom had, apparently, been too little time for him to form an opinion as to whether, knowing what we do now, his brother’s decision to invade that country had been a good idea.
It’s not hard to see why Republican voters might have been more attracted by Trump’s repudiation of the Iraq war than repelled by the bumptious and scurrilous way in which he expressed it. That conflict turned out to be a strategic disaster for the U.S., in part (as Trump has noted) because of Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops in 2011.
It also turned out to be a political disaster for the GOP. After re-electing George W. Bush, voters turned against the war. They also turned against the Republican Party, handing control of Congress to the Democrats in 2006 and the White House to an antiwar Democrat two years later, after he defeated the still pro-war Mrs. Clinton for the party’s nomination.
The Iraq war helped make ObamaCare, and much else that is anathema to GOP voters, possible. Trump offered Republicans an opportunity to move beyond the Iraq mistake. Under the pretense of “fact checking,” journalists now are furiously attempting to scuttle that opportunity.
For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.