Trump’s Celebration Story: The Latest Lies

Reuters has a story from Saturday afternoon, “Trump reframes claim that Muslims cheered 9/11.” This is how they report it:

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Saturday reframed his claim that he saw Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey, cheering the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 by asserting the sentiment was shared worldwide.

“Worldwide, the Muslims were absolutely going wild,” the real estate mogul said at a campaign rally in Sarasota, Florida.

That wouldn’t be a “reframe.” It would be a wholesale concession.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports it this way:

Trump also doubled down on his initial claim. “I talked about Muslims celebrating in New Jersey. And everyone knows it’s true … people saw. So I made that statement. I didn’t think it was a big deal because I thought everybody knew, adding that “everybody admits worldwide, Muslims were absolutely going wild” over the events of Sept. 11. He later criticized “Barack Hussein Obama” for the administration’s response to terrorist attacks.

“Reframe” or “doubling down”? Well, Trump had originally said that he saw the celebrations:

VIDEO CLIP OF DONALD TRUMP, IN WHICH HE SAYS:“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

STEPHANOPOULOS:“You know, the police say that didn’t happen and all those rumors have been on the Internet for some time. So did you misspeak yesterday?”

TRUMP: “It did happen. I saw it.”

Asked whether he saw them, he changes his story in mid-stride:

STEPHANOPOULOS:“You saw that…”

TRUMP:It was on television. I saw it.

STEPHANOPOULOS:“…with your own eyes?”

TRUMP: “George, it did happen.”

So the new story is not that Trump saw the celebration either with his own eyes, or on TV, but that “people” saw it. That’s not a “reframe.” It’s a liar telling a new lie to get out of the last one he told because he never managed to get his story straight in the first place.

Trump is on record as saying that the celebration story was “well covered at the time.” But with just a few exceptions, almost all of that coverage denied that there were celebrations. The few exceptions were a couple of right wing outlets (The New York Post, City Journal), a stray sentence here or there in the mainstream press (e.g., the Kovaleski-Kunkle article in The Washington Post), and then “shock jock” radio reporting of the sort associated with the old Scott Shannon/Todd Pettingill radio show on WPLJ-FM. But the mainstream media almost unanimously rejected the veracity of the rumors. This fact is too obvious to require demonstration. If you doubt it, trawl through back issues of the Herald News, Bergen Record, Star Ledger, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. When you find the celebration rumors mentioned, you’ll find their veracity denied.*

So, barring psychosis or brazen dishonesty, there is simply no way to claim, as Trump does here, that the veracity of the celebration rumor was ubiquitously taken as uncontroversial.  That claim is even more deranged than Trump’s original claim that thousands of people were celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City. It’s an Orwellian attempt to claim that everyone has always agreed that thousands of Muslims were celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City!

Given this, the Reuters reporting involves a subtle whitewashing of Trump’s deceptions. In abbreviating the direct quotation and describing it as a “reframe,” Reuters gives the impression that Trump merely confused the celebrations in East Jerusalem with celebrations he thought were taking place in Jersey City, so that what he’s now doing is merely backpedaling, i.e., claiming that he’d really been referring to the East Jerusalem celebrations the whole time. That would be dishonest enough, but as The Washington Post coverage makes clear, it’s not in fact what Trump is doing. What he’s doing is backpedaling while pedaling forward: he’s covering the old lie both by bringing up the celebrations in other countries, and by asserting that everyone knew that celebrations had taken place in Jersey City.

Now take a look at the actual footage of Trump’s Sarasota speech. He rambles a lot, but finally gets to the issue under discussion around minute 7 or so.

There is no “reframe” here at all except that celebrations in “Jersey City” have now become celebrations in unspecified “parts of New Jersey,” and the controversy over their occurrence has now miraculously disappeared under a storm of eleventh-hour tweets to Trump’s Twitter feed.

The Kasich camp has now released a video critical of Trump. The presentation is a bit melodramatic, and the Nazi allusion is a little over the top, but in some ways it’s quite appropriate, and something that Trump richly deserves.

There are reports out there that Trump’s popularity has fallen significantly this week. Opinion polls are about as reliable an indicator of the future as tea leaves or burnt offerings, but it would be nice to think that this is the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House.

Postscript, 10:16 pm: Oh well, time to “reframe” that “reframe.” Trump just comes out and tells us that there was no “reframing” at all. He meant exactly what he said:

“I have a very good memory, Chuck. I’ll tell you, I have a very good memory. I saw it somewhere on television many years ago and I never forgot it — and it was on television, too,” Trump said.

The real estate mogul claimed he’s heard reports of the celebrations in different New Jersey cities. He said his staff is looking for clips of television reports from the time that will prove his claim.

If he has such a great memory, why can’t he remember where he saw it, or when? Or what he saw? Or where exactly it took place? Or what channel it was on? And what does he plan to say if they don’t find anything?

“I’ve heard Jersey City. I’ve heard Paterson. It was 14 years ago,” Trump said. “But I saw it on television, I saw clips, and so did many other people — and many people saw it in person. I’ve had hundreds of phone calls to the Trump organization saying, ‘We saw it. There was dancing in the streets.’ “

Let’s not get distracted, Donald. The question is not what he’s hearing now, but what he saw then. Wouldn’t an honest person interested in the truth have first found the clips, and then made accusations?

But here is the real underlying agenda:

On Tuesday, Trump’s chief counsel, Michael Cohen, stood by the comments, even as he was pressed by CNN’s Chris Cuomo on the fact that there’s no evidence to back up the claims and that accuracy matters in a presidential race.

“He’s probably right,” Cohen said of Trump on “New Day.” “There’s no way to say that it wasn’t.”

Cohen said the argument over the number of people celebrating is misplaced, and that Trump was making a broader point about enemies within the United States.

“Whether it’s thousands and thousands or 1,000 people or even just 1 person, it’s irrelevant. To celebrate this tragedy … it’s wrong,” Cohen said. “What the exact number is, I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s relevant. What’s important is that there are bad people among us.”

So here’s the million-dollar recipe: (1) Start with an ad ignorantium fallacy. (2) Then backpedal on your client’s claim while your client is doubling down on the maximal version of the same claim. (3) Relying on (2), commit an ignoratio elenchi. (4) End by stoking the prejudices of your audience.

I grew up as a teenager listening to this song, regarding it as a bit hyperbolic and ultimately inapplicable to the country I lived in. We live and learn: it’s on its way to becoming the soundtrack of American political life.

*Postscript, Nov. 30, 2015: Politico has a useful list of articles derived from a Lexis-Nexis search for the dates Sept. 11-Dec. 31, 2001. I agree with the conclusion they draw: “…there is no conclusive evidence that any New Jersey residents celebrated the attacks, and there is no evidence whatsoever of any demonstrations where ‘thousands and thousands of people’ cheered.”

But contrary to what they say, their “search of newspaper and television transcripts” is not “exhaustive” (in any case, their list is not; perhaps their search went beyond the items in the list). Their list doesn’t include reporting from the Herald News (e.g.,  by Hilary Burke), and doesn’t include all of the reporting done by the Bergen Record (e.g., reporting by John Chadwick and by Nicole Gaudiano, as well as statements by Robert Grant, the Paterson city spokesman). It also misses the items that Gary Alan Fine and I cited in our 2005 paper from The Wall Street Journal, Orlando Sentinel, New York Post, and City Journal, and omits most of the reporting, print and television, of the “five dancing Israelis” rumor. It misses the MTV show recently uncovered by The Washington Post. Finally, it misses the fact that the rumors were repeated by Daniel Pipes in his book Militant Islam Reaches America, and were debated online by Pipes and me in 2004 at the History News Network’s website.  (Granted, the latter debate is outside of their search parameters, but Pipes used the occasion to spread more rumors.) I’ll try to discuss some of this material in forthcoming posts.

Here’s a short list, not intended to be exhaustive:

  • Hilary Burke, “Nobody in City Celebrated, Officials Report,” Herald News (Sept. 15, 2001), p. A4.
  • Christopher Callahan, “Anatomy of an Urban Legend,” American Journalism Review (November 2001).
  • John Chadwick, “Battling Rumors and Hatred,” Bergen Record (Sept. 13, 2001), p. A8.
  • Anthony Colarossi, “Critics: Radio Shows Fuel Hate,” Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 14, 2001), p. D1.
  • Nicole Gaudiano, “Scares, Hoaxes and False Alarms,” Bergen Record, (Sept. 14, 2001), p. A19.
  • Robert Grant, “Yelling Fire in a Packed Theater,” Bergen Record (Oct. 1, 2001), p. I6.
  • Drew Limsky, “America’s Course: Of War,” Los Angeles Times (Sept. 23, 2001), p. M2.
  • Heather Mac Donald, “Keeping America Safe from Terrorism,” City Journal (Autumn 2001), and letter exchange with me.
  • Joanne Palmer, ” ‘Protocols’ of Paterson: Scholar Discusses American Muslim Anti-Semitism,The Jewish Standard (now The New Jersey Jewish Standard), Dec. 20, 2002.
  • Daniel Pipes, “Fighting Militant Islam without Bias,” City Journal (Autumn 2001), reprinted in Militant Islam Reaches America.
  • Fred Siegel, “Radical Islam at War with America,” New York Post (Sept. 14, 2001).
  • Jeffrey Zaslow, “Arab’s Restaurant Is Nearly Ruined by Rumor of Celebration on Sept. 11,” Wall Street Journal (March 13, 2002), p. A1.

6 thoughts on “Trump’s Celebration Story: The Latest Lies

  1. Pingback: Trump’s Celebration Story: The Latest Lies | Donald Trump News

  2. I noticed that some comments on your previous posts on this tried to defend Trump against your claim that he’s lying by saying that maybe he just made a mistake; maybe he misremembers. Let’s be extremely charitable and suppose that’s right; he really saw videos of people celebrating in the Middle East, heard rumors about people celebrating in Jersey City, and got them confused. Even on that hypothesis, the man is being ridiculous, because he’s not showing any sensitivity whatsoever to the possibility that what he said is false or that there’s no evidence to support it. I’d say that even on the charitable assumption that he really does sincerely believe that he saw videos of Muslims in the U.S. celebrating the 9/11 attacks, he’s still shown that he doesn’t really care about truth. So maybe — just maybe — he’s not a bald-faced liar, but he sure as hell doesn’t care about truth in the least. There is simply no interpretation of his remarks on which he comes out deserving of respect, let alone serious consideration as a presidential candidate.

    Except, of course, that he seems to know what his base wants to hear. He’s a shrewd businessman, I’ll grant him that.

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    • Many people I respect have taken issue with my claim that Trump is lying, including Gary Alan Fine, my co-author (actually, he was the first author of the “Celebrating Arabs” paper). I’m debating whether or not to do a separate post on this, but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to it.

      One problem here is that the videos of celebrations in the Middle East were mostly videos of celebrations in East Jerusalem; there were celebrations elsewhere, but the videos of celebrations in the Palestinian territories were seized/confiscated by the Palestinian authorities. Though there were large celebrations in cities like Nablus, Jenin, and Gaza, the videotaped celebrations that were looped over and over on CNN took place in East Jerusalem and didn’t involve “thousands” of people. They involved dozens. So even if he confused East Jerusalem with Jersey City, he had to have invented the claim of seeing thousands and thousands of people celebrating in the streets of Jersey City.

      There’s also the obvious problem that the footage was clearly described as footage of East Jerusalem (or at least not of Jersey City).

      Mondoweiss has suggested that the “basis” for Trump’s claim was the “five dancing Israelis” story. To their credit, there is actually more documentation behind this story than there is behind the comparable story about Arabs/Muslims, and the rationalizations that one of the Israelis spins out for smiling at the wreckage of the Twin Towers involves you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it levels of hubris. But this story doesn’t work, either, and I also object to the idea of multiplying unproveable anecdotes in the context of a controversy like this one: we need to kill these rumors, not reproduce competing strains of them. Anyway, five Israelis isn’t thousands of Muslims. The five Israelis were arrested in East Rutherford, not Jersey City. Maybe they were seen “dancing” in Jersey City, but that isn’t clear–neither the dancing nor the location. They weren’t filmed doing whatever they were doing, so there was nothing to see.

      There is a pattern here. You can’t get any reality-based “basis” for Trump’s story off the ground unless you introduce culpable distortion into it. That’s not error, ignorance, mistake, or confusion on any normal application of those terms. It’s a culpable, willed disregard for the truth. But it seems to me that once a culpable, willed disregard for the truth is expressed as a sustained series of assertions, each flouting the evidence, each shouting down legitimate objections, each changing the story slightly to get some wiggle room–while high-paid attorneys spin the story in various directions incompatible with the original–and all of them within the context of a proven track record of outright lies, what you have is a lie. Maybe it’s a distinctive species of lie, different from the usual paradigm case of a lie. But it’s a lie. At a bare, bare minimum it’s a sustained expression of culpable ignorance. But I don’t feel that charitable.

      Here’s the “base,” by the way. Do I intend the pun? I’ll let you guess. Just be sure to watch the video embedded in the link if you haven’t seen it already.

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  3. I definitely do not believe that all Muslim people cheered and were happy when 9/11 happened. I know their were some people who died during 9/11 that were Muslim and I’m sure that their families were not cheering that their loved one passed away. I do not believe that all the Muslims had anything to do with it. Whoever attacked 9/11 attacked it and it was just their group so I do not believe that Trump can be coming at all the Muslims saying that they were happy that this happened.

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