Yes, Trump is Lying

A reporter just asked for my comment on Donald Trump’s recent claim about “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11. Here’s what I said.

The quotation from my co-authored piece with Gary Fine is my bottom line on the subject (quoted near the bottom). I did the interviews for the book chapter linked in the WaPo piece, and have interviewed Patersonians in the years since. No evidence has surfaced of any celebrations over and above the formulation of ours quoted in the WaPo from our book chapter. A small handful of people I’ve interviewed over the years claim to have seen something celebration-like in the mid morning of 9/11 around the 900 block of South Main Street (and claim to have been there in real time). I regard some of them as credible, and some of them as not credible. By all accounts, the “celebration” in question consisted of maybe a dozen or half dozen teenagers jumping around and yelling. It dispersed relatively quickly (i.e., within a few minutes). The police were patrolling the area and claim to have seen nothing. Reporters from the Herald News and Star Ledger were in the area; I interviewed as many reporters as I could find, and not one said that they had seen anything celebration-like. The only journalist who has ever defended the idea of a celebration has been Curtis Sliwa, who conducted a series of interviews in the area just after 9/11. I’ve spoken with Sliwa as well. To the best of my knowledge, his view coheres with mine–he regards it as likely that there was a mini-celebration consisting of 6-12 teenagers or young men, and that it dispersed relatively quickly.

To state the obvious: I don’t regard equivocal testimonial evidence of a bunch of teenagers jumping around and yelling as consistent with or supportive of Trump’s claims.

Also to state the obvious: Trump is the one who’s making the current claims. He bears the burden of proof for the claims he’s making. It seems to me he should be the one asked to bear it.

Irfan Khawaja

PS. Just to be clear: in case you saw my Jewish Standard interview from 2002, I do still stand by what I said there, as long as you take the interview as a whole with the July 2004 postscript. The 2004 postscript corrects a minor factual error in the original interview.

Bottom line: no matter how you slice it, Trump is lying.

Thanks to Michael Young, Joseph DeFilippo, and Susan Bernarducci for alerting to me to the story.

Postscript, 1:16 pm: Just to head off any misunderstandings, in the Jewish Standard interview, I make reference to a celebration “said to have” taken place at the Islamic Cultural Center in Paterson, New Jersey at 5 pm. I end my speculation about that anecdote by pointing out that I found the story implausible, intended to look into it, but never did look into it. What I recorded at the time was my hunch that the story sounded implausible. But precisely because I never actually looked into it, I don’t regard the story or my hunches as evidence of any substantive claim.

Postscript, November 24, 2015: I was gratified to see this piece by Benjamin Wittes in Lawfare. I’ve long admired Wittes’s work (have taught some of it, in fact), and this piece is no exception to the general rule. Here’s a small excerpt, but read the whole thing:

Let’s be blunt about this: They are either lying or they are delusional. And assuming they are not suffering both from the same hallucination, they are lying in a fashion calculated to instill anger and hatred against a minority population at a time when nerves are raw, fears are high, and tempers are short. There are a lot of names for this. None of them is nice.

The “they” is a reference to Ben Carson, who (briefly) joined Trump in what Wittes aptly (though qualifiedly) calls a “blood libel.” (Carson’s now backed off of the claim.)

Postscript, November 25, 2015: Here are some useful links on Trump and the celebration rumors: I’ve linked to Glenn Kessler’s Washington Post column above, but be sure to keep checking back, as he’s updated it several times. This item from the Bergen Record is practically a re-run of the sorts of items that regularly ran in the north Jersey papers in the fall of 2001.  The Record story mentions John Chadwick, who played an important role in the early reporting on this issue; here’s a link to some of Chadwick’s reporting from 2001. (Also important is the reporting of Hilary Burke, then of the Herald News. Unfortunately, Burke’s reporting isn’t easily available online, but I’ll try to remedy that if I can.) This piece from Talking Points Memo offers a useful summary of the issues, and a useful reminder of the other celebration rumor that circulated in the wake of 9/11–the “Dancing Israelis” rumor. Here’s a classic Snopes take-down of the celebration rumors.

Today’s New York Times has three interesting items on Trump’s mendacity and related matters. A front page item details yet another Trump fib, followed by a fairly cavalier expression of indifference to it from Newt Gingrich, who doubles in his post-political life as a historian. This piece provides a nice summary of Trump’s recent deceptions. And this column lays out John J. Farmer Jr.’s case against Trump. Farmer was attorney general of New Jersey in September 2001, and was stationed in Jersey City on 9/11. He’s currently the Dean of the Law School at Rutgers-Newark. According to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, Farmer’s claims have been disputed by Walter Zalisko, a former Jersey City police officer.

But Walter Zalisko, a former police officer in Jersey City, contacted The Fact Checker to say Farmer was wrong. He says he heard on the radio dispatch at the time that officers had found Middle Easterners “clapping and laughing” on a number of rooftops, even in one case knocking down a cardboard version of the Twin Towers. But he does not think a police report was filed. “It was at most a hundred people doing this,” he said, saying Trump’s description of “thousands and thousands” was an exaggeration. As for Farmer’s account, Zalisko said “John was holed up in his office and he didn’t know what was going on.”

Lots of things are said over the police radio, not all of them true. How does Mr. Zalisko know that these claims were true? How was the ethnicity of the people involved determined? Where and when did the event take place? He mentions “officers.” Who are they? And where are they? If he himself didn’t see the events in question, how is he better off than Mr. Farmer? If he did see the events in question, that would be worth knowing, but the passage seems to suggest that he didn’t see them. How does he know that the people in question were clapping and laughing at the attacks? The night that the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry to Earth (February 1, 2003), I went for a walk in my neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey and saw lots of people in bars and on the streets, clapping and laughing. Were the people of Princeton celebrating the crash?

Here’s a piece by The Weekly Standard, with a link back to this post, recording one of Chris Christie’s better moments. The author dutifully lines up the Kovaleski-Kunkle piece from The Washington Post and my claims about Paterson to put the best face on the idea that celebrations might have taken place. But he ignores something more obvious: surely the more obvious fact to consider is how many people lied and spread rumors about celebrations that clearly hadn’t taken place. Why mention the unverifiable possibilities but not the fully verified fact? (See my response to Derrick Abdul-Hakim on this issue in the combox below, responding to Powerline’s misuse of my research.)

In a repeat of the events of 2001-2002, my phone has started to ring once again with “eyewitness reports” of the Paterson celebrations. “Hi, my name is ___, I live in Paterson, and I was there on 9/11. Are you still doing research on the Paterson celebrations?” Somehow, I have a feeling I’ll always be doing research on the Paterson celebrations. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Or do I mean taking. Anyway, I guess I’m back in business again.

Here’s an interview I just did with Kelly Heyboer of the Newark Star Ledger.