WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump sits at the center of yet another firestorm based on his controversial claims and unwavering certainty.
It began at a Saturday rally when the conservative candidate claimed he saw “thousands and thousands” of Arabs in New Jersey “cheering” on September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers crumbled in Manhattan.
On Sunday, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos challenged the story’s veracity. In response, Trump countered, “I saw it. It was on television.”
The exchange continued:
STEPHANOPOULOS: The police say that didn’t happen at all. Those rumors have been on the Internet for some time, so did you misspeak yesterday?
TRUMP: It did happen, I saw it. It was …
STEPHANOPOLOUS: You saw that with your own eyes?
TRUMP: … on television. I saw it.
STEPHANOPOLOUS: Police say it didn’t happen.
TRUMP: George, it did happen. There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might not be politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as those buildings came down. [ABC News, This Week]
The GOP’s dominant 2016 candidate stuck with his story in the ensuing days as political opponents, police and journalists exposed the story’s unsubstantiated details.
Patterson, New Jersey, police commissioner Jerry Spezaile told the Washington Post, “That is totally false. That is patently false…that never happened. There were no flags burning, no one was dancing.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who’s gaining on Trump in the polls, responded plainly, “It’s not true.”
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said he had “not heard any evidence of this happening.” Hillary Clinton accused Trump and other conservative candidates of stirring anti-Muslim sentiments through “fear tactics, and scaremongering, and inflammatory rhetoric.”
Trump didn’t accept defeat, turning to a Sept 18, 2001, Washington Post article which mentioned alleged tailgate-style celebrations at certain New Jersey buildings. However, after Trump’s tirade, the Post ran a follow-up fact-check, which included interviewing the 2001 article’s original authors, and could not turn up any proof of the events Trump referenced.
In fact, WaPo rated the candidate’s claims a pants-on-fire level misstatement, one of its worst honesty ratings.
The New York Times did its own digging and summed up Trump’s claim in six words: “A lot of rumors. No proof.”
Again undeterred, Trump reassured reporters that he has “the world’s greatest memory” and is certain he saw Garden State Muslims cheering after the WTC’s collapse.
WaPo followed up with an investigation of flawed memory.
Experts suggest Trump might have seen celebrations overseas on television, leading him to erroneously “remember” a similar instance in New Jersey. Psychologists explain that “people unconsciously fabricate memories all the time, and that Trump might have done the same.”
Michael Cohen, a Trump spokesman, told media, “Whether it’s thousands and thousands, or a thousand, or even just one person, it’s irrelevant,” because, “Mr. Trump is making his point.”
Trump shows no signs of backing down from this fight, in keeping with his now-familiar approach to political rumbles.