Politics & Policy

Trump’s Far-Fetched 9/11 Comments

(Isaac Brekken/Getty)

As usual, Donald Trump’s latest comments are rankling at least one of his opponents.

“When you talk about George Bush,” Trump said on Bloomberg TV on Friday morning, “I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time.” Challenged by anchor Stephanie Ruhle, he added, “He was president, okay? . . . Blame him, or don’t blame him, but he was president. The World Trade Center came down during his reign.” On Twitter, Jeb Bush called Trump’s comment “pathetic,” sparking a back-and-forth between the campaigns on social media.

Trump, for his part, seems to want to blame. He told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Tuesday morning: “They knew an attack was coming. George Tenet, the CIA director, knew in advance that there would be an attack, and he said so to the president, and he said so to everybody else that would listen.”

To the extent that such noises edge uncomfortably near to “trutherism,” that charmless fringe that believes the United States government was behind the bloodiest terrorist attack on American soil, they are shameful. But as always, it’s difficult to know exactly what Trump means to say.

Republicans have long said that George W. Bush “kept us safe,” and what they meant is obvious: He does not deserve much blame for the September 11 attacks, and does deserve some credit for the fact that they had no sequel. Both halves of that statement are qualified, and both are correct. America’s national-security apparatus failed terribly in the lead-up to September 11, 2001. That’s a plain, indisputable fact. But the failures long preceded Bush’s inauguration. Had Bush possessed the degree of foreknowledge of the attacks that Trump attributes to him, he would surely have acted more decisively to correct those failures. No fair review of what the administration knew in the weeks and months before the attacks, though, suggests that Bush acted neglectfully or irresponsibly. Which is why the public, even when it eventually turned against Bush, has never blamed him. Nor can it be seriously contested that after the attacks Bush led the way to a stronger anti-terrorist strategy.

#share#Furthermore, Trump’s assertion that he would have prevented the attacks — “I believe that if I were running things, I doubt that those people would have been in the country,” he said on Fox News Sunday — is absurd. Given that the 19 hijackers entered the country on tourist, business, or student visas, nothing in Trump’s existing immigration plan would have stopped any of them at the border. And while 15 of the 19 terrorists should never have had their visas approved, as National Review reported in 2002, the idea that Trump’s mere presence in the White House would have sparked a revolution of competence behind State Department cubicles stretches credulity.

#related#But, most importantly, the question at stake is irrelevant. America’s intelligence and national-security structures, and the global geopolitical situation, have changed dramatically since September 10, 2001. The candidates for the Republican nomination should be focused on improving our national-security resources, and on addressing present-day security challenges, not on a war of words over old failures.

The Democratic presidential candidates spent last week’s debate touting a 1933 banking law and their opposition to the war in Vietnam. We have one party obsessed with a past it is incapable of learning from. We don’t need another.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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