NEW YORK (AP) -- Over and over again, Donald Trump says he opposed the Iraq War before it started. But no matter how many times the Republican candidate for president says it, the facts are clear: He did not.
There is no evidence Trump expressed public opposition to the war before the U.S. invaded. Rather, he offered lukewarm support. The billionaire businessman only began to voice doubts about the conflict well after it began in March 2003.
That hasn't kept Trump from making his opposition a centerpiece of his criticism of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's approach to foreign policy.
Clinton voted in favor of the invasion in 2002 while she was a New York senator. It's a vote she has said was a mistake.
Trump pushes his claim of early disapproval as "one of the biggest differences in this race."
"I was against the war in Iraq, because I said it's gonna totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has," Trump said at Wednesday's nationally televised forum on national security. The next day, he spent several minutes at an education event in Cleveland reiterating his opposition and citing a series of interviews as proof.
"I was opposed to war from the beginning," Trump said. "I just wanted to set the record straight. There is so much lying going on."
But those interviews offer no such evidence.
When asked for additional proof, Trump's campaign referred to material from a fact check published by The Washington Post that concluded "there's no sign that Trump opposed the invasion or was vocal about it prior to the invasion."
Trump's first known public comment on the topic came on Sept. 11, 2002, when he was asked whether he supported a potential Iraq invasion in an interview with radio host Howard Stern.
"Yeah, I guess so," Trump responded after a brief hesitation, according to a recording of the interview unearthed by BuzzFeed News. Trump then alluded to the first Gulf War in 1991, which ended with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein still in power. "You know, I wish it was, I wish the first time it was done correctly."
His next comment came in January 2003, during a Fox News Channel interview with Neil Cavuto. Trump suggested the economy and threats from North Korea posed greater problems for then-President George W. Bush than Iraq, but he did not say he opposed a possible invasion.
Trump also suggested that the American people were looking for an answer one way or another from Bush.
"Either you attack or you don't attack," Trump said.
On March 21, 2003, just days after the invasion began, Trump told Cavuto on his show that the invasion "looks like a tremendous success from a military standpoint."
As 2003 went on, Trump's opinions started to shift slightly. That September, he said on MSNBC that he "would have fought terrorism, but not necessarily Iraq." In December, he told Fox News that "a lot of people (are) questioning the whole concept of going in in the first place." But he stopped short of saying that he was among those opponents.
In fact, Trump had voiced support for a hypothetical invasion of Iraq before Bush took office. In his 2000 book, "The America We Deserve," he suggested that he would be in favor of a pre-emptive strike if Iraq was viewed as a threat to national security.
"I'm no warmonger," Trump wrote. "But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion." He went on to compare a decision to invade with the "quick, secret, decisive moves in order to gain a negotiating advantage" in a business deal.
During the GOP presidential primaries, Trump repeatedly promoted what he said was his opposition to the war as an advantage over fellow Republicans. At his education event in Cleveland on Thursday, he went further, saying that "had I been in Congress at the time of the invasion, I would have cast a vote in opposition."
In those remarks, and in notes provided by his campaign, Trump pointed to a pair of interviews as evidence to back up his claim he was against the war from the start.
He cites comments he made to The Post on March 25, 2003, at a post-Oscars party in which he called the war "a mess." But those remarks, which came four days after he called the invasion a "tremendous success," appeared to be a reference to a friendly fire incident in which a U.S. missile downed a British fighter jet and led to a 300-point fall in the stock market.
Second, Trump points to the August 2004 issue of Esquire, in which he made his first strong comments opposing the war, saying he "would never have handled it that way."
"Very early in the conflict, extremely early in the conflict, right at the beginning, I made a detailed statement in an interview to Esquire Magazine," Trump said in Cleveland. "So, right at the beginning."
That statement did not come at the beginning. Trump's interview with Esquire was printed 16 months after the invasion began, long after U.S. forces became engaged against a violent Iraqi insurgency. This week, Esquire added an editor's note to the story that highlights Trump's falsehood.
"The Iraq War began in March 2003, more than a year before this story ran, thus nullifying Trump's timeline," the note reads.
Colvin reported from Washington. Steve Peoples contributed reporting from Cleveland.
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