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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Revised 9/11 Claim

Donald Trump said that a reporter was “trying to change his story” after writing an article that Trump said supported the discredited claim that Trump watched “thousands and thousands” of people in New Jersey celebrate the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But it’s Trump who has changed his story, not the reporter.

Trump, the Republican nominee for president, made the claim at a campaign rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Aug. 3. He was defending himself against a claim made in a Hillary Clinton TV ad that he mocked Serge Kovaleski, a disabled reporter who suffers from arthrogryposis, which primarily restricts joint movement in the limbs.

Trump, Aug. 3: We had a story where I was talking about people dancing in the streets or dancing on the rooftops. You remember? Now, in all fairness, throughout the world they were dancing. But I said in New Jersey, they were dancing … when the World Trade Center came down. Nice. Real nice. So, here’s the story. … So, you know what the word grovel is, right? When you’re groveling. In other words, you’re trying to tell something, you’re trying to make something up. You’re groveling. … So, I had a reporter who wrote a good story for making my case because it was a long time ago. This was like 15, 16 years from the time we started this narrative. So, it was a long time ago and it was during the World Trade Center. Right after the World Trade Center, this reporter wrote a story talking about people dancing in the streets or on rooftops or something. It was pretty good, so we used it. And then the reporter, after I’m sure he was given tremendous pressure, he worked for, I believe, the Washington Post and he worked for the New York Times and he worked for different things. … But the reporter all of a sudden, remembered it totally different from his story and he was groveling. I won’t make the motions because if I do they’ll say something, you know? … So he was groveling and trying to change his story. And going, “You know, well, maybe not.”

However, Kovaleski, an investigative journalist at the New York Times, has not changed his story.

Trump’s original statement was that he saw on TV “thousands and thousands” of people cheering in New Jersey after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He didn’t simply say that there were “people dancing” in the streets or on rooftops.

Trump, Nov. 21, 2015: 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. So something’s going on. We’ve got to find out what it is.

A day later, on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump stuck to that story: “It did happen. I saw it. … It was on television. I saw it. … 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.”

But we and other fact-checkers found no evidence that thousands of people in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attacks. What is true is that local and national news organizations tried to verify reports of celebrations in New Jersey cities and turned up little or nothing.

Then, on Nov. 23, two days after he first made his statement about celebrations on 9/11, Trump claimed to have evidence that supported him. He tweeted a link to a Sept. 18, 2001, Washington Post story and demanded an apology.

In his tweet, Trump does quote the Post article accurately. But it doesn’t support Trump’s claim. The article, written by Kovaleski and Fredrick Kunkle, did mention “alleged” celebrations, but those allegations were unattributed and unverified. And it said nothing about TV broadcasts of “thousands and thousands of people” celebrating, as Trump had claimed.

Trump is also wrong about Kovaleski, who he said was “trying to change his story” after Trump tweeted a link to Kovaleski’s article. The Washington Post Fact Checker talked to both reporters on the Post story cited by Trump, and neither could recall if the allegations about the tailgate-style celebration were ever substantiated.

“I certainly do not remember anyone saying that thousands or even hundreds of people were celebrating,” Kovaleski, who now works for the New York Times, told the Fact Checker. “That was not the case, as best as I can remember,” Kovaleski said.

CNN quoted Kovaleski telling the cable news organization the same thing.

CNN, Nov. 24, 2015: “We did a lot of shoe leather reporting in and around Jersey City and talked to a lot of residents and officials for the broader story. Much of that has, indeed, faded from memory,” said Kovaleski, who’s now an investigative reporter for The New York Times. “But I do not recall anyone saying there were thousands, or even hundreds, of people celebrating. That was not the case, as best as I can remember.”

In fact, Fredrick Kunkle, the other author of the Post story, told the Fact Checker that he could never confirm the reports of celebrations.

“I specifically visited the Jersey City building and neighborhood where the celebrations were purported to have happened. But I could never verify that report,” Kunkle said.

The Post never reported that there were “thousands” of people in New Jersey “celebrating” the attacks, as Trump stated. So Kovaleski isn’t “trying to change his story” by saying that he doesn’t remember anyone saying that that happened at the time.