Trump's suggestion that servicemembers stole US money in Iraq could pose election problem
A common refrain of Donald Trump's criticisms of the war in Iraq has been that the United States should have repaid itself for the costs of the invasion by seizing the country's oil. In some iterations of the argument, Trump suggests that the revenue from the oil then be given to American troops who were injured in combat.
During a rally on Tuesday night in North Carolina, Trump took the argument in a different direction.
"Remember this," he said of the war in Iraq. "When we got out, we should have taken the oil. Most of the pundits – they don't have the brains they were born with – they said, 'They're talking about a sovereign country!' Iraq. Crooked as hell," he said with disdain.
Then he pivoted to a controversial practice employed by the government during the rebuilding period, in which pallets of cash largely drawn from Iraqi government accounts in the United States were flown to Baghdad. Over time, the total added up to billions of dollars – $12 to $14 billion, according to the New York Times; 363 tons of cash, per the Guardian – in shrink-wrapped bundles of $100 bills. It was sent to Iraq with the intent that the money be used to help introduce some liquidity into the local economy and to use as a form of petty cash. An investigation from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, SIGIR, found that a large portion of the money had gone missing. (More than a billion later turned up in a bunker in Lebanon.)
"How about bringing baskets of money, millions and millions of dollars, and handing it out," Trump said on Tuesday night. "I want to know: Who were the soldiers that had that job? Because I think they're living very well right now, whoever they may be."
Trump's use of the word "soldiers" immediately prompted questions about the people to whom he was referring. Was he accusing American soldiers of having dipped into the cash, enriching themselves in the process? Ben Kesling, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a veteran of the Marines, heard it that way. He tweeted:
"A presidential candidate just accused me and thousands of other troops of embezzlement while in a combat zone."
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks told NBC's Alexandra Jaffe that Trump wasn't disparaging American troops, but was instead referring to "Iraqi soldiers."
But in this case, Trump's statement as interpreted had some basis in fact. There were a number of American troops who were convicted of having skimmed off of the top during the rebuilding effort – including having pocketed part of those stashes of cash.
Some of that took the form of setting aside fuel shipments for resale to locals, as Slate detailed in a lengthy report last year. Some took the form of bribes. In some cases, troops sold supplies or ordered substandard (and therefore cheaper) equipment.
And in some cases, they took cash. Michael Nguyen, a graduate of West Point, was one of those put in charge of routing cash sent from the United States to security forces and projects near Baghdad. In 2009, he was indicted for "packing cash into boxes and mailing them to his family's home in Beaverton, Ore.," as the Los Angeles Times reported that year. In total, Nguyen made off with an estimated $690,000, but he was not then "living very well." In March 2010, Nguyen was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.
Some of the cash distributed by American forces did go to partners in Iraq, so some of it was likely redirected to unintended purposes once it left U.S. control. In that sense, Trump's revised statement is also probably accurate; that we don't know how all of it was spent means that there was almost certainly an element of corruption involved. Overall, SIGIR estimates that at least $8 billion was wasted in the rebuilding effort.
It's critical to note that Nguyen and any others who took cash from the pile were in the small minority.
The problem for Donald Trump is that his efforts to position himself as an opponent of the war in Iraq – and, therefore, of Hillary Clinton's support for it – have been a bit spotty, often centering on the false claim that he was demonstrably opposed to the war at the outset.
This incident is a reminder that there's also little political benefit in criticizing the American military, and certainly no benefit in appearing to smear members of the armed forces haphazardly. A politician doesn't want to find himself in the position of having to explain that, no, he wasn't implying that American troops were thieves.