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What was Trump actually doing on 9/11? An anniversary fact check.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/11/2019 Gillian Brockell
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At a 9/11 commemoration at the Pentagon on Wednesday, President Trump expanded on his lengthy history of recollections of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath.

Before digging in, it is worth quoting at length.

I vividly remember when I first heard the news. I was sitting at home watching a major business television show early that morning. Jack Welch, the legendary head of General Electric, was about to be interviewed, when all of a sudden, they cut away.
At first, there were different reports: “It was a boiler fire.” But I knew that boilers aren’t at the top of a building. “It was a kitchen explosion in Windows on the World.” Nobody really knew what happened. There was great confusion.
I was looking out of a window of a building at Midtown Manhattan, when I saw a second plane at a tremendous speed go into the second tower. It was then that I realized the world was going to change.
Soon after, I went down to Ground Zero with men who worked for me to try to help in any little way that we could.

Okay, let’s unpack this.

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As the millions of Americans who witnessed the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history on live TV can attest, news shows did cut away from regularly scheduled segments to broadcast a live view of the World Trade Center towers after the first plane hit. Those same millions watched with horror as the second plane struck the second tower a few minutes later. 

But Trump’s claim here is a little different. He said he “was looking out of a window of a building in Midtown Manhattan” that he had previously identified as his “home” when he watched the second plane hit with his own eyes, not on TV.

Trump’s penthouse at Trump Tower is on the 58th floor — very high up into the New York skyline — so it is possible that he had an unimpeded view of the World Trade Center all the way down on the southern end of Manhattan.

There are reasons to be skeptical, though. While on the campaign trail in 2015, he told rallygoers:

“I have a window in my apartment that specifically was aimed at the World Trade Center because of the beauty of the whole Downtown Manhattan. And I watched as people jumped, and I watched the second plane hit.”

This an odd claim, considering that Trump Tower was four miles away from the World Trade Center, and it would have been difficult to see individuals jumping from that distance. But for those millions who watched on TV, the sight of people jumping can never be forgotten.

However, in an April 2019 tweet, legendary sports columnist Rick Reilly said he once visited Trump Tower and looked through a telescope aimed at Downtown Manhattan. He said Trump told him, “I saw the towers come down thr[ough] that telescope.”

“Oh, my God,” Reilly said he responded, to which Trump said, “Solid gold.”

There is one thing we do know for certain about Trump’s whereabouts 18 years ago. In the afternoon, producers for the WWOR local station in Seacaucus, N.J., were desperate to broadcast something besides a loop of the planes hitting the towers. As The Washington Post’s Timothy Bella reported last year, one of them thought to get a celebrity on the phone for an interview, soon after, they reached Trump on his private penthouse line.

A few minutes later, he was live on-air. “I have a window that looks directly at the World Trade Center, and I saw this huge explosion,” Trump said. “Now, I’m looking at absolutely nothing. It’s just gone. It’s just hard to believe.”

Then, when asked if his building at 40 Wall Street had seen any damage, Trump responded: “40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and it was actually, before the World Trade Center, was the tallest — and then, when they built the World Trade Center, it became known as the second-tallest. And now it’s the tallest.”

Brenda Blackmon, who was co-anchoring, told The Post in 2018: “Any reaction I had, in the midst of everything that was happening, was, wow, that’s insensitive. It just was.”

So that was the day of the attacks. In the Pentagon speech Wednesday, Trump also said, “Soon after, I went down to Ground Zero with men who worked for me to try to help in any little way that we could.”

This appears to be another version of a claim Trump began making only two days after the attacks, and has continued to make, without providing evidence, for years.

As The Fix’s Philip Bump reported in 2016, Trump was seen by multiple people in the media area outside the Ground Zero site on Sept. 13, 2001.

And he did an on-air interview with a German outlet, during which a reporter asked him if he would be involved in the reconstruction.

Trump responded: "Well, I have a lot of men down here right now. We have over 100, and we have about 125 coming. So we'll have a couple of hundred people down here."

He said something similar to an NBC News reporter the same day: “I have hundreds of men inside working right now, and we’re bringing down another 125 in a little while. They’ve never done work like this before. And they’re hard-working people, but they’ve never seen anything like it.”

She then asked him if he had spoken to his men at the site and how they were reacting. He said, “Well, there are a lot of them, but they’ve never seen bodies like this. … The great thing is when they find somebody that’s alive, like the five firemen that they found just a little while ago. … So they are working very hard, but it’s a very depressing situation for these folks.”

Last year, the fact-checking website Snopes contacted two men who were deeply involved in the Ground Zero effort. One, a retired FDNY deputy chief, told Snopes he never saw a large crew hired by Trump in the months he spent at Ground Zero, and that “there would have been no need for it.” The other, a construction demolitions expert who now runs a 9/11 first responders foundation, also said he knew of no evidence of a Trump-hired crew.

There is also a problem with the claim that it was “great” when his men “find somebody that’s alive.” This would mean that his men would have been at Ground Zero the day before, on the morning of Sept. 12, because, the last survivor, a woman named Genelle Guzman-McMillan, was pulled from the rubble 27 hours after the towers collapsed.

These inconsistencies haven’t stopped Trump from repeating versions of this story over the years. On the campaign trail in 2016, he said, “Everyone who helped clear the rubble — and I was there, and I watched, and I helped a little bit — but I want to tell you: Those people were amazing.”

And two months ago, at a Rose Garden ceremony with 9/11 first responders, he said, “And I was down there also, but I’m not considering myself a first responder. But I was down there. I spent a lot of time down there with you” — prompting frequent White House critic George Conway to push the satirical hashtag #LostTrumpHistory on Twitter.

On Wednesday at the Pentagon, the story seems to be tempered somewhat; he said he went down to Ground Zero “to try” to help. He didn’t say that he did.

Read more Retropolis:

#LostTrumpHistory: Trump’s 9/11 claims become a George Conway-pushed meme

Trump’s Fourth of July history speech: Turns out there weren’t airports back then

On 9/11, as the Pentagon burned, the White House couldn’t find Donald Rumsfeld

The photo of the doomed 9/11 ‘Dust Lady’ still haunts us after all these years

F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11

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