Fact-checking Hillary Clinton’s attack on Donald Trump over his ‘war hero’ dig at John McCain
By Neelesh Moorthy, PolitiFact
Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of disrespecting veterans in a scathing speech, just days after Trump made headlines by giving $5.6 million in donations to 40 veterans groups.
“He says climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, and he has the gall to say that prisoners of war like John McCain aren’t heroes,” Clinton said in her June 2, 2016, speech.
In a separate fact-check, we rated the climate change claim Mostly True. Here, we’ll take on the claim about McCain.
It dates back to a Trump an event in Ames, Iowa, on July 18, 2015. Trump, referring to McCain, R-Ariz., said “he’s not a war hero.” McCain spent five and a half years in a Vietnamese prison camp.
Trump’s comments were criticized by many of his then-competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, said Trump was “unfit” to be commander-in-chief for his remarks — the very point Clinton aimed to make throughout her speech.
Since then, Trump has claimed repeatedly that his statements were misinterpreted. We have looked at Trump’s statements before, but we wanted to re-examine the issue to see whether Clinton’s characterization of Trump’s words is accurate.
The bad blood between McCain and Trump started on July 16, 2015, when McCain said Trump had “fired up the crazies” at an Arizona anti-immigration rally.
A few days later in Iowa, Trump fired back during an interview with Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Trump accused McCain of not doing enough for veterans and proceeded to call McCain a “loser,” at which point Luntz expressed incredulity, noting multiple times that McCain was a war hero. Here’s the back-and-forth:
Luntz: “He’s a war hero. He’s a war hero …”
Trump: “He’s not a war hero …”
Luntz: “He’s a war hero.”
Trump: “He is a war hero …”
Luntz: “Five and half years in a Vietnamese prison camp …”
Trump: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured. So he’s a war hero …”
Luntz: “Do you agree with that?”
Trump: “He’s a war hero, because he was captured, okay? I believe, perhaps, he’s a war hero. But right now he said some very bad things about a lot of people. So what I said is John McCain, I disagree with him that these people aren’t crazy.”
Clinton would certainly be correct accusing Trump of saying McCain is not a war hero, which he does right off the bat. Trump does attempt to walk it back immediately, but he does so with caveats that continue to question McCain’s service — suggesting he is only a war hero because he was captured — and seemingly mock captured soldiers.
Also, in a press conference immediately after the rally, Trump insisted he was not blaming McCain for being captured. On a radio show May 11, 2016, Trump also said McCain is a hero.
“You know frankly, I like John McCain, and John McCain is a hero,” Trump said on the Imus in the Morning radio show.
In an interview on the O’Reilly Factor on July 20, 2015, Trump told Bill O’Reilly that he would “take back his remarks” if there was a “misunderstanding,” adding that he has since corrected them to express what he meant.
Clinton’s remarks can be interpreted in different ways. On the one hand, Trump did call McCain, a POW, “not a hero,” even if Trump has since distanced himself from that position.
However, Clinton’s remarks have a broader interpretation as well — that Trump has made a general statement against POWs being heroes, with McCain as an example.
That insinuation is present in what Trump said, as the Clinton press office and spokesman Zac Petkanas pointed out.
“I like people who weren’t captured, okay?” Trump said at the initial Iowa rally.
But Trump has repeatedly offered statements that support POWs more broadly. In the press conference immediately after the rally, Trump said that all prisoners are war heroes, with the exception of Bowe Bergdahl.
“If a person is captured, they’re a hero as far as I’m concerned, unless they are a traitor,” Trump said.
Trump also explained his comments about liking veterans who weren’t captured, saying that soldiers, both captured and not-captured, deserve credit.
“You have many people who didn’t get captured, I respect them greatly. You have many people who did get captured, I respect them greatly also,” Trump said.
Trump also pivoted back to his main talking point — that McCain has failed to advocate for veterans in the Senate (a statement we have previously rated False).
Clinton accused Trump in a speech Thursday of having “the gall to say that prisoners of war like John McCain aren’t heroes.”
In one sense, she has a point. Trump did in fact say that John McCain is not a hero despite his POW record, although Trump has since taken those comments back and called McCain a hero.
However, Clinton’s speech was intended to more broadly attack Trump’s national security credentials, yet Trump has never made the general statement that POWs are not heroes, even if his McCain-specific comments did insinuate it. In fact, he has insisted to the contrary on multiple occasions.
We rate this statement Half True.
“Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump Talk About John McCain on ‘The O’Reilly Factor,’” Fox News InsiderYouTube channel, July 20, 2015
BuzzFeed, “Trump: I Don’t Regret McCain Comments, My Poll Numbers Went Up,” May 11, 2016
“Donald Trump FULL Appearance at 2015 Family Leadership Summit (7–18–15),” Right Side Broadcasting’sYouTube channel, July 18, 2015
“Donald Trump: Hostile Press Conference at FLS 2015,” Caffeinated Thoughts YouTube channel, July 19, 2015
Email from Zac Petkanas, Hillary Clinton Spokesperson, June 3, 2016
Hillary Clinton webpage, “TRANSCRIPT: Hillary Clinton Delivers Major National Security Address,” June 2, 2016.
Hillary Clinton webpage, “Trump Literally Said All Those Things,” June 2, 2016
PolitiFact, “A list of the veterans groups Donald Trump says he donated to,” May 31, 2016
PolitiFact, “Trump: I called McCain a ‘hero’ four times,” July 19, 2015
The New York Times, “Donald Trump Says John McCain is No War Hero, Setting Off Another Storm,” July 18, 2015
The Washington Post, “Trump slams McCain for being ‘captured’ in Vietnam, other Republicans quickly condemn him,” July 18, 2015