Donald Trump is not seeing things that do not exist, he is just ill-informed, confused and highly imaginative about what he sees on television.
Donald Trump admitted on Friday that a story he has been telling audiences at rallies on Wednesday and Thursday — that he had seen a video shot and distributed by the Iranian government showing the world a “top-secret” American shipment of cash arriving in Iran — is completely false.
The plane I saw on television was the hostage plane in Geneva, Switzerland, not the plane carrying $400 million in cash going to Iran!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2016
In other words, he mistakenly thought grainy video images shown over and over on Fox News this week — of three Americans of Iranian descent getting off a plane in Geneva in January, after being freed from jail in a prisoner swap with the United States — showed money the United States has owed to Iran since 1979 being delivered the same night.
Given the very large number of things that Trump has said that are not true but has refused to stop repeating on the campaign trail — like that he watched on September 11, 2001 as “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the collapse of the World Trade Center — it was somewhat startling that he admitted that he was wrong about the video he had first described to supporters in Florida.
Speaking at a rally in Daytona, Florida on Wednesday, Trump made this dramatic assertion:
“I’ll never forget the scene this morning,” he said. “And remember this: Iran — I don’t think you’ve heard this anywhere but here — Iran provided all of that footage, the tape of taking that money off that airplane,” Trump said.
“Now, here’s the amazing thing: Over there, where that plane landed, top secret, they don’t have a lot of paparazzi. You know, the paparazzi doesn’t do so well over there, right?” he said. “And they have a perfect tape — done by, obviously, a government camera — and the tape is of the people taking the money off the plane. Right? That means that in order to embarrass us further, Iran sent us the tapes. Right? It’s a military tape; it’s a tape that was a perfect angle, nice and steady, nobody getting nervous because they’re gonna be shot because they’re shooting a picture of money pouring off a plane.”
By Thursday morning, the Washington Post had asked Trump’s staff to explain what he was talking about, and spokeswoman Hope Hicks responded that it was in fact “merely the b-roll footage included in every broadcast” on Fox News, showing the hostages, not the cash.
But that didn’t stop Trump repeating the story later in the day in Maine.
“I woke up yesterday and I saw $400 million, different currencies — they probably don’t want our currency — different currencies, $400 million being flown to Iran. I mean folks, what’s going on here? What’s going on? What is going on? You see it, you don’t believe. Four hundred million in cash being flown in an airplane to Iran,” he said.
And he continued: “And you know it was interesting because a tape was made. Right? You saw that, with the plane coming — nice plane. And, the airplane coming in and the money coming off I guess, right? That was given to us, has to be, by the Iranians. And you know why the tape was given to us? Because they want to embarrass our country, they want to embarrass our country.”
The transfer of $400 million to Iran by the Treasury Department has prompted outrage in the right-wing Twittersphere this week even though it was never secret. President Barack Obama announced it himself in January, calling the agreement to resolve a longstanding dispute over Iranian money held by Washington since the fall of the shah a side benefit of diplomatic ties renewed during talks over Iran’s nuclear energy program.
An Iranian general boasted at the time that the money was a form of ransom paid to release the jailed Iranian-Americans, and this week the Wall Street Journal reported a new detail about the payment: that it was made in cash flown to Tehran on the same night the prisoners were freed. That led to renewed criticism of the deal from Republicans who argued, as they first did in January, that President Obama had paid ransom money to a state that held the American citizens as “hostages.”
Trump’s acknowledgement that everything he had said about the video was essentially made up didn’t entirely assuage concerns about his grasp on reality.
As a general principle, anybody who gets up in public & repeatedly talks about imaginary videos in far away countries needs help, not votes.— stuart stevens (@stuartpstevens) August 5, 2016
So devious of Iran to release video that only Trump can see— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) August 5, 2016
Fox News repeatedly used the video of the prisoners arriving in Geneva to illustrate its discussion of the growing outrage on the right over the cash payment to Iran. So it is not hard to see how someone casually watching the channel, particularly with the sound off, might have assumed the footage was, in fact, of the money arriving in Tehran. This allows the possibility that he was ignorant and reckless, rather than outright delusional.
Then again, the incident is reminiscent of Trump’s insistence last year that celebrations of the 9/11 attacks by crowds of Muslims in New Jersey were broadcast on television, when what was televised that day was a few seconds of footage of about a dozen Palestinians celebrating in East Jerusalem. And it raises another troubling question: Just how ready to lead the country is a man who gets a lot of his information about world events from television reports he seems to have trouble understanding?
Asked last year by NBC’s Chuck Todd who he turned to for military advice, Trump replied: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals and … you have certain people that you like.”
According to Philip Rucker of the Washington Post, during an interview this week, Trump interrupted the conversation at least five times to draw attention to what was playing on “a nearby television, which was tuned to Fox News.”
Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal” in Trump’s voice, recently told The New Yorker that Trump’s short attention span has given him “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance.”
“That’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source — information comes in easily digestible sound bites,” he added.
Trump’s confused accounts of what he thought he saw on television this week led to a barrage of jokes on social networks comparing him to the simple-minded character played by Peter Sellers in “Being There.” In that film, however, the television addict Chauncey Gardener only advised the president of the United States; he never held the office.
Trump’s campaign is like “Being There” if Chauncey were a mentally impaired businessman who talked about himself instead of gardening.— Alan Spencer (@MrAlanSpencer) August 2, 2016
Donald Trump's devotion to watching TV gives Chauncey Gardner a run for his money. Being There wasn't supposed to be a documentary!— Alex Katz (@Alex__Katz) August 5, 2016