With Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s outrageous claim this past weekend that he witnessed “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheering the fall of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, one might have gotten the impression that the often given-to-exaggeration Trump had done so again. But that would be a misguided impression, because the occurrence never occurred. That’s correct, it is an urban legend and never actually happened.
Politifact posted November 22 their findings after they checked up on Trump’s seeming eyewitness account in Jersey City, New Jersey, and discovered that although there were a few rumors of Muslims celebrating the September terrorist attacks, none were ever found to be credible. The stories that they did occur became fodder for Islamophobic emails and internet chain letters and conspiracy theories in the following years, but a check of the actual police and video footage file records indicate that, even when police were called to a potential scene (such as happened in Patterson, New Jersey), the Muslims found were praying.
What exactly did Donald Trump say at the rally in Birmingham? “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said Saturday night, according to NJ.com, “And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.
So when he was asked about what he saw on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” the next day, Trump, who was actually in his Manhattan apartment the morning of September 11, told the news anchor that he saw it on television.
“It was on television. I saw it,” Trump said. “It was well covered at the time, George. Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.”
Still, Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times, conducted an “exhaustive” Lexis Nexis search of print and video archives and found nothing that could be substantiated. Rumors, however, of celebrating in Jersey City were in evidence and printed in the papers via Associated Press and Washington Post stories. But the most persistent rumor featured Patterson, New Jersey, where the police chief himself reported that the Muslims there were found in prayer.
“Three percent of New Jersey residents are Muslim — the highest of any state — according to Pew Research Center. Suspected 9/11 terrorists had ties to Jersey City and Paterson. But there is no conclusive evidence that any New Jersey residents celebrated the attacks, and there is no evidence whatsoever of any demonstrations where ‘thousands and thousands of people’ cheered.”
The upshot is that Donald Trump got a “Pants on Fire” rating from Politifact, it’s worst rating for a fact they’ve deemed worth checking. The Washington Post conducted its own fact check and gave the billionaire’s comments four Pinocchio’s, its worst rating as well. Even NPR did a search and could find nothing.
Snopes.com, the urban legend debunking website, posited that Trump was suffering from a conflation of memories, where his memories of seeing footage of Palestinians cheering the September 11 terrorist attacks (and that footage was shown again and again) became mixed with the rumors he heard about the Muslims in America celebrating in New Jersey.
Worse, Donald Trump’s faulty memories appeared to have become contagious, especially when fellow presidential hopeful Ben Carson said he had seen the same footage. Later, though, ABC News correspondent Katherine Faulders posted to Twitter that Carson recanted, saying he had been thinking of the footage he’d seen of people in the Middle East celebrating.