Gaffe Track: Trump's Mash Note for Saddam

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The candidate: Donald J. Trump

The gaffe: Speaking in Raleigh, North Carolina, last night, Trump found the positive side of the late repressive, genocidal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. "He was a bad guy—really bad guy. But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.”

The defense: There’s a coherent case that toppling Saddam was a grave error because it destabilized the Middle East and led to sectarian wars, broader regional dysfunction, and ISIS. Also, the Harvard remark is kind of hilarious trolling coming from a Penn grad.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Here’s a handy, one-word guide for presidential candidates on when to praise Saddam Hussein: “Never.” Whatever the case to be made that toppling Saddam was a bad idea, it’s not really the case Trump made. Instead, he praised a war criminal for his handling of enemies, and a known sponsor of terrorism for his killing of terrorists. (When Henry Kissinger makes the case for cozying up to repressive dictators because of American self-interest, he’s revered as a wise statesman, but when Trump does it, everyone is appalled—though maybe that says more about Kissinger than about Trump.) This isn’t the first time Trump has argued the world would be better off with Saddam in power, and it’s not even the first time he’s made the “Harvard of Terrorism” joke. But once again, the Republican has managed to trip on his own feet, distracting from condemnation of Hillary Clinton’s email. It’s a weird comment to make in North Carolina, a state with many Iraq veterans, though he also suggested in Greensboro that U.S. soldiers siphoned reconstruction funds. Anyway, all of this would ring a lot more true if Trump had been opposed to the Iraq war from the start. But despite his claims, he clearly supported it.

The lesson: Praising Saddam can make a candidate’s image go from Baath to worse.