Donald Trump, who has made his opposition to the Iraq invasion one of the bedrocks of his campaign, was left scrambling during a CNN town hall when confronted with a newly uncovered interview in which he supported the conflict.
The interview, reported by BuzzFeed, was from 2002 when Trump sat down with radio shock jock Howard Stern and was asked directly whether he advocated invading Saddam Hussein’s country.
Trump replied: “Yeah I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.”
Asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper about the statement, the Republican frontrunner simply responded: “I could have said that.”
Trump then insisted that his past support for the war did not matter because “by the time the war started I was against it”.
His comments came during the second of a two-part town hall in Columbia featuring the remaining candidates in the Republican field. Ohio governor John Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush preceded Trump in Thursday night’s instalment, whereas Ben Carson and senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz participated the prior evening.
Trump stumbled when asked if he thought George W Bush had deliberately lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. Both a voter and Cooper repeatedly asked him if he stood by his comments in the last Republican presidential debate when he insisted that was the case.
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“They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none,” Trump said in the debate, held in Charleston on Saturday.
During Thursday’s town hall, just five days later, he backtracked, saying: “There are a lot of people that think that. Bottom line is there were no weapons of mass destruction.”
Pressed further, Trump said of George W Bush, “I don’t know what he did.” Trump added that he would have to “look at some documents”.
The forum took place as another news cycle was dominated by Trump, who earlier in the day drew a rebuke from Pope Francis, who was returning from a trip to Mexico, over the candidate’s stance on immigration. When asked about the Republican frontrunner, the pontiff objected to some of Trump’s controversial statements about immigrants.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the Pope said, while adding he did not wish to wade into the US presidential election.
Trump reacted sharply to the reports at first, saying it was “disgraceful” for a religious leader to question an individual’s faith and suggested the Pope had been misled by the Mexican government during his trip.
Addressing the drama in the town hall that same evening, Trump softened his tone toward the pope.
“I have a lot of respect for the pope. I think he was very much misinterpreted … and given false information,” he said. “I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media.”
Trump went on to praise the pope as having “a lot of energy” and being effective in his role, adding that he agreed with many of the pontiff’s positions.
Before Trump took the stage, two of his rivals in the Republican race who are struggling to gain traction in South Carolina sought to persuade the undecided into their fold two days ahead of the state’s primary. John Kasich and Jeb Bush both revealed their personal side and grasp of policy in a format that played to their strengths.
While Kasich and Bush have grown more confident in recent debates, they have often struggled to stand out on a crowded stage and looked uncomfortable in increasingly testy exchanges. Thursday’s town hall offered a stark contrast, as the two governors breezed through questions ranging from the healthcare law to US foreign policy against the Islamic State.
There were also more humanizing moments, such as when Kasich recounted the tragedy of losing his parents in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. The Ohio governor became emotional, saying his mother and father had been at Burger King because they were offered a second cup of coffee for free.
“That’s the way the mailman and Mrs Kasich lived,” he said of his parents, adding that their death sent him “into a black hole with just a little pin prick of light”.
“You don’t have to agree with me or like it or whatever, but it’s really where I found the Lord,” he added. “I have found that even though the pain still comes, there’s where I have to go.”
Kasich has largely glossed over the South Carolina primary, choosing instead to focus on states where he would have more widespread appeal. He is nonetheless hoping that primary voters, even if in the south, might give him another look after he secured a surprise second-place finish in New Hampshire last week.
Bush, who like Kasich is seeking to emerge as the establishment favorite, also opened up about his personal life in poignant terms. The son and brother of former US presidents lavished praise on his father, George HW Bush, calling him “the greatest man alive”.
“I realized pretty quickly in my life if I could be half the man my dad was that that would be a pretty good goal,” Bush said.
The former Florida governor has faced a series of challenges in gaining the traction he needs to remain competitive, and this week called upon his brother George W Bush for an assist on the campaign trail. The elder Bush brother remains a popular figure in South Carolina, despite having been considered a liability when Jeb Bush first launched his campaign.
“It’s a blast being with George, because I love him dearly,” Jeb Bush said.
Other Republican candidates spent the evening at an event held by Conservative Review, an online right wing publication, in Greenville.
Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, appearing along with prominent conservative figures like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin, emphasized their hard-right bona fides. Cruz spent much of his speech warning of the peril that the country faced in the aftermath of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. “Our very Bill of Rights hangs in balance, one justice away from a five justice radical left wing majority the likes of which our county has never seen,” said the senator from Texas.
Cruz warned of the consequences not just of electing a Democrat, whom he claimed “every one of their nominees is consistent left-wing knee jerk vote” but of other Republicans as well.
“We bat less than .500,” Cruz said, arguing that Republican presidents nominated “many of the worst judicial activists”.
Carson, who is lagging in the polls, hit his normal talking points berating “secular progressives” and political correctness while opining “in the future, he who controls space will control the earth”.
Marco Rubio was scheduled to attend but canceled because of scheduling issues, his campaign said.
Rubio’s absence sparked criticism from Cruz, with whom he is locked in a bitter feud. A spokesman for Cruz charged that Rubio was too afraid to appear at the gathering, issuing a statement declaring that Rubio “is not a conservative”.
Rubio instead appeared in an interview with Fox News alongside South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, whose endorsement he earned on Thursday. Earlier in the day, Rubio’s campaign accused Cruz staffers of resorting to dishonest tactics to impugn Rubio – such as photoshopping a picture of the senator shaking hands with Barack Obama to draw a link between their records.
Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, said it was “ridiculous” to go after the senator over his absence, much less to infer that he was not a true conservative.
The attack, Conant said, was “just the latest example of Ted Cruz’s willingness to do or say anything in this campaign”.