Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story, citing other published accounts, said GOP nominee Donald Trump had apologized for the 1990s U.S. bombing campaign in the Balkans. The Trump campaign has denied the reports, although the Serbian news magazine that initially published the interview has not corrected its story. Foreign Policy has updated its own report to reflect the conflicting accounts.
In a normal election year, the story would quickly have been dismissed as too bizarre to be true: An American presidential nominee apologizing to Serbia for a decades-old, U.S.-led bombing campaign to stop genocide.
But in the topsy-turvy 2016 race, with Republican candidate Donald Trump looking to deflect allegations of sexual assault, Thursday’s report by the Serbian magazine Nedeljnik seemed plausible enough to multiple American media outlets. It quoted Trump calling the Serbian bombings “a big mistake” and blaming the administration of then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, for making “a mess” of the Balkans.
Nedeljnik, widely considered a legitimate journal, was still running its explosive Trump story as of Thursday afternoon. But Trump’s camp said the real estate magnate was never interviewed by Nedeljnik’s reporters or editors, and has not apologized for the 1990s air campaign that helped stave off potential civilian slaughter in Bosnia and Kosovo.
“This was a hoax and we look forward to receiving a formal retraction and apology from all involved,” said Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications advisor.
Nedeljnik’s managing editor, Marko Prelevic, told BuzzFeed that the magazine coordinated the interview through a Serbian-American actor, Vladimir Rajcic, who claims close ties to Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Prelevic said Nedeljnik received emailed responses from Trump advisor Suzanne Ryder Jaworowski, the campaign’s Indiana state director.
By late Thursday afternoon, the magazine’s editorial board issued an explanation of how the interview was obtained and admitted it should have vetted its sourcing more rigorously, according to an English translation. However, it still did not correct its reporting. Nedeljnik confirmed to FP it had taken down its interview “for the time being, and until we get to the end of this” in order to investigate its internal reporting, noting Rajcic continues to maintain the interview’s authenticity.
Rajcic is currently running for president of Serbia in the 2017 election there, according to this site. On his Facebook page, he brags about Pence’s recent vice presidential debate performance. Jaworowski told Politico she met a man of Serbian descent at a fundraiser who said he was running for president of Serbia, and expressed interest in supporting the campaign.
In the Trump campaign denial, Jaworowski said, “Regarding the article about a media interview with a Serbian politician and Mr. Trump via my email, this is completely false. I have never served as a conduit to interview Mr. Trump for anyone.”
During the Clinton-era conflict, Serbian militias engaged in ethnic cleansing against predominantly Muslim communities as Yugoslavia violently collapsed. The U.S. air strikes resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties, but NATO credited them with stopping a potential genocide. Clinton’s decision to intervene greatly influenced the thinking of Trump’s current rival, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, on the use of American military force abroad.
The Nedeljnik report was explosive not just because it seemed to backtrack on established U.S. policy. It also came as Trump is desperate to deflect criticism from the growing list of women accusing the Republican presidential nominee of sexual assault. And that appeared to draw an uncomfortable parallel with Bill Clinton, who was accused of his own “Wag the Dog” military campaign against a terror network linked to Osama bin Laden as the White House reeled from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal in 1998.
For his part, Trump has advocated an “America First” foreign policy in response to what he describes as disastrous nation-building military misadventures by Hillary Clinton and the Washington establishment. The U.S. should instead be pulling back from international commitments and such interventions, he has argued – with two notable exceptions.
As recently as the second presidential debate last Sunday, in response to a question about the tape scandal, Trump pledged again to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” and recommended a military alliance with Russia.
Trump’s alleged comments to Nedeljnik — if they are true — would also represent a turnabout toward Serbia, given a October 2015 interview with British newspaper The Guardian. “If there’s a problem going on in the world, and you can solve the problem,” the United States may decide to intervene, Trump said then.
Given the example of Bill Clinton’s decision to intervene in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing, he said, “It’s OK, sure.”
Photo credit: Joe Raedle / Staff