Just a day before the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is caught up in a controversy over recent remarks about the 9/11 terror attacks that could stall his momentum.
In a Monday profile in The Atlantic, Ramaswamy is quoted comparing the federal government’s supposed lies about the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, to alleged deceits about the origins of the mass-casualty terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The comments, which the candidate has since argued were taken out of context, are sure to become fodder for attacks in Wednesday’s debate as more experienced Republican contenders seek to arrest Ramaswamy’s rise in the polls.
Ramaswamy, a political newcomer from Ohio who made a fortune founding a biotechnology company, appeared to suggest that federal law enforcement officials may have been secretly involved in the Sept. 11 plane hijackings.
“I think it is legitimate to say how many police, how many federal agents, were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers. Maybe the answer is zero. It probably is zero for all I know, right? I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero,” Ramaswamy said. “But if we’re doing a comprehensive assessment of what happened on 9/11, we have a 9/11 commission, absolutely that should be an answer the public knows the answer to.
“Well, if we’re doing a January 6 commission, absolutely, those should be questions that we should get to the bottom of,” he continued. “‘Here are the people who were armed. Here are the people who are unarmed.’ What percentage of the people who were armed were federal law-enforcement officers? I think it was probably high, actually. Right?”
Like many other Republicans, Ramaswamy maintains that the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies have not been honest about how many of their undercover agents were involved in the Jan. 6 riot aimed at stopping the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
But Ramaswamy acknowledged to The Atlantic that Jan. 6 and Sept. 11 are not comparable in scope or character.
“It’s a ridiculous comparison. But I brought it up only because it was invoked as a basis for the January 6 commission,” said Ramaswamy, noting that the 9/11 Commission was cited as a model for a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
In the day since the Atlantic article came out, Ramaswamy’s efforts at damage control have only compounded the impact of his original gaffe. Facing criticism for his apparent openness to the idea that there were U.S. federal agents on the planes that hit the World Trade Center, Ramaswamy claimed in a Monday evening interview on CNN that he had never made the remarks.
“I asked that reporter to send the recording because it was on the record,” Ramaswamy told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, referring to The Atlantic reporter John Hendrickson. “He refused to do it.”
On Monday evening, Collins also pressed Ramaswamy to explain his recent comments on a right-wing talk show hosted by Alex Stein, who had asked the candidate whether 9/11 was an “inside job or exactly how the government tells us.”
“What I’ve seen in the last several years is: we have to be skeptical of what the government does tell us. I haven’t seen evidence to the contrary,” Ramaswamy told Stein in early August, implying that he had no reason to question the fundamental facts about who perpetrated the attack. “But do I believe everything the government told us about it? Absolutely not. Do I believe the 9/11 Commission? Absolutely not.”
Ramaswamy told CNN that he does not believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” perpetrated by the U.S. government. He insisted instead that when he refers to the U.S. government’s lies about 9/11, he means that officials have not been honest about the alleged role of the Saudi Arabian government in the terror attacks.
“It is absolutely true that Saudi Arabia was involved in 9/11,” Ramaswamy said.
Although many would disagree with Ramaswamy’s exact claims about Saudi involvement, that part of his remarks is rooted in fact. President Joe Biden declassified FBI documents in September 2021 that detail the law enforcement agency’s strong suspicion that two Saudi nationals living in the U.S. at the time of the attacks ― a diplomat and a Saudi intelligence agent ― played a significant role in helping the perpetrators of the 9/11 hijacking attacks. The new documents diverge from previous assurances by the FBI and the 9/11 Commission that the two Saudis were not involved in the attacks. The declassified materials do not, however, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Saudi government as a whole, or higher-ranking Saudi officials, orchestrated the two men’s participation.
The audio clearly demonstrates that Vivek was taken badly out of context and even this small snippet proves that.Tricia McLaughlin, spokesperson, Ramaswamy campaign
National scrutiny of Ramaswamy’s comments about 9/11 has not let up since Monday. Less than 24 hours after Ramaswamy dared Hendrickson to release audio of their conversation, The Atlantic reporter obliged with a new story containing a link to the relevant audio and a transcript of their comments. The audio confirmed that Ramaswamy had sketched the hypothetical about federal agents on the Sept. 11 planes in an apparent attempt to explain why it might be reasonable to wonder if the government was lying about federal agents’ role in the mob violence of Jan. 6.
Ramaswamy’s campaign told HuffPost that the audio recording shows that he never intended to suggest that federal agents might have been involved in the 9/11 attacks.
“We are grateful that the Atlantic released the audio after we repeatedly asked them to do so. The audio clearly demonstrates that Vivek was taken badly out of context and even this small snippet proves that,” Tricia McLaughlin, Ramaswamy’s communication director, said in a statement. “We continue to encourage the Atlantic to release more of the recording, rather than their carefully selected snippet, so that full context and reality is exposed.”
Regardless, the dust-up over Ramswamy’s comments is likely to play a major role in Wednesday’s televised Republican presidential debate.
Former President Donald Trump, far ahead in the primary polls, is skipping the debate. In his absence, Ramaswamy, who is nipping at the heels of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the polls, is expected to be both an outsize stage presence and the object of attacks from rival candidates.
Last week, a memo authored by a DeSantis-aligned super PAC recommended that DeSantis “hammer” Ramaswamy for his past deviations from conservative orthodoxy and dub him “Vivek the Fake.” And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has already blasted Ramaswamy for outlining a goal of phasing out U.S. aid to Israel by 2028. Ramaswamy has said that he would build upon the Abraham Accords ― U.S.-brokered treaties between Israel and several Arab nations ― to such a degree that Israel would no longer need the same military assistance from the U.S.
Ramaswamy, a ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail and in media outlets, has surprised some observers with the traction he is getting relative to more seasoned candidates like Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). He trails only Trump and DeSantis in several national polls, though his standing in early primary states is less formidable thus far.
But Ramaswamy’s Republican detractors see his 9/11 comments as a reflection of his lack of seriousness as a candidate.
“He’s the flavor of the month,” said a Republican consultant affiliated with DeSantis. “He seems exciting, but he is now getting the scrutiny of the bright lights and the attention that comes with that.”
Other Republicans see Ramaswamy’s unpolished style as refreshing.
“He has this air of authenticity even if you disagree with him,” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who met with Ramaswamy and remains neutral in the presidential race. “He doesn’t come across as poll-tested. That’s his attraction.”
Ramaswamy himself has dismissed negative media coverage and rivals’ criticism by comparing it to the reaction that Trump provoked in 2016.
“I am guilty as charged that I do not follow the establishment super PAC donor-approved script on these questions, but I’m speaking truth grounded in fact, at every step of the way,” he said during the CNN interview Monday. “And that’s what’s really elicited something of an anaphylactic reaction of the kind we saw in 2016 against a different candidate.”
Ramaswamy, who has rallied to Trump’s side amid the rash of criminal indictments against the former president, also highlighted what he sees as his departure from Trump’s style.
“But this time, I’m going to be grounded in principles and conviction, not just vengeance and grievance,” he concluded.