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Sinema's Taliban Comment in Context

• Fact Check

Q: Is it true that Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema said it is OK for Americans to join the Taliban and/or terrorists?

A: Sinema made what she called an "offhand comment" when a radio interviewer in 2003 posed a hypothetical about making a "personal decision" to fight for the Taliban.

FULL ANSWER

Locked in a tight U.S. Senate race in Arizona, Republican Martha McSally charged in a recent debate that a comment made by her Democratic rival, Kyrsten Sinema, about the Taliban in 2003 amounts to saying it's "OK to commit treason."

McSally has kept up that line of attack, saying on "Fox News Sunday" that Sinema's comment was "totally out of step with American values, when she clearly says in this radio interview she has no problem with an American going to join the Taliban."

President Donald Trump echoed that attack as well during a rally in Mesa, Arizona, on Oct. 19. "After 9/11, Martha McSally heroically led air strikes against radical Islamic terrorists. Very successful," Trump said. "But while Martha was bravely fighting the Taliban, Kyrsten Sinema said she had no problems with Americans defecting from our country to join the Taliban. How does that happen?"

The comment at issue came during a radio interview Sinema gave in February 2003 to publicize an antiwar protest in Phoenix. The host, libertarian Ernest Hancock, seemed to object to using U.S. tax dollars in foreign countries for war or humanitarian purposes. "You can do whatever you want with your money, not mine," he said.

At one point, Hancock posed a hypothetical in which he made a "personal decision" to "go fight in the Taliban army." Sinema responded, "Fine. I don't care if you want to do that, go ahead." Moments later, Sinema tried to steer the conversation back to her purpose for the interview, to talk about the following day's protest of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Asked about her Taliban comment during an interview with the Arizona Republic editorial board on Oct. 17, Sinema said, "That was an offhand comment to direct the conversation back to what I wanted to talk about, which was my concerns around this war. I was against the war — 15 years later, I think there are good reasons for that."

"But you can see how that comment about the Taliban could be offensive to people on the ground?" she was asked.

"I think understanding the context in which that conversation occurred, I don't know if you've had an opportunity to listen to the tape, and heard Mr. Hancock, who is, again, a very interesting fellow, it was a very difficult conversation," Sinema said. "I was really struggling to be able to talk about what I wanted to speak about and so an offhand comment to get us back on track was what I did to try to talk about the issue."

An audio recording of the interview provides as much context as we are going to get. Below is a transcript of the full exchange (starting at the 2:15 mark).

"Declare Your Independence with Ernest Hancock" show, Feb. 14, 2003:

Hancock: The point that I'm making is is that, you know, a lot of people would make the argument, "We owe the world something. Because we're so successful, we owe something to the world." And I'm going, "Really?" Now you would say, "Maybe we do owe something to the world, as long as it's nice and sweet and peaceful and what you want to do."

Sinema: Well, it's not so much a candy cane kind of theory as you're making it stand out. But I do think that those of us who are privileged to have more do owe something to others.

Hancock: By force? By me, as an individual, if I want to go fight in the Taliban army, I go over there and I'm fighting for the Taliban. I'm saying that's a personal decision — individuals. Knock yourself out.

Sinema: Fine. I don't care if you want to do that, go ahead.

Hancock: If I want to go in World War II and I want to join the RAF and fight the Germans bombing London, I'm all over it. I want to go get paid in how many Japanese zeros I can take down as a flying tiger in China, you know, I'm all over it. As an individual, I have no problem. You can do whatever you want with your money, not mine.

Sinema: Right, well, I think what we're talking about here are two different things. When you say we owe something to the world, my definition of owing something to the world does not involve war and destruction.

Hancock: But if you steal money from me to go give them something that's nice and peaceful and warm and fuzzy — inoculations, shots, some help in any kind of aspect of what we can improve their lives or their lifestyle, well then it's OK to steal from me.

Sinema: Well I think that maybe we have different definitions of "steal." So, um, I'd like to get back to reasons for opposition to the war.

Hancock: Of course you would.

Sinema: Of course I would, because I don't want to debate, you know, ah, any kind of, I don't know, fiscal opportunities with you. I'm interested in talking about the war. Specifically I'm interested in talking about opposition to the war that's happening tomorrow.

The winner of the McSally-Sinema race will succeed Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring.

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