When Donald Trump believes a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists has taken place, he rarely hesitates before speaking out about it — often regardless of whether authorities have even begun to investigate what actually took place. But when it comes to anti-Muslim hate crimes, Trump’s reactions are often halfhearted, delayed, or nonexistent.
There is perhaps no starker example of this than the president’s response to the terror events of last week: one in Portland, Oregon, in which two men died protecting two Muslim women who were being harassed by a ranting white supremacist; and one in London over the weekend, in which three terrorists murdered seven and wounded dozens more, armed with a van used to mow down pedestrians on London Bridge, and knives, wielded as instruments of destruction on innocent bystanders.
Trump declined to comment on the killings in Portland for days. Yet he spoke out almost immediately about London, sending out tweet after tweet railing against political correctness and calling for a tough response.
This wasn’t just a one-off, either — rather, it’s part of a disturbing pattern of Trump’s apparent reluctance to condemn anti-Muslim violence while reflexively condemning violence purportedly carried out by Muslims.
The responses to terror of any sort from American presidents traditionally have had a certain consistency of message and of meaning. In the past, presidents have appealed to our greater humanity, to rationality, to our understanding that more unites us than divides us. Traditionally, too, presidents have appealed to communities for calm.
Trump doesn’t do any of that. He sometimes does the opposite.
Trump typically reacts immediately to reports of Muslim terror attacks
When a gunman opened fire on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, destroying lives in the space of minutes, Trump was quick to label the incident as terrorism. Then, with 50 dead and families across the region mourning, he congratulated himself for recognizing terrorism when it had taken place.
Really bad shooting in Orlando. Police investigating possible terrorism. Many people dead and wounded.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
In December 2015, after two militants shot 14 people dead in San Bernardino, California, Trump regularly spoke about the terror attack on the campaign trail.
You look at this horrible terrorism that's going all over the place, and we have to be vigilant and we have to be smart. We can't allow ourselves to be just decimated. And I have friends that are Muslims, they are very nice people, but they understand there's a big problem. We have a big problem.
But Trump has also used the label of terror to address events as they are taking place, before others have determined exactly what’s going on.
Last Thursday, when reports of an attack in Manila were unfolding in the moments before the president’s Rose Garden speech on the Paris climate agreement, he spoke out about terrorism in the Philippines — before confirming if it was, in fact, terrorism (it turns out it wasn’t).
“I would like to begin by addressing the terrorist attack in Manila,” he told those assembled. “We’re closely monitoring the situation, and I will continue to give updates if anything happens during this period of time. But it is really very sad as to what’s going on throughout the world with terror. Our thoughts and our prayers are with all of those affected.”
When news first began to break on Saturday evening of a horrifying, chaotic scene unfolding in central London, Trump immediately retweeted an alarmist report from the Drudge Report, a conservative news aggregation website, about the “terror attack” — which at that point had not actually been confirmed as a terror attack. Even after his tweet went out, British Prime Minister Theresa May was still calling the incident a “potential” act of terror.
And when it turns out that the president’s supposition that terror has been committed is correct — as in the case with London— Trump is almost unstoppable in his ire, in his determination to be heard and to have the fact of terror’s existence legitimate and justify both a worldview and policy positions.
The humanity of the situation, of victims, and of the affected communities, appears as afterthought — quite literally.
Trump used his first tweet about the attack not to offer condolences to the victims or to offer solidarity to the country, but rather to justify his controversial travel ban.
We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 3, 2017
Only after sending that tweet did he finally say something in support of the victims:
Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U. K., we will be there - WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 3, 2017
The next day, he followed that tweet offering support to London and the UK by flinging vitriol at the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, taking a quote from Khan out of context, seemingly in order to make Khan look inept:
At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is "no reason to be alarmed!"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
Khan actually said, “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. No reason to be alarmed.” Trump cherry-picked a single phrase pulled from a completely benign statement from a London leader trying to offer words of calm to the public in order to underwrite his own ideology.
For the record, here was Khan’s response to the 2016 terror attack in Orlando, Florida:
I stand with the City of Orlando against hate and bigotry. My thoughts are with all the victims of this horrific attack #lovewins— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) June 12, 2016
If the idea of using such a moment, and such a bully pulpit, to promote tolerance, peace, or, at the very least, calm, occurred to Trump at all, it was not the impulse he acted on.
Indeed, the London attack has prompted tweet after tweet from the president, each offering an aggressive display of certainty and thinly veiled attacks on a single community.
We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don't get smart it will only get worse— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
Compare that with the president’s reaction to crimes against Muslims
On May 26 in Portland, Oregon, Ricky John Best, a 53-year-old veteran, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, were murdered, and a third man gravely injured, when they jumped to the aid of two young women, one wearing a hijab, who were being verbally attacked for their ethnic and religious identity.
There was silence from the White House for days.
It was only on May 29 that a single tweet popped up from the @POTUS account, Trump’s official podium for statements. This is the Twitter feed with far fewer followers compared with his home account @realDonaldTrump (18.5 million versus 31.6 million), and the one he rarely turns to for those things that bother him most.
The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them.— President Trump (@POTUS) May 29, 2017
To be sure, it was a sober, appropriately concerned statement.
It also stood alone, without follow-up. And it only came after a rumble of complaint from across the country that the White House was remaining silent at a moment when it needed to express leadership.
The president’s craven silence about the bloody murders by a white supremacist of American heroes on a train in Oregon is a stain on America— Philip Gourevitch (@PGourevitch) May 29, 2017
Trump hasn't tweeted a word about the white supremacist murders in College Park or Portland. But London has him calling for a travel ban.— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) June 4, 2017
“The idea of Muslims being victimized doesn't fit his domestic or foreign policy agenda,” says Shahed Amanullah, who served at the State Department under Obama and, more recently, helped found Affinis Labs, which cultivates entrepreneurship among global Muslim youth. Amanullah notes that, unlike Trump, President Obama believed in promoting a tolerant nation as well as addressing how Islamophobia itself may be a potential driver of terrorism overseas.
“Trump doesn't see that connection at all,” he adds. “So he doesn't even respond to something like Portland with basic humanity, both because Muslims are not a core constituency and because it interrupts his narrative of Muslims being a threat.”
This was not the first time Trump has failed to respond to a moment of anti-Muslim violence. Just days after he was inaugurated, a white man shot and killed six worshipers at a Quebec mosque. Trump was silent for days on the act of terror, though during that same time frame he took the time to tweet about a lone assailant outside the Louvre.
A new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum in Paris. Tourists were locked down. France on edge again. GET SMART U.S.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
That man wounded a soldier, and was quickly apprehended.
On CNN, Jake Tapper called on White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway to respond to the president’s lack of leadership on the issue. Incredulously, Tapper asked:
In Quebec City last week, a white right-wing terrorist opened fire on a mosque. A mosque filled with men, women, and children. Six people were killed. President Trump has not said or tweeted one public word about this. You want to talk about ignoring terrorism? Why hasn't the president offered his sympathy to our neighbors in the north?
"I know he's sympathetic to any loss of life. It's completely senseless, and it needs to stop, regardless of who is lodging the attack,” Conway told Tapper.
Eventually the president did reach out to the Canadians with a message of solidarity. But the administration also used the incident as an opportunity to promote the travel ban — even though the assailant was white and Canadian.
With Trump, says Wajahat Ali, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, “there has been an obsession with obliterating ISIS and ‘radical islamic extremism’ but no mention of white supremacy and white supremacist terror, even though almost the same number of people have been killed by radical white terror.”
These incidents have been bracketed by a significant number of mosque burnings in the months since the president signed the travel ban — none of which the president has commented on publicly.
But what have other presidents done in the wake of similar attacks?
To be sure, Obama did not have a perfect record on addressing anti-Muslim violence with expediency. The closest and most recent parallel to the events of this week in Portland, were the tragic racist killings of three young Muslim students in North Carolina in 2015.
That year, Deah Barakat, 23 and a dental student, as well as his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, all of 21, and her 19-year-old sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were murdered in what appeared to be a hate crime. (The two women wore the hijab.) Obama waited several days to speak out on the murders, to mounting criticism. But when he finally did so, soon after the FBI announced that it would investigate the case, his statement was robust.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” he said:
As we saw with the overwhelming presence at the funeral of these young Americans, we are all one American family. Whenever anyone is taken from us before their time, we remember how they lived their lives — and the words of one of the victims should inspire the way we live ours.
“Growing up in America has been such a blessing,” Yusor said recently. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions — but here, we’re all one.”
“I think President Obama — regardless of whether he was successful — was trying to use his position as a moral guide to society, teaching us about how we should interact with each other,” says Amanullah. “That informed his policies overseas and linked to how he talked Muslims in America and Muslims overseas.”
Madihha Ahussain, who serves as special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry at Muslim Advocates, further notes that the Obama administration’s Department of Justice made hate crime prevention a priority. Trump’s Justice Department has not.
And, of course, to some degree what is new here is Trump’s frequent use of Twitter, a medium that is unfettered, unfiltered, and often unadulterated. Knowing the president can always tweet — at any hour, and seemingly on any subject — encourages an even greater sense of dismay when an incident goes so long without comment.
Has anyone done it well?
Among the best examples of a president who has responded with immediacy and care to both the Muslim community and the greater population was President George W. Bush, following 9/11, speaking at the Islamic Center of Washington, DC.
“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” Bush said the week after the 9/11 attacks:
Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.
Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value.
One week later, Bush spoke out again — chiding Americans for an uptick in crimes against Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Muslims.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Trump delivering such a speech.