'Before I Make a Statement, I Need the Facts'

President Trump responded quickly to a terrorist attack in Barcelona, but waited to condemn the one in Charlottesville.

President Trump points
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Trump said Tuesday he waited days to condemn the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, because he wanted to get all the facts. Trump has not explicitly described as terrorism the attack that took place there, which like today’s Barcelona attack involved a vehicle striking pedestrians.

In response to a question about whether it met the definition of terrorism, given the by-then widely reported extremist right-wing political ideology of the attacker, Trump said: “You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.” He described the debate over the term, which according to most definitions involves politically motivated violence designed to inspire fear, as “legal semantics.” But now it’s Thursday, and just hours after reports emerged of a fatal attack in Barcelona, Trump took to Twitter to call it terror, and prescribed a solution to eliminate “radical Islamic terror” based on a historical falsehood.

By Sunday, a day after the attack in Charlottesville that killed one person amid a demonstration including far-right and neo-Nazi groups, reports had already emerged of the suspected attackers’ white-supremacist ideology and fascination with Nazis. It took Trump a day to condemn neo-Nazis in a statement on Monday, and another day to equivocate on the definition of “terrorism.” In Barcelona, the attacker used his van to strike pedestrians in a tourist zone on Thursday, and within hours Spanish authorities had a suspect in custody whom they identified as a Moroccan-born man. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack online—but not until after the U.S. president had declared his certainty about the motivations of the culprit.

Trump is right about the virtues of waiting for information before declaring a seemingly violent event a terrorist attack—not least because some such events prove to be accidents or “ordinary” crimes, and invoking terrorists in such instances risks exaggerating their power. In the case of the Barcelona attack, it could be that the president had access to classified intelligence the general public did not, and saw fit to share the information on Twitter. We in the media typically rely on official confirmation of motives behind attacks to attribute them to an individual or group. Trump’s public statements on attacks could serve as a confirmation of motive.

Trump, in fact, is among the first world leaders to chime in whenever there’s a terrorist attack—well before the authorities in those countries have labeled the attack as terrorism. But he has sometimes called them terrorism even when they were not—as in the case of a fatal incident in a Philippines resort that authorities called a robbery—or when they simply didn’t happen, as when he seemed to make up a terrorist attack in Sweden in February.

Trump has also used attacks as an opportunity to criticize local responses, as he did when he misquoted Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London as having said there was “no reason to be alarmed” after a June attack that killed eight people; Khan had actually been telling Londoners not to be alarmed by the increased police presence. Trump has also used attacks to criticize France’s immigration policies and Germany’s refugee policy, and to make political predictions, as he did following an April attack in Paris, which he tweeted “will have a big effect on presidential election!” It did not. (And as I’ve reported previously, it’s not clear it ever does.)

Although terrorism remains an important challenge for many countries around the world, attributing successes to terrorist groups—when there’s little evidence for it—can be counterproductive. For instance, al-Qaeda has been considerably weakened since the U.S. began the war on terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with most of its top leaders dead or dispersed. ISIS, which took over as the most prominent global jihadist enemy after al-Qaeda, is facing that same fate. It has lost much of the ground it controls in Iraq and Syria, and is now confined to areas around Syria’s Raqqa, its de facto capital, as reports keep emerging of the deaths of its leaders. The group no doubt continues to inspire people to carry out attacks across Europe and elsewhere, but its online reach may at this time be greater than its ability to plan and execute an operation overseas.

The caution Trump claims characterized his response to Charlottesville thus seems not to apply when it comes to attacks carried out by Islamists. It may well be that Trump sees Islamic terrorism as a greater threat than white-supremacist groups in the U.S. In fact, he has said it’s the biggest threat to Western civilization. As Foreign Policy noted in June, the Department of Homeland Security has stripped funding from groups that fight neo-Nazi violence, in what the magazine called “another indication the Trump administration is turning away from its efforts to combat far-right violence, and refocusing the [countering violent extremism] program to focus more on Islamic extremism.” A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office, however, notes that in the 15 years between September 11, 2001 and the end of 2016, fatal attacks by far-right extremists outnumbered those by their jihadist counterparts, though the jihadist attacks killed more people.

But as my colleague Julia Ioffe pointed out this week Islamist terrorists and white supremacists have much in common:

The attack in Charlottesville, after all, used a signature ISIS technique, one that has also been espoused by the American far-right in targeting Black Lives Matter protesters. “Run them over,” they say. Or, “All lives splatter.” But for the differing death tolls, it looked a lot like the acts of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who plowed an 18-wheeler into a crowded boardwalk in Nice

Similarly, despite the differences in jihadist and neo-Nazi, white-supremacist ideologies, the two movements and how they attract and retain followers are often studied side by side by scholars of extremism. When the problem of mass recruitment by jihadists emerged in the West, researchers turned for guidance to what they had learned studying the psychology, behavior, and structure of neo-Nazi groups. “It’s an obvious comparison, absolutely,” says Jessica Stern, a leading scholar of terrorist groups.

Immediately after Charlottesville, Trump’s closest aides were unequivocal about what had happened. General H.R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, called it “terrorism.” Attorney General Jeff Session described it as “domestic terrorism.” Trump it would appear is still looking for facts.

“It is a very, very important process to me,” Trump said Tuesday of the virtue of patience. “It is a very important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.”