In a fiery, disjointed speech in New Hampshire on Monday, Donald Trump angrily denounced the attacks in Orlando, political correctness, immigration, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the American Muslim community.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee reiterated his call for an indefinite ban on immigration from Muslim countries, and asserted that the president would be empowered to establish such a ban on his own. “The immigration laws of the United States give the president the power to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons that the president deems detrimental to the interests or security of the United States, as he deems appropriate,” Trump said. That’s an unusually expansive view of executive power on immigration, building on President Obama’s own actions, which many conservatives have criticized as overreach.
His assertion of power was one of several striking moments in the speech, which Trump read sometimes unsteadily from a teleprompter, occasionally ad-libbing interjections. (Although he has given a few such speeches in recent days, he has still not quite found his rhythm, nor have his speechwriters found a way to write in a way that mimics his distinctive voice.) In a vague line, he demanded that President Obama “release the full and complete immigration histories of all individuals implicated in terrorist activity of any kind since 9/11,” without differentiating those cleared of any involvement.
He also delivered a thinly veiled threat to American Muslim communities, accusing them of sheltering terrorists in their midst. “We have to form a partnership with our Muslim communities. We have Muslim communities in this country that are great,” he said, but added: “They have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement. They have to turn in the people who they know are bad. They have to turn them in, and they have to turn then in forthwith ... They know what’s going on.”
It was a far cry from the approach President George W. Bush took after September 11, when he visited an Islamic center, called Islam a religion of peace, and pleaded for tolerance for American Muslims. But Trump also delivered perhaps the warmest remarks about LGBT Americans of any Republican presidential candidate ever.
“Our nation stands together in solidarity with the members of Orlando's LGBT Community,” he said. “A radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens because of their sexual orientation. It is a strike at the heart and soul of who we are as a nation. It is an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want and express their identity.”
He promised to be stronger on both LGBT issues and women’s issues that Hillary Clinton, contrasting his “actions” with Clinton’s “words.” (There are reasons why Trump might not want to be judged on his words about women.) Confusingly, he accused the Obama administration of being weak on gay rights.
Having implied Monday morning that President Obama may have been involved in or was sympathetic to Islamist terror attacks, Trump did not repeat the attack in New Hampshire. But he did accuse the president of “restraining our intelligence gathering,” without explaining to what he was referring. He criticized the administration for weakness, and for its policies in Syria and Libya, which he said had allowed ISIS to grow.
Trump’s speech was light on policy, suggesting a belief that if he repeated the phrase “radical Islam” frequently enough, it would solve the problem. While he complained that Obama and Clinton were unwilling to recognize terrorism, he himself put forward no plan for how to counter it, other than attempting to prevent would-be terrorists from entering the United States. (Clinton’s proposals have also been laughably vague.) He did not propose any specific steps for countering ISIS, saying only that he would “have an attorney general, a director of national intelligence, and a secretary of defense who will know how to fight the war on radical Islamic terrorism,” and that NATO should focus more on terrorism.
But the meat of the speech was about immigration, Trump’s signature issue since the start of the campaign. In a neat bit of political jiujitsu, Trump portrayed his own immigration proposals as “mainstream,” while labeling Clinton’s “radical.”
“We have to stop the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States—we don’t know who they are, they have no documentation, and we don’t know what they’re planning,” Trump said, though as PolitiFact points out his claim the U.S. does not vet incoming refugees is “wrong.” The U.S. is far behind its modest goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees, though other Syrians have immigrated through other means.
“I will suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism,” Trump said. He later clarified that he was referring to “nations tied to Islamic terror,” though that would still include many European nations that have faced their own homegrown Islamist attacks. He said that Americans deserved to know of immigrants, “Why are they here?” and said of radical Islamists, “They’re trying to take over our children.”
But as Trump acknowledged, Omar Mateen, the shooter in Orlando, was an American citizen, born in New York City to Afghan parents. (He initially seemed to say that Mateen was an Afghan himself, though he quickly corrected himself, making it seem more like a teleprompter miscue than intentional misleading.) When Mateen was born, the United States was funneling support to radical Islamists in Afghanistan fighting an invasion by the Soviet Union.
“The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here,” Trump said.
Yet his ban would seem to conspicuously fail to handle people like Mateen, native-born Americans who are radicalized within the United States. Even if banning Muslim immigration three decades ago would have prevented the spread of terror, a tenuous argument, it would do nothing to stem “self-radicalized” or “lone-wolf” terrorists.
Obama, in remarks earlier Monday, acknowledged the threat from Americans who are radicalized over the Internet. “As far as we can tell right now, this is certainly an example of the kind of homegrown extremism that all of us have been so concerned about for a very long time,” he said of Mateen. Obama also put heavy blame on easy access to firearms.
Trump, meanwhile, briefly noted the problem of homegrown radicals, but quickly waved it away: “Yes, there are many radicalized people already inside our country as a result of the poor policies of the past. But the whole point is that it will be much, much easier to deal with our current problem if we don’t keep on bringing in people who add to the problem.”
The levers of American policy are effectively frozen. The president and the Congress cannot reach consensus on new gun policies, changes to immigration law, or even congressional authorization for U.S. action against ISIS, even as strikes have been occurring for months. With action out of the picture, leaders are increasingly obsessed with words. For example, there is Obama’s steadfast, controversial, but fully intentional aversion to the phrase “radical Islam,” and its mirror image, Trump’s denunciation of “political correctness.” During his speech Monday, Trump warned, “We cannot afford to talk around issues anymore. We have to address these issues.” This was not a speech that did so.