Trump’s Selective Responses to Terror

The president is vocal when violence is perpetrated in the name of Islam—but remains mostly quiet when it comes from other corners.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It is no secret that the president of the United States is a quick draw when it comes to expressing indignation or anger in response to news of the day. This is especially true when it comes to certain acts of terror—in the immediate aftermath of the Paris, Manchester and London attacks, Trump expressed his feelings within hours. And indeed, the American public has seen its commander in chief at turns combative, sneering, dyspeptic and outraged when extremists maim and kill in the name of Islam.

Very often there is some policy prescription laced in his responses, as well—a push for “extreme vetting” or a renewed call for his original and apparently not-politically correct version of a ban targeting Muslim travelers. These are Trump’s targeted solutions to what he calls the problem of “Islamic extremism,” dished out with the same munificence and gusto as his often emotional responses.

And yet in other, equally horrific instances, when innocents have been attacked or killed in the name of a different sort of extremism, President Trump has remained mostly quiet. Either he has said nothing at all, or he has waited days to respond—and when the responses have been issued, they are missing Trump’s signature fury and attendant solutions. Sometimes, these responses don’t even sound like the president.

What makes these acts of terror different, what renders them presumably less urgent and immediately offensive to America’s commander in chief, is that they have involved assailants raging under the banner of white supremacy or violent nationalism. The discrepancy in these responses says a great deal about Trump: not simply his own values, but his fundamental understanding of what it means to govern this country.

In the wake of an attack at the Champs Elysees that killed one police officer, Trump immediately addressed the situation in a bilateral press conference, then tweeted:

Less than 24 hours after the Manchester attack that killed 22, Trump animatedly and repeatedly declared the perpetrators “losers.” And in the wake of the London attacks that killed seven on Saturday evening, Trump was on his preferred medium of Twitter by early Monday morning—issuing a spate of angry responses.

There was a message of solidarity:

There was an extended push for the renewal of his controversial Muslim ban….

And there were a series of controversial tweets directed at the (Muslim) mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and his calls to remain calm.

In short: President Trump had a lot to say about these attacks.

Yet a little over two weeks ago, he had nothing to tweet when a white man in Maryland with ties to an online group called “Alt Reich: Nation” fatally stabbed a black student named Richard W. Collins III. Collins had just been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, and, according to the New York Times, “was preparing to move to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for training in defending the country against chemical attacks.” There was no response to his murder from America’s Commander-in-Chief.

Just over a week ago, when a knife-wielding white supremacist killed two men and maimed another in Portland, Oregon as they sought to defend two women—one black, the other in a hijab—President Trump waited three days before commenting. In the interim, as Eliot Hanon points out, he tweeted about the “fake news media,” the deadness of Obamacare, and the coming benefits of his massive (and thus far unseen and uncertain) tax reform package.

When Trump finally did weigh in on the Portland terror act, on his official @POTUS feed and not his personal one, the tweet was relatively boilerplate:

There was nothing in the way of follow-up, no suggestion that Americans needed to band together in some fashion, no policy aimed at tackling the (increasing) problem of hate crimes here in the United States. If you weren’t familiar with Trump’s history on this strain of white nationalist terrorism, it would have been surprising—but given his behavior over the last four months, it was not.

Trump was silent in February, when three Indian-born men, working for an American company in Kansas, were attacked at a bar—one was killed, the others injured—by a white assailant screaming, “Get out of my country.” For six days, the president was mute on the subject, long enough for the editorial board of the Kansas City Star to deem his silence “disquieting:”

“Surely the White House team could have cobbled together a statement of some sort, a response to at least address growing fears that the U.S. is unwelcoming of immigrants, or worse, that the foreign-born need to fear for their lives here….

During such moments of crisis, people look to the president for strength and guidance.

They need to hear their moral outrage articulated, the condemnation of a possible hate crime and the affirmation that the U.S. values everyone’s contributions, whether you’re an immigrant or native-born. For Trump, this was a crucial opportunity to condemn such hateful acts and to forcefully declare that this is not who we are.”

It was not until the president spoke to a joint session of Congress, seven days after the slaying, that he addressed the incident:

“Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.

Those scripted lines were the only comments Trump would make on the topic.

When Alexandre Bissonnette, a Canadian with ties to the white supremacist movement, opened fire on Muslims worshipping at an Islamic center in Canada in late January, killing six and wounding eight, Trump was nowhere to be heard. Senior White House Advisor KellyAnne Conway offered an anemic defense: “He doesn’t tweet about everything,” she said. “He doesn’t make a comment about everything.”

Conway’s comments were revealing then and remain so, especially today: for the Trump White House, there are the issues that matter enough for comment, and then there is “everything” else. Apparently, terror inflicted upon innocent civilians falls in to the former category (things that matter) if the perpetrators are tied to extremist ideologies rooted in Islam. But terror inflicted upon innocent civilians falls into the latter category (“everything” else) if the perpetrators are tied to extremist ideologies rooted in white nationalism.

For Trump and his defenders, there is no apparent hypocrisy in this duality, but it is an important indicator as to how the president sees the American landscape: irrevocably and perhaps existentially divided into certain tribes and cultures, with a chasm among its citizens so deep that the murders of Americans for certain political reasons do not always warrant outrage (or even a tweet). Donald Trump is the president of the United States, but in moments like these, his attitude calls into question whether he is not, in fact, more the president of certain states—certain people—than others.

In announcing his withdrawal from the Paris climate change accords, Trump (tellingly) declared, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” but if you have listened carefully enough to Trump and his line of reasoning, “Paris” is really a placeholder for the values of liberalism and progressivism, blue state sacraments about tolerance and globalism.

His response in the wake of the terror attacks of the last two weeks mirrors this worldview: he is the president when a certain set of values are threatened, but not others. Victims who were Muslim, foreign-born or progressively-minded and preaching tolerance, would seem to have been citizens of Trump’s mythic (and maligned) “Paris”—he was not elected to represent their interests, he was not placed in office to empathize with their sorrows and tragic ends.

Nor does he serve to necessarily rebuke their tormentors. I spoke with Heidi Beirich—the Director of Intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes in America—about the asymmetry in Trump’s responses.

“It doesn’t seem like Trump cares about hate crimes against these populations,” she said, speaking of the attacks in Kansas and Quebec and Portland. “When it comes to extremism bred from our own culture, he says nothing—or very, very little. It makes you wonder whether the alt right and the extremists who supported him during the campaign—whether he’s somehow afraid of offending them. The [victims] are fellow citizens—he should care about them.”

Trump is unlikely to be swayed by any arguments dictating what he “should” do in any instance—his whole political career has effectively been a campaign against expectations, after all—but this is a clear break from what Americans, until now, have expected of their presidents. And not simply because sympathy and empathy are expected emotional responses from any leader in a time of grief, but also, more urgently, because presidents have an actual role to play in staving off future horrors.

Beirich recalled the days after 9/11, when then-president George W. Bush addressed a shattered and angry nation and said:

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.

The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

Beirich explained, “There was a lot of violence, but the murder sprees in the weeks after 9/11 came to a full stop after Bush’s comments. And the following years saw the [hate crimes] numbers going back to pre-9/11 stats. I think it matters that he said something. It’s not purely coincidental that these things happened in parallel.”

President Trump is eager to offer solutions when the terror emanates from extremism tied to fundamentalist Islamic ideologies, but his suggestions are often ethically questionable or legally complicated. If he chose to act more forcefully against terror driven by white nationalism, one powerful solution—public condemnation—would be readily available to him, without much complication.

And yet, at this moment, it is hard to imagine him using it.