After Orlando, President Obama denounces Donald Trump on policy towards Muslims. 'Where does it stop?'

Obama eruption comes one day after Trump called into question his commitment to defeating terrorists

David Usborne
New York
Tuesday 14 June 2016 19:29 BST
President Obama will visit Orlando on Thursday
President Obama will visit Orlando on Thursday (REUTERS)

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Louise Thomas

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A visibly exasperated President Barack Obama has torn into the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, for demonstrating what he called a “dangerous mindset” in the wake of the Orlando massacre, saying it peddles the notion that “entire religious communities” are complicit in violence.

“We've gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear and we came to regret it,” Mr Obama offered. “We've seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens and it has been a shameful part of our history. This is not the America we want, it does not reflect our democratic ideals. It won’t make us more safe, it will make us less safe,” he said.

It may be the first time that a sitting US president has openly implied that a candidate to succeed them in the White House constitutes a national security threat to the nation.

“Where does it stop?” President Obama demanded to know in an unusually raw and scathing appearance before the press after a meeting at the US Treasury with top aides and officials to discuss the fight against Isis that became dominated by the response to the Orlando shooting.

“We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence,” Mr Obama said. Mr Trump this week appeared to double down on his proposals to close borders to Muslims and has also reiterated his support for more intrusive police monitoring of the entire Muslim-American community.

“Are we going to start treating all Muslim-Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith?” Mr Obama said, before going on: “Do Republican officials actually agree with this?”

It was Mr Obama’s most aggressive assault on Mr Trump yet, apparently triggered also by the Republican candidate’s continued contention that the President is somehow missing in action on the fight against terror because of his failure to utter the words “radical Islam”.

President Obama, who cancelled plans to campaign on Wednesday with Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin and will instead head to Orlando to pay tribute to victims on Thursday, called the argument over phrasing a “political distraction” that has no basis in his administration’s record of attempting to thwart extremism and protect the country. “It’s a political talking point, not a strategy," he said.

“What exactly would using this label accomplish; what exactly would it change?” he asked. “Would it make terrorists less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring along more allies? Is there a military stagey that is served to say this? The answer is none of the above.”

What Mr Obama did not directly address – though it had quite possibly got under his skin – were remarks made by Mr Trump in a Fox interview on Monday that seemed to suggest his failure to say “radical Islam” was because he harboured secret sympathy for terrorists.

Before letting loose on his Republican critics, and in particular “politicians who tweet and appear on cable news” – a clear jibe against Mr Trump – he again laid out his strategy to defeat Isis, insisting that while the campaign was difficult, progress had been made, notably in Iraq.

He also rehearsed his well-known position that attacks like the one in Orlando demand that the US finally does more to reduce the availability of high-powered guns, including measures to renew a ban on the sale of assault weapons.

“Enough talking about being tough on terrorism,” Mr Obama said. “Actually be tough on terrorism and stop making it as easy as possible for terrorists to buy assault weapons.”

Nicole Edwards and her wife Kellie Edwards observe a moment of silence during a vigil outside the Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for the mass shooting victims at the Pulse nightclub, 13 June 2016
Nicole Edwards and her wife Kellie Edwards observe a moment of silence during a vigil outside the Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for the mass shooting victims at the Pulse nightclub, 13 June 2016 (Getty)

Mr Obama said his reluctance to use the same phraseology as Mr Trump was precisely because he did not want to encourage the notion that the West is at war with Islam as a religion. To do so would play directly into the hands of Isis and other extremist groups.

“They want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or a war between Islam and the West. They want to claim they are the true leader of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions. They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for these billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda, that is how they recruit.”

“There's no magic to the phrase 'radical Islam,'" Mr Obama insisted. “If someone seriously thinks we don't know who we're fighting, if there's anyone out there who thinks we're confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists we've taken off the battlefield.”

At a campaign event in Pittsburgh, Hillary Clinton likewise dismissed Mr Trump's focus on two single words. "He is fixated on the words radical Islam,” Clinton said. “Now, I must say I find this strange. Is Donald Trump suggesting that there are magic words that once uttered will stop terrorists from coming after us?”

There is growing evidence that many top Republicans do not, in fact, agree with Mr Trump’s logic. One of Mr Obama’s strongest Republican critics on foreign policy, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, made his own denunciation of his party’s new standard-bearer on Tuesday.

“Mr Trump's idea that we're going to win the war against radical Islam by banning all Muslims, I guess now American citizens, Muslims, makes it harder to win the war,” he said. “I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan 37 times. Most Muslims are not buying what radical Islam is selling.”

And he balked at Mr Trump’s insinuations about Mr Obama’s commitment to stopping terror attacks inspired by radical Islam.

“He loves his country, President Obama, but he is doing a very poor job at defending it,” Graham said. “Mr Trump seems to be suggesting the President is one of them. I find it highly offensive. I find that whole line of reasoning way off base.”

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