Donald Trump had a chance to boldly condemn white supremacy and Islamophobia on Friday morning. Instead, after issuing a muffled statement of sympathy for the victims of murderous attacks on mosques in New Zealand, the president of the United States went back to complaining, in great and extended detail, that special counsel Robert Mueller “should never have been appointed and there should be no Mueller Report.”
On one of the darkest days in history for Muslims worldwide, the president’s initial response to the New Zealand killings failed to mention Muslims, Islam, Islamophobia, white supremacy, racism, bigotry or violent hatred that targets people based on their religion.
Trump will, hopefully, come around to more explicitly and effectively condemning the latest acts of mass violence directed at places of worship by white supremacists. But his every action reminds us that we have a president whose priorities are so warped that he cannot bring himself to lead in the moment when leadership is most needed.
Even the president’s supporters, who make excuses for what they tell us are his “lapses,” and who so ardently reject any suggestion that he encourages or tolerates bigotry, have to recognize that Trump is failing miserably as a leader. The United States is a powerful, influential country. But the measures of American leadership on the global stage are fluid. They depend on the quality of the individuals who occupy positions of public trust and authority.
Yet, whenever the moment demands more, Trump offers less. After the killing of at least 49 people in mass shootings at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, it was immediately clear that this was what New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern identified it as: “a terrorist attack” committed by “people who I would describe as having extremist views that have absolutely no place in New Zealand and in fact have no place in the world.”
By Friday morning in the United States, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League was telling NPR that the Christchurch attack “clearly was motivated by white supremacy.”
“We’ve got a big problem on our hands and we need to recognize that social media allows white supremacy, much like other forms of hate, to travel across borders, and we’ve got to recognize it for the global terror threat that it really is,” warned Greenblatt, who noted that the killer in Christchurch had referenced white supremacists and white nationalists who had engaged in mass murder in the United States and other countries.
The right response to a big problem is to identify it, and bluntly call it out, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did when she reacted with grief and horror to the fact that, once again, “citizens who were attacked and murdered out of racist hatred.” And as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan did when he condemned those those who “collectively” and “deliberately” choose to demonize Muslims, and warned that “I blame these increasing terror attacks on the current Islamophobia.”
There is no point in mincing words about the threat posed by white supremacy and Islamophobia. Indeed, mincing words sends precisely the wrong signal.
Yet President Trump’s response on Friday morning, delivered long after details of the killer’s white supremacist and Islamophobic sentiments were broadcast around the world, was a muted tweet that read: “My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques. 49 innocent people have so senselessly died, with so many more seriously injured. The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do. God bless all!”
“Warm sympathy” is all fine and good. But, according to news reports, the Australian-born suspect in the mass shooting wrote a 87-page manifesto that described the American president as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” Trump, who invited an international outcry with his suggestion that there were “very fine people” among white supremacists and white nationalists who mounted violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, should have recognized the need to respond in a dramatically better way this time.
This was an opportunity for the president to lead. He refused to take it Friday morning, and he explicitly rejected it Friday afternoon—when asked if he saw white nationalism as a mounting global threat, Trump’s reply was dismissive: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
So what did concern Trump on this awful day? Instead of condemning white supremacy, he erupted in an extended Twitter tantrum about the Mueller inquiry, which concluded with an all-caps declaration that “THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN TO A PRESIDENT AGAIN!”
The language of “Never Again!” should have been employed on Friday. But not with regard to a legitimate investigation into political and presidential wrongdoing. It should have been employed to condemn racist hatred and violence that has targeted churches, synagogues, and mosques. But Trump could not get there. Instead, he literally repeating his attacks on the woman who won 2.9 million more votes than he did in the 2016 presidential election. Yes, Trump found time on Friday morning to attack “Crooked Hillary,” but no time to attack white supremacy or Islamophobia.
And what was former secretary of state Hillary Clinton saying at roughly the same time?
“My heart breaks for New Zealand & the global Muslim community. We must continue to fight the perpetuation and normalization of Islamophobia and racism in all its forms,” wrote Clinton. “White supremacist terrorists must be condemned by leaders everywhere. Their murderous hatred must be stopped.”
That is how a president of the United States is supposed to respond in a moment of horror that demands clarity—and leadership.