Democratic and Republican presidential candidates alike roundly criticized GOP front-runner Donald Trump on Friday for failing to correct a man who inaccurately identified President Obama as a Muslim and “not even an American.”
Also on Friday, Trump pulled out of a conservative gathering in South Carolina, citing a “significant business transaction” that demanded the candidate’s attention. Trump’s campaign said the decision to cancel has “nothing to do” with the anti-Muslim question. Nearly the entire 2016 GOP field will be in attendance at the gathering.
Speaking to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Friday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham – one of Trump’s many rivals in the GOP nominating contest – called the real-estate mogul’s actions “very inappropriate.”
“You need to look the guy in the eye and say, ‘Listen, I don’t agree with you, I don’t appreciate what you said, this is not the way I’m going to campaign, this is not who I am,’” Graham said.
The remarks came less than 24 hours after Trump not only let slide, but even seemed to encourage, a questioner at a rally in New Hampshire Thursday night when he raised Islamophobic concerns about Obama’s nationality and religion.
“We have a problem in this country – it’s called Muslims,” the questioner said. “We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even American. We have training camps growing when they want to kill us. My question: When can we get rid of them?”
Rather than clarifying that Obama was in fact a Christian, born in Hawaii to an American mother, however, Trump – who gained notoriety in 2011 as a leader of the so-called “birther” movement – egged the questioner on. “We need this question,” he interjected, laughing. “We’re going to be looking into that,” Trump added.
After the event, Trump’s campaign told reporters that the candidate was responding to the “training camps” portion of the question. But the White House saw Trump’s response as a pure political ploy to secure votes from a particular segment of the GOP.
“The people who hold these offensive views are part of Mr. Trump’s base,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. “Mr. Trump himself would be the first to tell you that he’s got the biggest base of any Republican politician these days.”
Thursday’s exchange stood in stark contrast to one in the 2008 campaign, during which the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, grabbed the microphone from a woman who called Obama “an Arab.” McCain interjected, “No, ma’am.”
Graham on Friday cited that moment as an example of what GOP leaders should do in those situations.
“You have to push back,” Graham said. “We are trying to be the leader of a nation here. You got people like this in even country, in every party, and it’s a chance for you to display your character. And we are looking for a leader who will push back against this kind of hateful stuff on both sides of the aisle.”
Graham wasn’t the only Republican White House hopeful with strong words for Trump. Speaking on NBC’s “TODAY” earlier on Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he “wouldn’t have permitted” the questioner’s rhetoric.
“Donald Trump has to decide how serious a candidate he wants to be, and how he handles different problems like this are going to determine that in they eyes of the American people,” said Christie. “I’m not going to lecture him about what to do.”
Democratic presidential candidates were also quick to condemn their potential challenger in the general election. Front-runner Hillary Clinton called Trump’s response to the questioner – or lack thereof – “disturbing, & just plain wrong” on Twitter. Similarly, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted that Trump “must apologize to the president and American people for continuing the lie that the president is not an American and not a Christian.” Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, meanwhile, tweeted: “Shame on you, @realDonaldTrump. ‘Muslim’ is not a slur. You cannot scapegoat your way to the presidency.”
But not everyone was so convinced of Trump’s wrongdoing. Retired neurosurgeon and fellow Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson gave Trump the benefit of the doubt Friday, telling reporters at an even in Greenville, South Carolina, that perhaps Trump simply misheard the question.
“Certainly, one must always analyze the question carefully. That’s something I have come to learn, because sometimes you just go into answering mode without thinking about it,” Carson said. Asked whether Trump should have corrected the questioner, Carson added: “I suspect that if he gets that question again, that’s exactly what he’ll do.”