As a rule, it’s difficult for an American president to screw up a response to a foreign terrorist attack, especially in an allied nation. The script, which several U.S. leaders have followed without incident, reflects common sense: a president condemns the violence, extends sympathy to the grieving, and offers American support.
Presidents face all kinds of arcane challenges. This isn’t one of them. It’s a pass/fail test – which is tough to fail.And yet, Donald Trump keeps managing to find a way.
It was, after all, Friday afternoon when the Republican president held a White House photo-op in order to veto a measure that would block his emergency declaration over border barriers. At the event, Trump extended his condolences to New Zealand – though he made no specific reference to Muslims or the Islamic community – before quickly transitioning to the core argument he was eager to emphasize. In reference to the U.S./Mexico border, the American insisted:
“It is a tremendous national emergency. It is a tremendous crisis…. We’re on track for a million illegal aliens to rush our borders.
“People hate the word ‘invasion,’ but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.”
The larger context was lost on him: the accused killer in New Zealand was reportedly convinced that his country was under “invasion” by “non-whites.” Trump nevertheless thought it’d be a good idea to use the word “invasion” just hours after learning of the massacre. (A similar rhetorical pattern unfolded in the fall, following a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue.)
At the same Oval Office gathering on Friday, the president proceeded to dismiss the significance of white-nationalist violence as a global threat. Asked if he sees white nationalism as “a rising threat around the world,” Trump replied, “I don’t really,” adding that he believes the problem is limited to “a small group of people.”
Early yesterday, Trump proceeded to defend a far-right television personality who was suspended after peddling Islamophobic nonsense on the air.
So to recap, a white nationalist stands accused of launching a deadly terrorist attack targeting Muslims, whom the killer saw as launching an “invasion.” Soon after, the American president echoed the rhetoric, downplayed the rise of white nationalism, and touted his support for an Islamophobic television personality – all over the course of 48 hours.
It’d be easier to look past missteps like these if they weren’t so common – because this wasn’t the first time Trump flunked a leadership test in the wake of global terrorism. As regular readers may recall, his response to attack in Egypt’s North Sinai was awful. His reaction to the attack in Nice, France, was every bit as misguided. The Republican’s response to terrorism in London quickly became an international embarrassment – twice.
Trump’s responses to violent incidents closer to home are no better.
When Trump responded irresponsibly to violence in 2016, his supporters could try to argue that he was a first-time candidate who was still learning how to behave. In 2017, they could make the case that he was still an amateur finding his footing.
It’s 2019, the leadership tests keep coming, and Trump keeps flunking. There are no good excuses.