Barack Obama has launched a stinging rebuke to Donald Trump’s response to the Orlando massacre, accusing the presumptive Republican nominee of “betraying American values” by suggesting all Muslims were complicit in such attacks.
In the most forceful remarks yet of an already febrile election season, the president warned of a “dangerous mindset” and “loose talk” that was of a different order from previous partisan criticism and threatened the very nature of American democracy.
“We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America … suggesting entire religious communities are complicit in violence,” said Obama.
American must now get very tough, very smart and very vigilant. We cannot admit people into our country without extraordinary screening.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 14, 2016
“Where does this stop? The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer, [they] were all US citizens. Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently … putting them under surveillance?”
The remarks, at a previously scheduled announcement about cutting financing to Islamic State, follow directly from Trump’s own speech in New Hampshire on Monday, in which he accused Obama of refusing to acknowledge the religious component of the jihadist threat.
But while Obama repeated his assertion that the Orlando killer had been radicalized by “extremist information over the internet” that was based on perverse readings of Islam, he went beyond his usual refusal to describe this as “radical Islamic extremism” and instead painted Trump as the existential threat.
“We have gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear and we came to regret it,” he said, in what appeared a reference to the McCarthy era. “We have seen our government mistrust our fellow citizens and it has been a shameful part of our history.
“This was a country founded on religious freedom. We don’t have religious tests here. If we ever abandon those values, we would have betrayed the very things we are trying to protect. I will not let that happen.
“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” Obama asked. “What exactly would it change? Would it make Isil less committed to trying to kill Americans, would it bring in more allies, is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above.”
Trump: "I watched Obama today, he was more angry at me than he was the shooter." Yep. What does that tell you?
— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) June 14, 2016
The debate over whether to use the phrase “radical Islamic extremism” has been a political talking point in Washington for years, stemming from criticism among Republicans over Obama’s rejection of characterizing the threat of terrorism in such terms. Although Trump is now leading the chorus, former Republican presidential candidates – from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz to Jeb Bush – have all suggested Obama’s reluctance to say the words “radical Islam” is both a sign of weakness and rooted in a desire by the president to be politically correct.
A visibly angry Obama refuted the notion on Tuesday, saying: “The reason I am careful has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with defeating extremism.”
Painting Muslims with a broad brush, he argued, would simply play into the terrorists’ hands and help spread their propaganda that America hates Muslims.
The US military “know[s] full well who the enemy is”, Obama countered, as do the intelligence and law enforcement officials who dedicated their time to “protecting all Americans, including politicians who tweet, and appear on cable news shows”.
Although Obama’s caution has been the source of partisan griping, George W. Bush charted a similar path after the September 11 attacks. The former president visited a mosque six days after the tragedy to make an appeal for tolerance while declaring: “Islam is peace.”
Obama challenged Republican leaders to distance themselves from what he said was Trump’s “dangerous mindset”.
“Mostly this has been partisan rhetoric. And that kind of yapping has not prevented folks across government from doing their jobs, but we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset can be. We are starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk can lead us.”
“Not once has an adviser of mine said, ‘If we used that phrase, we could turn this around,’” Obama added.
The president also repeated his call on Republicans to drop their opposition to gun control.
“If we really want to help law enforcement protect Americans from homegrown terrorists, the kind of outrages we have seen in San Bernardino and now Orlando, there is a meaningful way to do that. We have to make it hard for them to get their hands on weapons of war,” said Obama.
“We cannot prevent every tragedy, but there are commonsense steps that could reduce the lethality of those who want to do harm,” he added. “Enough talking about being tough on terrorism. Actually be tough on terrorism and stop making it as easy as possible for terrorists to buy assault weapons.”
On the campaign trail in Pittsburgh, Hillary Clinton also offered a vigorous rebuttal of Trump’s national security agenda, arguing that his response to the Orlando massacre was “more evidence that he is temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified to be commander-in-chief”.
In the speech at a union hall in Pittsburgh, Clinton sharpened her attack on Trump, painting him as a “conspiracy theorist” and a “loose cannon who could easily lead us into war” with his superficial understanding of national security and controversial policy prescriptions. She called Trump’s insinuation that Obama was somehow complicit in terrorism “shameful” and “disrespectful”.
“Donald Trump wants to be our next commander-in-chief,” Clinton said on Tuesday.
“I think we all know that that is a job that demands a calm, collected, and dignified response to these kinds of events. Instead, yesterday morning, just one day after the massacre, he went on TV and suggested that President Obama is on the side of the terrorists. Now just think about that for a second. Even in a time of divided politics, this is way beyond anything that should be said by someone running for president of the United States.”
She challenged Republican leaders to condemn Trump’s comments about Obama, asking whether they would “stand up to their presumptive nominee, or will they stand by his accusation about our president?
“History will remember this moment,” she added.
Clinton, who ascended to the position of presumptive Democratic nominee last week, said she had read “every word” of Trump’s national security speech on Monday, and found only two proposals amid the bluster: one was over semantics and the other over immigration.
“I will not demonize and declare war on an entire religion,” Clinton said, responding to Trump, who has denigrated her and the president for not using the term “radical Islamic terrorism”.
On Tuesday, she said: “In the end, it didn’t matter what we called Bin Laden, it mattered that we got Bin Laden,” referring to the 2011 raid that killed the leader of al-Qaida in Pakistan.
On Monday, Trump hardened his stance on banning Muslims from entering the country, proposing that the US stop immigration from areas of the world with a “proven history of terrorism”. He argued that this would have prevented the attack in Orlando, based on the assertion that the gunman, Omar Mateen, was “born an Afghan of Afghan parents, who immigrated to the United States”.
Clinton drew cynical laughs when she said on Tuesday: “He was born in Queens, New York, just like Donald was himself. So Muslim bans and immigration reforms would not have stopped him. They would not have saved a single life in Orlando.”
Clinton acknowledged that she had planned to give a different speech on Tuesday, one about the economy and union rights, but the attack in Orlando, and Trump’s reaction to it, demanded a rebuttal.
She ended her speech with a call to action for bipartisan leadership and action in response to fighting terrorism abroad and at home. She quoted a part of the letter President George H W Bush left for a newly elected President Bill Clinton when he took office in 1993 after a brutal and deeply partisan election, which she said still brought her to tears after all these years.
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