After New Zealand massacre, Trump downplays white nationalism threat
NEW YORK — President Trump played down any threat posed by racist white nationalism on Friday after the gunman accused of the New Zealand mosque massacre called the president ‘‘a symbol of renewed white identity.’’
Trump, whose own previous responses to the movement have drawn scrutiny, expressed sympathy for the victims who died as ‘‘places of worship turned into scenes of evil killing.’’ But he declined to join expressions of mounting concern about white nationalism, saying that ‘‘I don’t, really’’ when asked whether it was a rising threat around the world.
‘‘I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess,’’ Trump said. ‘‘If you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that’s the case. I don’t know enough about it yet. But it’s certainly a terrible thing.’’
Trump, questioned by reporters about the accused gunman’s reference to him, professed ignorance.
‘‘I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it,’’ he said. ‘‘But I think it’s a horrible event . . . a horrible, disgraceful thing and a horrible act.’’
Trump was asked about white nationalism and the shooting deaths of 49 people at mosques in Christchurch after he formally vetoed Congress’ resolution to block his declaration of a national emergency at the Mexico border. His veto, aimed at freeing money to build more miles of a border wall against illegal immigration, is expected to survive any congressional effort to overturn it.
In rejecting the congressional resolution on border funding, Trump was issuing the first veto of his presidency.
Flanked by law enforcement officials as well as the parents of children killed by people in the country illegally, Trump maintained that he is not through fighting for his signature campaign promise, which stands largely unfulfilled 18 months before voters decide whether to grant him another term.
‘‘Congress has the freedom to pass this resolution,’’ Trump said, ‘‘and I have the duty to veto it.’’
The veto event — which had the victory lap feel of a bill-signing ceremony — was overshadowed by the worldwide shock over the New Zealand mass shooting the night before.
The man accused of the shootings left behind a lengthy document that outlined his motivations. He proudly stated that he was a 28-year-old Australian white nationalist who hates immigrants and was set off by attacks in Europe that were perpetrated by Muslims. In a single reference, he mentioned the US president.
‘‘Were/are you a supporter of Donald Trump?’’ was one of the questions he posed to himself. His answer: ‘‘As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no.’’
The White House immediately denounced the connection. But the mention from the suspect, who embraced Nazi imagery and voiced support for fascism, nonetheless cast an uncomfortable light on the way that the president has been embraced by some on the far right.
Trump, who as a candidate proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, has drawn criticism as being slow to condemn white supremacy and related violence. After a 2017 clash between white nationalists and antiracist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., that left one demonstrator dead, Trump said there were ‘‘very fine people on both sides’’ of the confrontation.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, tied Trump’s inflammatory language to the violence half a world away, saying ‘‘I think that the public discourse from the president on down is a factor in some of these actions.’’
Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, who declared his Democratic candidacy for president this week, said, ‘‘We must call out this hatred, this Islamophobia, this intolerance, and the violence that predictably follows from the rhetoric that we use.’’
The White House, in comments before those remarks, rejected any link to Trump.
‘‘It’s outrageous to even make that connection between this deranged individual that committed this evil crime to the president who has repeatedly condemned bigotry, racism and made it very clear that this is a terrorist attack,’’ Mercedes Schlapp, the White House’s director of strategic communication, told reporters. ‘‘We are there to support and stand with the people of New Zealand.’’
Trump himself telephoned New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, offering condolences, prayers and any help the United States might be able to provide.
Trump’s hardline immigration rhetoric and calls to return America to its traditional past have been embraced by many on the conservative fringes, including some who troll online with racist imagery, as well as white supremacists who have looked to engage in violence.
In Florida, Cesar Sayoc, who had decorated his van with Trump propaganda, was accused of mailing explosives last fall to Democratic Party officials and media members, many of whom had been criticized by the president. The president said Sayoc had been ‘‘insane’’ long before he became a Trump fan.
Last month, a former Coast Guard official was accused of stockpiling weapons in a plot to kill media members and liberal politicians as part of a plan to transform the United States into a white ethno-state.
Many experts who track violent extremists have identified white nationalism as a growing threat in the United States and abroad.