White House: Calling MS-13 'animals' isn't 'strong enough'

The White House said Thursday that President TrumpDonald John TrumpArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Alyssa Milano protests Kavanaugh in 'Handmaid's Tale' costume Bomb in deadly Yemen school bus attack was manufactured by US firm: report MORE was "clearly" referring to members of the MS-13 gang when he called some immigrants "animals" and argued the controversial label is more than appropriate. 

"If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they're more than welcome to," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. "Frankly, I don't think the term the president used is strong enough."

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The spokesperson rattled off a list of "heinous acts" committed by the gang, including rape, beating a woman with a baseball bat and killing and decapitating a man.

"The term ‘animal’ doesn’t go far enough," she said. 

Sanders’s comments are likely to further enflame the debate surrounding Trump’s heated immigration rhetoric.

A day earlier, Trump sparked criticism when he used the term during a meeting with California officials opposed to the state's "sanctuary city" policy. 

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims told the president she was frustrated by how California’s laws have limited the ability of local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws, specifically in regards to the MS-13 gang.

“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are," Trump said.

“These aren’t people. These are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a rate that’s never happened before," he added.

During a Cabinet Room meeting with the head of NATO on Thursday, Trump emphasized that he specifically meant the gang.

"I'm referring — and you know I'm referring — to the MS-13 gangs that are coming in. I was talking about the MS-13. And if you look a little bit further on in the tape you'll see that. So I'm actually surprised that you're asking this question 'cause most people got it right," he said. 

Asked about the phrase by reporters, Trump defended his choice of words and vowed to repeat them.

"MS-13 — these are animals... We need strong immigration laws. ...We have laws that are laughed at on immigration,” he said. “So when the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals and guess what, I always will."

Trump has previously used the term “animals” to refer to members of MS-13. He has also labeled larger groups of immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally as criminals. 

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said when he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015. "They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Some of those who heard Trump's remarks inferred that he was alluding to all undocumented immigrants, not specifically gang members, an interpretation the White House rejects.

“When all of our great-great-grandparents came to America they weren’t ‘animals,’ and these people aren’t either," Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTo make the House of Representatives work again, make it bigger Reforms can stop members of Congress from using their public office for private gain Election Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' MORE (D-N.Y.) tweeted Wednesday.

Sanders responded that "the president should continue to use his platform and everything he can do under the law to stop these types of horrible, horrible, disgusting people.”

—Updated at 2:56 p.m.