President Trump on Wednesday unleashed one of his most inflammatory strings of tweets since his inauguration, stoking anti-Islamic fervor by posting a series of videos first publicized by a far-right, anti-Muslim leader from Great Britain that outraged political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.
The president also resurfaced unfounded allegations that NBC News host Joe Scarborough was somehow involved in the death of an intern who worked in his old congressional office, giving new ammunition to critics who say he traffics in conspiracy theories.
The reaction from the media and the political class was swift. Democrats renewed calls for impeachment, arguing Trump is unfit for office. Cable networks went wall-to-wall denouncing the president for spreading fake news, an accusation he frequently makes against news organizations.
“He needs to be careful,” said Barry Bennett, a former adviser to the Trump campaign. “He has a huge megaphone on Twitter and I don’t mind him using it for good, but you have a problem if he’s not using it right.”
Trump’s tweets were a head-scratcher to many, coming after a good Tuesday for the White House that saw GOP senators offer the president credit for a key panel vote in favor of the GOP tax bill.
The White House also had just mocked Democratic congressional leaders by staging a press statement so that Trump spoke next to empty chairs set out for Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week Stefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' MORE (D-Calif.), who skipped a White House meeting to protest Trump’s negotiating via Twitter. The administration clearly felt it had gotten the better of the political fight.
Following up on either story — or offering reassurances to the nation over North Korea’s latest provocations — seemed a natural step for Trump.
Instead, Wednesday morning featured retweeted anti-Muslim videos and reflections on Scarborough and “Today” host Matt Lauer, who was fired over sexual misconduct allegations.
A number of Trump supporters basked in the media frenzy, dismissing the notion he had done anything wrong.
“Most conventional politicians think if people are pissed off there’s something wrong,” said one GOP operative with close ties to Capitol Hill. “Trump likes keeping people pissed off, he likes the fighting; it’s how he operates.”
Trump’s allies acknowledge his comments can be boorish and inappropriate, but argue the backlash from the political establishment only emboldens his supporters.
“The media and politicians think it’s their role to be tamping down divisions that clearly exist, but Trump just doesn’t see the value in doing that,” the operative said.
While Trump may have gained from his early morning series of tweets in the eyes of his supporters, his comments were broadly seen as undercutting his credibility with people inside and outside the U.S.
Trump retweeted videos that purportedly showed violence committed by Muslims first posted by Jayda Fransen, a leader of Britain First, a fringe group in the United Kingdom whose profile was raised by the president.
The videos have not been verified as authentic.
Fransen has been convicted of a hate crime in the U.K., and one of the group’s followers murdered a member of parliament last year.
The head of the Church of England also called on Trump to remove the tweets from his account and the husband of the murdered member of parliament ripped the president for seeking to capitalize on his wife’s death.
British Prime Minister Theresa May rushed to condemn Trump’s tweets after members of the House of Commons reacted with anger.
“British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right, which is the antithesis of the values that this country represents — decency, tolerance and respect. It is wrong for the president to have done this,” said a spokesman for May.
But May’s office said it was not withdrawing an invitation for Trump to make a state visit.
The White House defended Trump, saying the tweets were meant to highlight national security issues.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that whether the videos are real or not, “the threat is real.”
Speaking to reporters later on Wednesday, White House spokesman Raj Shah denied that Trump believes Muslims pose a threat to the U.S. He also dodged when asked why the president believed tweeting incendiary videos of Muslims was the best way to highlight the president’s agenda on national security.
“Look, the president is the president of all Americans,” he said. “The tweets were about national security and protecting the safety and security of the American people.”
The firestorm followed criticism of Trump’s insult Monday of Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Mass.) as “Pocahontas” at a White House ceremony meant to honor Native American veterans of World War II.
Warren and other Trump critics condemned the remark as a slur and called it further evidence the president is motivated by racial animus. But Trump supporters laughed the Warren comments off as another media-generated distraction and a double standard.
They argue that even if the setting was inappropriate, the fact that she made dubious claims of Native American heritage when applying for jobs in academia is the real scandal.
“Most Americans are glad to have a president who says what he thinks and find it ridiculous that a U.S. senator used Native Americans as a tool to promote herself,” the GOP operative said. “Why aren’t we worked up about that?”
The president’s tweet seeking to tie Scarborough, a fierce critic of Trump, to the death of his former intern went too far in the eyes of many in the media. CNN anchor Jake Tapper called Trump’s tweet “indecent” and “inhumane.”
The tweet underscored concerns by many in Washington about where the president gets his news and whether he buys into debunked conspiracy theories.
The New York Times reported this week that Trump still believes that former President Obama was not born in the U.S. and that he has claimed that the voice on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape is not his own.
The White House has declined to say whether Trump is telling confidants the “Access Hollywood” tape is a fake, even though he has already publicly acknowledged it is genuine.
Shah, the White House spokesman, said there were “a number of inaccuracies” in the report, but would not cite specific examples. He said Trump’s “views on those issues have not changed.”
Trump’s backers say they’re not concerned that his credibility might take a hit. The president is at his best when he is tangling with the media, they say, even if it draws attention to sexual misconduct allegations made against him.
“Attacking the media isn’t a base play. Forty percent of the population thinks the media makes up fake news about Trump,” said one former campaign aide. “The media was quick to criticize Trump’s past and now we’re finding out so many people in the media are guilty.”