GOP fears Trump's Muslim comments could hurt

GOP fears Trump's Muslim comments could hurt
© Getty Images

Donald Trump’s rhetoric since the Paris terrorist attacks appears to have helped him with GOP primary voters, according to most polls. But Republican insiders are concerned that his words could come back to haunt the party as it seeks to appeal to a broader audience.

In recent days, Trump has suggested that the United States could have “no choice” but to close mosques. Even more controversially, he told an NBC News reporter he would “certainly” implement a system to register and track Muslims, though it was unclear whether he was referring to new immigrants or all Muslims on American soil. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“Long term, that is not something we will do or should do,” said GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who has worked for past Republican presidential campaigns, including those of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannYes, condemn Roseanne, but ignoring others is true hypocrisy Bachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate MORE (Minn.) in 2012. 

Asked about the implications of such rhetoric for the GOP at large, Rollins suggested that Trump’s candidacy from the beginning has posed problems. 

“There is a lot of danger in some of the things that Trump has said, for a party that needs to reach out to Hispanics, needs to reach out to young voters, needs to reach out to women. Some of the rhetoric will be put back into play in the fall, and it is not positive,” he said. 

Those are the dangers that recently elected Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls On The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? MORE (R-Wis.) seemed to be trying to guard against when he said that House legislation to halt Syrian refugees from entering the United States would “not have a religious test, only a security test.”

Trump has little immediate incentive to temper his overall approach, however. Several polls since the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 that left 130 people dead have shown him expanding his lead over the rest of the Republican presidential field. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

A new poll from NBC News released on Friday, one week after the attacks, put Trump 10 points clear of his closest rivals. Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSinger Leon Bridges to join Willie Nelson in performing at O’Rourke rally Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Poll: Beto O'Rourke leads Cruz by 2 points in Texas Senate race MORE and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson were tied for second place.

Carson had briefly overtaken Trump at the start of this month in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average. As of Friday evening, Trump’s lead had been restored to almost 3 percentage points.

The real estate mogul’s demise has been predicted since his campaign began. But he did appear to implicitly acknowledge that he had gone a little too far in his remarks about Muslims when he tweeted on Friday, “I didn’t suggest a database — a reporter did.”  

In the exchange in question, Trump was asked “Should there be a database here to track Muslims in this country?” He responded, “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases. We should have a lot of systems.”  

Trump then went on to talk briefly about the need for border security and “strength” before he was asked, regarding the Muslim database, “but that’s something your White House would like to implement?”

“Oh, I would certainly implement that, absolutely,” Trump replied. 

In a later exchange, the candidate was asked, again by NBC News, how a database for Muslims in the United States would differ from the infamous system by which Jews had to register in Nazi Germany. “You tell me,” he said several times, in response. 

Trump’s comments elicited criticism from his Republican rivals. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he found the businessman’s suggestion of registering Muslim’s “abhorrent.” Ohio Gov. John Kasich tweeted that the suggestion showed that Trump was “unable to unite and lead our country.” 

The criticisms did not only come from centrist Republicans. Carson, who himself ignited a furor when he compared some refugees to “rabid dogs,” said a Muslim database would be “setting a pretty dangerous precedent.” Cruz, who has previously been among the most reluctant of other GOP candidates to attack Trump, said, “I’m a big fan of Donald Trump’s, but I’m not a fan of government registries for American citizens.” 

Republican pollster David Winston asserted that candidates probably welcomed the chance to “set out what they think that should happen, in a way that is unique” to them. But he also offered implicit criticism of Trump’s position, saying that GOP voters needed to decide “whether they think a policy is a do-able policy, an acceptable policy.” 

Democrats also piled on Trump’s remarks, perhaps scenting political gain on an issue that has sometimes placed the party on the defensive. 

In a signed tweet, presidential frontrunner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV Keeping up with Michael Avenatti MORE described Trump’s remarks as “shocking rhetoric,” adding that it “should be denounced by all seeking to lead this country.” Also on Twitter, Clinton’s main rival, Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV MORE (I-Vt.) called Trump’s proposal for a database of Muslims “an outrageous and bigoted statement.” In a later tweet, Sanders insisted, “We will not destroy ISIS by undermining the Constitution and our religious freedoms.” 

Criticism went beyond the presidential field, too. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) told a radio station in that city that Trump was “saying things — bluntly — that play right into ISIS’s hands. Donald Trump, a leading candidate for president, says, ‘Let’s shut down mosques.’ It’s like ISIS propaganda."

Trump blasted back at DeBlasio as “the worst mayor in the U.S,” but Democratic strategists insisted that his words on terrorism would backfire.

“It indicates that Donald Trump does not understand the Constitution. Show business aside, the Constitution protects our freedoms and need not be tampered with,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.  

On the Republican side, meanwhile, concern about Trump’s language lingered. 

“The rhetoric is too severe,” Rollins told The Hill.