The Memo

The Memo: Questions sharpen for Trump after New Zealand massacre

Friday's mass shooting in New Zealand is sharpening scrutiny of the rhetoric of international political figures, including President Trump. 

Even trenchant Trump critics have not accused him of a direct line of culpability for the shooting at two mosques in Christchurch that left at least 49 people dead. It was the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's modern history.

But the massacre has reinvigorated criticism that Trump has empowered extremists and Islamophobes globally since his 2015 call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." 

George Selim, senior vice president of programs at the Anti-Defamation League, declined to be drawn into specific comments on Trump in a Friday interview with The Hill but said, "You need look no further than what the [alleged] shooter himself has said about political leaders in the United States." 

The alleged shooter, Brenton Tarrant, is said to have published a lengthy manifesto on the internet before the attack.

In a question-and-answer section, the person thought to be Tarrant addressed the question of whether he was a Trump supporter.

"As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure," the document states. "As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no."

White House aides have pushed back fiercely at suggestions that there is a common thread linking - however distantly or indirectly - the rhetoric used by Trump with the actions seen in Christchurch.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Friday afternoon that the alleged shooter was "wrong" to see Trump as a symbol of white identity. She also objected to media coverage of the manifesto, saying, "I think you should cover the entire manifesto if you're going to cherry-pick a piece of it."

Earlier in the day, White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp blasted any attempt to link the shooter's actions and Trump's rhetoric as "outrageous."

But Trump fueled the controversy on Friday afternoon when he pushed back against the idea that white nationalism was a growing problem.

"I don't really [think so]," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess."

During the same encounter, marking the president's veto of a congressional resolution disapproving of his declaration of a national emergency regarding immigration, Trump referred to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as an "invasion."

"People hate the word 'invasion,' but that's what it is," he said, according to pool reports.

In Tarrant's apparent manifesto, he repeatedly portrayed himself as seeking to stop an "invasion" of predominantly white countries by people of non-European heritage.

White extremism has long been a flashpoint between defenders and critics of the Trump administration. 

The most infamous example came in 2017 amid fatal violence in Charlottesville, Va. In that instance, Trump referred to "some very fine people on both sides" despite the fact that one side included neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.

The title of Tarrant's manifesto, "The Great Replacement," carried a similar echo to one of the chants heard in Charlottesville: "You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!"

Almost immediately upon taking office, Trump ordered a ban on immigration from several countries with predominantly Muslim populations - a "Muslim ban," as his critics called it.

The travel ban was mired in court challenges, though a modified version was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018.

More recently, Trump called himself a "nationalist" during an October 2018 rally in Texas. The remark was seen by his defenders as encapsulating his "America First" approach to governing but as something more sinister by his critics.

Selim, who served in the administrations of former President George W. Bush, former President Obama and during the first six months of the Trump administration, noted that "when hateful rhetoric is allowed in our public square without condemnation, it gives the green light to extremists to speak up - and in the case of New Zealand, act on it; and in the case of Pittsburgh, act on it."

In October, 11 people were killed in a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Robert Bowers, who has been charged with carrying out the mass killing but has pleaded not guilty, allegedly posted anti-Semitic sentiments and extreme xenophobic views on the internet.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch mass shooting, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) released a statement that she was "so angry at those who follow the 'white supremacy' agenda in my own country." In November, Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) became the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said on Friday that since Trump's campaign for the presidency, "Islamophobia took a sharp rise, and attacks on innocent Muslims, innocent immigrants and mosques have skyrocketed."

But the events in Christchurch have also fueled discussion about the role of social media, both in fomenting extreme views and as a platform to disseminate actual acts of terrorism. 

A video of the Christchurch mass shooting, apparently filmed by the shooter, appeared in real time and was widely disseminated in the immediate aftermath, though most social media companies tried to scrub it from their platforms.

To date, no one has a simple solution to the challenges posed by social media, though there are some suggested remedies on specific topics. Some question whether companies should allow livestreaming without a delay if that capability is going to be used for footage of murder, for example.

Meanwhile, there seems no doubt that the debate over Trump's rhetoric will only deepen - especially since the president himself sees no need to temper it.

On Friday, he called what happened in Christchurch "monstrous terror acts" and "horrible." 

He soon turned his attention back to immigration.

"We're bursting at the seams," he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.

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