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Trump's spread of British far-right group's anti-Muslim videos draws condemnation in U.S. and abroad

President Trump extended his flirtation with racist extremists internationally on Wednesday — and drew a rare rebuke from two European allies — by retweeting three anti-Muslim videos from a far-right fringe group in Britain.

“It is wrong for the president to have done this,” said James Slack, spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May. He described the group, Britain First, as one that “seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives which peddle lies and stoke tension.”

Compounding the sudden diplomatic muddle with the United States’ closest ally, Trump hit back at the prime minister Wednesday night, again on Twitter, telling her, "Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!"

May wasn’t alone in her irritation with Trump. Members of Parliament and the senior cleric of the Church of England also condemned the American president. Officials of the Netherlands weighed in as well, implicitly criticizing Trump in a statement that disputed one of the videos and noted, “Facts do matter.”

The ultranationalist Britain First — a name with echoes of Trump’s “America First” slogan — is known there for conducting “Christian patrols” in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. Its deputy leader, whose Twitter posts Trump retweeted, was arrested last week on suspicion of inciting hatred and violence and was convicted last year of harassing a Muslim.

Trump’s posts were just his latest to cause trouble diplomatically since he took office. This week, Libya’s state-controlled media seized on recent Trump tweets lambasting cable network CNN as “fake news,” to label as lies CNN International’s report of a Libyan auction in which African migrants were sold into slavery.

The president’s tweets against North Korea, such as vowing to unleash “fire and fury” and deriding dictator Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man,” repeatedly have rattled allies threatened by the nuclear-armed nation.

Trump earlier angered many in Britain when, after a terrorist attack in London in June, he misleadingly suggested on Twitter that the city’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Kahn, had minimized terrorism by suggesting there was “no reason to be alarmed.” Kahn was referring to the widespread presence of armed police. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, excoriated Trump in her own tweet: “If we need an alarmist blowhard, we’ll call.”

What vexed many British about Trump’s latest tweets is that he elevated a hate group that until now has had minimal support. Its deputy leader, Jayda Fransen, whose tweets Trump had circulated, quickly thanked the president on Twitter for introducing the faction and its anti-Muslim message to his 43 million followers.

“GOD BLESS YOU TRUMP! GOD BLESS AMERICA!” she tweeted.

Her reaction echoed that of a counterpart in the United States, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who posted on Twitter: “Thank God for Trump! That's why we love him.”

More widespread was the criticism of Trump, within minutes of Americans awakening to his retweets. Republicans in Congress were mostly silent or avoided questions, though Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of Trump's Republican antagonists, called his posts "highly inappropriate."

Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Trump would “embolden bigots.”

“These are actions one would expect to see on virulent anti-Muslim hate sites, not on the Twitter feed of the president of the United States,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement. “Trump’s posts amount to incitement to violence against American Muslims.”

The blowback was reminiscent of the reaction to Trump’s failure in August to explicitly condemn white supremacists for two days following deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Va., and his blaming “many sides” for the violence that caused a woman’s death.

While Trump traveled Wednesday to Missouri for a political rally promoting the Republican tax cut bill, his aides defended the president’s tweets and dismissed the criticism in this country and elsewhere.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump retweeted the videos to bring attention to “the threat” and the need “to promote strong border security” and increase military spending.

“I'm not talking about the nature of the video. I think you are focusing on the wrong thing,” she told reporters. “The threat is real. And that's what the president it talking about, is the need for national security, the need for military spending, and those are very real things.”

Fransen, the Britain First member, was convicted last year of religiously aggravated harassment of a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, or hijab, as the woman’s four children watched. Her arrest last week, on suspicion of inciting hatred, was related to a rally in August in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The videos Fransen had circulated purport to show Muslims engaged in violent or anti-Christian acts. The titles — “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” along with “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” — reflected the sort of anti-Muslim sentiment Trump expressed as a candidate, but had muted since his election. “I think Islam hates us,” he told CNN last year, as he campaigned for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims coming to the United States.

The caption on one video said the young man kicking and punching a Dutch boy on crutches was a Muslim migrant. Yet according to a statement from the Dutch Embassy in Washington, authorities in the Netherlands investigated the assault and said the suspect was not a migrant.

"Facts do matter,” the embassy said. “The perpetrator of the violent act in this video was born and raised in the Netherlands. He received and completed his sentence under Dutch law."

Also joining the fray against Trump was Brendan Cox, the widower of a member of the British Parliament, Jo Cox, who was killed last year by a man shouting “Britain First!” The group denied it had any connection.

Cox wrote on Twitter, “Trump has legitimized the far right in his own country, now he’s trying to do it in ours. Spreading hatred has consequences and the President should be ashamed of himself.”

The influential Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the senior bishop of the Church of England, said it is "deeply disturbing that the President of the United States has chosen to amplify the voice of far-right extremists."

Welby called on Trump to take down the tweets and "make clear" his opposition to racism and hatred.

Piers Morgan, the pro-Trump British television personality, turned on the president, tweeting, “What the hell are you doing retweeting a bunch of unverified videos by Britain First, a bunch of disgustingly racist far-right extremists? Please STOP this madness & undo your retweets.”

Trump has been invited to visit Britain in 2018, and some members of Parliament called for rescinding that invitation. It has not been withdrawn, May’s office said. Neither has it been scheduled yet.

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

brian.bennett@latimes.com


UPDATES:

6:10 p.m.: This article has been updated to add President Trump’s response to British Prime Minister Theresa May.

This article was originally published at 4:20 p.m.

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