Turning overtly to politics in the aftermath of the latest terrorist attack, President Trump on Wednesday called the U.S. criminal justice system a “joke,” demanded the cancellation of the green card lottery program that allowed the suspected New York City attacker to enter the country and said he would consider housing the suspect among alleged foreign terrorists in Guantanamo Bay.
In remarks before a Cabinet meeting and earlier in the day, Trump assailed Democrats in general and New York’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, in particular for blocking his proposals to restrict immigration.
“Honestly, they don’t want to do what’s right for our country,” he said of the Democrats.
Trump’s proposals on the immigration front were twofold: to cancel the visa lottery program that has been in effect for nearly 30 years and to end “chain migration” by which relatives of those in the country have priority when seeking permission to enter legally.
The lottery program, created during the George H.W. Bush administration, was meant to allow individuals to enter the United States from countries that had low levels of immigration at that time. It had particular support from Irish American and Italian American groups, which have long had large immigrant populations in New York, and was backed by Schumer, then a member of the House, as well as Republicans from the New York area.
“Sounds nice — it’s not nice — it’s not good,” Trump said of the program under which Sayfullo Saipov, accused in the New York truck attack that left eight dead, entered the U.S. from Uzbekistan. “I am going to ask Congress to immediately initiate work to get rid of this program.”
Trump said that Saipov had either brought in or potentially could bring in 23 relatives.
“They certainly could represent a threat,” he said, without offering proof.
In his rebuke of the criminal justice system, Trump suggested that it was partially at fault for terrorist acts.
“We need quick justice, and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke, and it’s a laughingstock,” he said. “And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place.”
That sentiment seemed to spark Trump’s interest in sending Saipov, a U.S. resident since 2010, to the Guantanamo Bay detention center, which houses alleged enemy combatants seized overseas. President Obama sought to close the facility but Trump has long advocated its use.
“Send him to Gitmo — I would certainly consider that, yes,” Trump said in response to questions from reporters.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later that Trump was “expressing his frustration” with the criminal justice system, not suggesting a wholesale overhaul of the way domestic terror suspects are treated. Regarding the use of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, she said Trump would support that “but he wasn’t necessarily advocating” such a change.
The president’s quick demand for more restrictive immigration policies — and his denunciation of existing programs favored by Democrats — follows a pattern of swift comments from him after attacks involving Muslims. As happened Wednesday, he often suggests that the U.S. needs to demonstrate more toughness and strength, qualities that he sought to represent during his presidential run.
He has been far more reticent — or declined to respond at all — following other tragedies. He delayed for two days criticizing white nationalists for their violent protest in Charlottesville, Va., this summer. At the time, he defended his reluctance by saying he needed to gather facts before speaking.
“It takes a little while to get the facts,” he said. “So I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.”
After the New York attack, by contrast, Trump moved within hours from expressing support and condolences for the city to shifting criticism onto others. His suggestion that Saipov’s relatives might be a threat was reminiscent of his often-repeated claim that relatives of the two assailants involved in the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack were culpable because they had seen indications that it was about to occur. No evidence has surfaced to back up that claim.
Tuesday’s attack was the first terror strike inside the United States during Trump’s presidency and was allegedly done in sympathy with Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the extremist group Trump has argued he has “on the run.”
“We have made more progress in the last nine months against ISIS than the Obama Administration has made in 8 years. Must be proactive & nasty!” he tweeted in September.
The administration appeared sensitive to the idea that the attack contradicted the progress it has touted.
“We don’t think there’s any way you could discredit the progress that has been made,” Sanders said, contending that the attack reinforced the need to adopt the president’s policies.
Trump opened the morning with a burst of tweets about his policy priorities and a blast at Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader.
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based,” Trump tweeted early Wednesday. Trump cited “Fox and Friends” as his source for some of his information, but the Department of Homeland Security later confirmed that Saipov had benefited from the lottery.
“ ’Senator Chuck Schumer helping to import Europes problems’ said Col.Tony Shaffer. We will stop this craziness!” Trump added, citing the show.
Schumer criticized Trump for using the attack to score political points, then noted that the administration had proposed cutting the budgets of counter-terrorism programs. He also mocked the administration’s refusal to discuss gun control measures after the Las Vegas concert massacre, which administration officials had justified on grounds that the early focus should be on the victims.
“I guess it’s not too soon to politicize a tragedy,” Schumer tweeted.
While Schumer was a sponsor of the lottery plan a generation ago, more recently, in the Senate, he sought to cancel it as part of the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but was killed by opposition from conservative Republicans in the House. Trump opposed that plan.
Trump also used the aftermath of the New York attack to make a pitch for what he termed “our already Extreme Vetting Program.” He said he was tightening the vetting program but did not say how. “Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!” Trump said.
It was unclear whether more restrictive vetting would have kept out Saipov, who allegedly drove a rented truck down a bicycle path on the west side of Manhattan on Tuesday with the intent of killing and injuring cyclists and pedestrians.