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Trump, with supporters, again assails ‘animals’ at Long Island forum on immigrant gang violence

President Trump greets Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, before a roundtable discussion on immigrant gang violence in Bethpage, N.Y., on Wednesday.
(Saul Loeb/ AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump on Wednesday reaffirmed his condemnation of immigrant gang members as “animals” as he pressed his call for tougher border security at a Long Island forum with public officials and victims’ parents.

He also threatened to cut foreign aid to the immigrants’ countries of origin unless those nations do more to stop traffic to the United States.

Decrying the “menace” of MS-13 gangs that he said had “transformed our neighborhoods into blood-stained killing fields,” the president blamed Democrats for blocking new laws and assailed critics who have complained that his recent comments had gone too far.

“I called them animals the other day and I was met with rebuke,” Trump said, after describing in grisly detail some gang crimes, including in the suburban New York area he was visiting. “They said, ‘These are people.’ These are not people, these are animals.”

The president and his aides have doubled down on the word since his use of it last week at a public meeting with California law enforcement officials provoked a backlash. That criticism, however, mostly reflected the ambiguity of Trump’s May 16 remarks about “animals,” which to some listeners seemed to refer to immigrants generally, not just MS-13 members.

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It was clear at Wednesday’s session that Trump was referring to the gang, and several attendees seconded his condemnation, including the mother of a teenager killed by the gang.

Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the president: “I think you’re being kind. Animals kill for survival. MS-13 kills for sport.”

The session brought Trump together with two administration appointees who have been targets of his verbal and Twitter attacks: Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, whom Trump has assailed for the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, and Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security who nearly quit recently after Trump excoriated her at a Cabinet meeting for not doing enough to crack down on immigration.

Trump complimented both Rosenstein and Nielsen at the meeting, and they lauded him in turn — as did the other local law enforcement officials and three Republican House members who flanked the president at tables.

Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s investigation of Russia’s election interference and Trump’s possible attempts at obstructing it, validated the president’s comments on the MS-13 threat and the weakness of current laws, and praised him for focusing attention on the issue.

“We’re letting people in who are creating problems,” Rosenstein said. He added, “Under your leadership, Atty. Gen. Sessions has made violent crime and illegal immigration a top priority for the Department of Justice.”

Yet unlike the president, who emphasized the danger of undocumented immigrants, Rosenstein and several other speakers leavened their remarks with sympathy for young people who come to the United States as innocents.

“We’re letting people in who are gang members,” Rosenstein said. “We’re also letting people in who are vulnerable. Many of these alien children who have no parents, no family structure … are vulnerable to recruitment to MS-13.”

The president, complaining that the native countries of arrested MS-13 members refuse to take them back, floated the idea of penalizing the nations: “Every time someone comes in from a certain country, we’re going to deduct a rather large sum of money.”

It is unclear whether the administration has the idea under consideration, as Trump suggested, and he did not name any countries in danger of losing aid. Many MS-13 members or their parents are from El Salvador.

The president closed with a characteristically bold prediction. “I feel totally confident,” he said, “that this problem will be eradicated.”

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