Since Donald Trump called for temporarily banning Muslims from entering the U.S., he has tried to expand, narrow or otherwise redefine the polarizing proposal that helped win him the Republican primary but has posed a greater challenge in the general election campaign.
On Monday, he added a phrase to his policy lexicon: “extreme vetting.”
To Trump, that means ensuring anyone entering the country shares American values.
The newest addition to Trump’s immigration policy came during a major speech on national security in Youngstown, Ohio, that featured an unusually subdued Trump reading uneasily at times from a teleprompter and repeating several false claims, including his assertion that he was early to oppose the Iraq invasion and the unsubstantiated pronouncement that the San Bernardino shooters’ neighbor saw bombs in their apartment before the attacks.
It followed days of criticism over Trump’s insistence that President Obama and Hillary Clinton founded Islamic State. Those comments, and other unscripted and unforced controversies, have helped distract from Trump’s core economic and anti-terrorism messages, push down his standing in polls and lead Republicans to once again urge him to curtail his improvisational style of campaigning.
Trump did not explicitly back down from his December proposal, still on his campaign website, for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Trump spent more of his speech defining what he said was a new ideological test for those entering the U.S., comparing his plan to Cold War-era screening.
“We should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people,” he said. “In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles — or who believe that sharia law should supplant American law. Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted.”
The newest iteration of Trump’s policy, though not specifically demanding a religious test on entering the country, still allows for capricious enforcement, said Steve Yale-Loehr, a Cornell Law School professor who specializes in immigration.
“What one president thinks is important for American values, another president may deem not important,” he said. “We don’t want an immigration policy subject to the vagaries of political opinion.”
State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau declined to comment on Trump’s immigration proposals but said, “We stand by the integrity of our visa process.”
Trump mostly delivered broad outlines for his ideas on fighting terrorism, many of which he has mentioned before, rather than specific policy proposals. Some of his ideas, such as relying on more human intelligence to target terrorists in addition to drone strikes, echo Obama administration policy. The message from Trump, however, was that Obama and Clinton have tiptoed around the threat because they are unwilling to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” and are too afraid of offending those who would do harm to effectively target them.
At the same time, he cast suspicion even on second-generation immigrants, saying their status, along with those born in other countries, was a common thread in several terrorist attacks. That group of Americans with foreign-born parents would include Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland, and his youngest child, Barron, whose mother, Melania Trump, was born in the former Yugoslavia.
Trump, who has vacillated in recent days on his incendiary charge that Obama and Clinton were the founders of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, attempted to modify that assertion Monday. Instead of again calling them the literal founders, he said that “the rise of ISIS is the result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.” He singled out the withdrawal from Iraq.
Trump also asserted that Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran all posed lesser threats before Obama took office, though Trump failed to mention that he supported the interventions in Libya and Egypt that he now calls disastrous.
He also hinted at an unfounded claim made in some conservative media that Clinton is physically ill, asserting she “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS and all of the adversaries we face.”
Vice President Joe Biden offered the most direct response to date on behalf of the Obama administration to Trump’s statement that the president was the founder of Islamic State, calling it not only “an outrageous statement,” but also a “dangerous one.”
Trump’s ideas are “not only profoundly wrong, they’re very dangerous and they’re very un-American,” Biden said.
“It’s a recipe for playing into the hands of terrorists and their propaganda,” said Biden, appearing with Clinton in Scranton, Pa., for their first joint rally.
Trump’s speech came amid doubts in his own party, and increasing levels of controversy, surrounding his campaign.
Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, denied a New York Times story that told of handwritten ledgers indicating he received $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.
Manafort’s consulting work for former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich was already public. But the Times reported records of cash payments from 2007 to 2012 that were not previously known. It said the ledgers were discovered by an anti-corruption bureau as “part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.”
Trump’s supportive comments of Russian President Vladimir Putin had already drawn scrutiny. But he did not back down in Monday’s speech, insisting that the U.S. “could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS.”
“Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Trump said, defying policy specialists in his party who have cast a wary eye on Russia’s attempts to build its profile in the Middle East. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli in Scranton, Pa., and Joseph Tanfani and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.
3:40 p.m.: This story was updated with reaction to Trump’s speech.
1:05 p.m.: This story was updated with Trump’s speech.
This story was originally published at 4:45 a.m.