Two days after the New Zealand mosque massacre in which 50 people were slaughtered by a white nationalist targeting Muslims, President Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said the president is “not a white supremacist” — even as Trump took to Twitter on Sunday to praise a Fox News host whose commentary has been denounced by critics as Islamophobic.
In a manifesto distributed on social media, the Australian man arrested in Friday’s attack at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand’s third-most populous city, said he considered Trump “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” — although he said he did not admire the president’s leadership style or policymaking.
On the campaign trail and as president, Trump has made derogatory references to Muslims. He told an interviewer in 2016 that he believed “Islam hates us” and, in one of his first official acts, announced a measure targeting immigrants from Muslim-majority nations that set off months of court battles.
In a now-familiar scenario, White House aides and allies found themselves in the position Sunday of attempting to distance the president from previous remarks criticized as racially insensitive or worse — at the same time that Trump was again expressing similar sentiments.
Mulvaney, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” expressed frustration when asked about the positive citation of Trump in the alleged shooter’s manifesto.
“The president is not a white supremacist. I’m not sure how many times we have to say that,” he said. In a separate interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Mulvaney, also discussing the New Zealand attack, said: "I don't think anybody could say that the president is anti-Muslim."
In the Fox interview, he said it was wrong to link the accused attacker’s ideology to the prior comments of Trump or others.
"This was a disturbed individual, an evil person,” Mulvaney said of the shooter. “And any attempt to try to tie him to an American politician of either party probably ignores some of the deeper difficulties that this sort of activity exposes.”
Around the time that interview was being aired, the president was tweeting out a vociferous defense of Jeanine Pirro, a conservative Fox News host who was condemned by her own network after she questioned whether the first allegiance of Rep. Ilhan Omar — a Minnesota Democrat who is one of three Muslim lawmakers in the House of Representatives — was to Islamic law or the U.S. Constitution.
On Saturday night, Pirro did not appear in her usual weekend time slot on Fox.
On Sunday morning, Trump, during a barrage of tweets, urged viewers to rally around Pirro and another Fox host, Tucker Carlson, who has been under fire after old audio emerged of Carlson calling Iraqis “primitive monkeys” and also making lewd remarks about teen beauty contestants.
“Keep fighting for Tucker, and fight hard” for Pirro, the president exhorted his Twitter followers, adding: “Your competitors are jealous.”
Among nine tweets on a sunny St. Patrick’s Day morning, the president also took aim for a second day at the late Sen. John McCain, who died of brain cancer in August, and at NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which aired a rerun lampooning Trump. The president suggested the show and others like it that mock him should be scrutinized by federal regulators.
The attack on McCain, long lauded as a U.S. war hero after being a prisoner of war and suffering torture at the hands of his captors during the Vietnam conflict, drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who said on ABC’s “This Week” that Trump should apologize for “detestable” insults of McCain dating back to the president’s 2016 election campaign.
Coons is a Democrat, and his friendship with McCain was one of many that the Arizona Republican cultivated across the partisan divide.
Meanwhile, signs grew that the role of racial rhetoric in inspiring or discouraging attacks by extremists will be an issue in the 2020 campaign. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination last month, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that as president, Trump needed to speak out clearly and specifically against attacks on Muslims.
“At the very least, he should be giving strong statements, public speeches defending Muslims in this world,” Klobuchar said on “State of the Union.” “I think it’s on all of us to condemn this hate.”
After the Christchurch shootings, Trump — who normally tweets out quick denunciations of terrorist attacks overseas carried out by Muslims, sometimes preempting the leaders of countries where they occur — initially responded with a since-deleted link to the right-wing Breitbart News website, then expressed “warmest sympathy and best wishes” to the people of New Zealand.
Pressed later about the gunning down of scores of Muslim worshipers and the shooter’s apparent motivation, he called the attack a “terrible thing.”
In Christchurch on Sunday, mourners paid tribute to the dead at a makeshift memorial, while relatives continued to wait for authorities to release the victims’ bodies for burials.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said authorities hoped to release all the bodies by Wednesday. Islamic law calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible after death, usually within a day.
Javed Dadabhai, who flew from Auckland after learning about the death of his 35-year-old cousin, Junaid Mortara, said, "The family understands that it's a crime scene.”
“It's going to be a criminal charge against the guy who's done this, so they need to be pretty thorough."
Still, it was hard, he added, because the grieving process wouldn't really begin until he could bury his cousin.
On ABC, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that in the wake of the New Zealand slayings, voters should insist that politicians, including those running for president, should "adopt a more civil tone." He did not specifically mention the president.
"There's a role for our leaders to play in raising the level of civil dialogue in our country and lowering the levels of extremist speech," said Johnson, who served in the Obama administration. “Americans do listen to their leaders.”
Scott Brown, the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, was asked Sunday on “State of the Union” about the accused assailant’s praise for Trump in his manifesto.
“I don’t give any credibility whatsoever to the ramblings of somebody who’s rotten to the core and clearly is an extremist of the worst kind who could walk into two mosques and, without any care whatsoever, kill people," said Brown.
The envoy also brushed aside a query by host Jake Tapper as to whether he would like to see Trump “specifically say that he’s standing with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
“There’s been no time in my political or diplomatic life where I have ever questioned our government, whether it’s this government — or any other prior government’s — commitment to end racism, stop bigotry, to really deal with Islamophobic attitudes," Brown said.
Hours after the shooting, Trump was asked by reporters whether white nationalism was a growing global menace, and responded that “it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat who appeared on “State of the Union,” suggested the president was playing down a serious domestic threat.
“I think he needs to pick up the phone and call the Department of Justice,” she said. “He cannot just say it’s a small group of people. There’s too many deaths.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who was Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate in 2016, said Sunday that white nationalism wasn’t Trump’s fault, but that the president’s language “emboldens” racists.
"When you see church shootings in Charleston, a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, you see this hate-filled manifesto of the shooter in New Zealand who is murdering Muslims, we have to confront the fact that there is a rise in white supremacy, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim attitudes," Kaine said in an interview on “Face the Nation.”
"The president uses language often that’s very similar to the language used by these bigots and racists, and if he’s not going to call it out, then other leaders have to do more to call it out," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report from Christchurch, New Zealand.