The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election: Trump's Long, Dangerous History of Loose Talk About Terrorism
Donald Trump at a rally in North Carolina in March. Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Less than 36 hours after a bomb called into Fox & Friends to respond to the latest act of terrorism in the US. What the Republican presidential candidate said on the Fox News morning show would have been chilling if it weren't par for the course: Trump called ISIS "very strong" and said they were "winning the war," speculated that the attack had "many foreign connections," denounced Barack Obama for letting in Syrian refugees—a "Trojan horse," he said—and appeared to call for open racial profiling.
"We're allowing these people to come into our country and destroy our country," Trump told the hosts.
Importantly, at the time of Trump's comments, not much was known about the attack. The name of suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami (who is now in custody) had not been released publicly, and we still don't know the extent of Rahami's links to overseas terrorists. Though it's possible Trump had some information that the rest of us didn't, his comments about Syrian refugees (Rahami was born in Afghanistan) suggest otherwise.
In other words, a man who could very well be in the White House next year was talking out of his ass about terrorism on live TV. This is a habit for Trump—after nearly every major terrorist attack, he has no qualms about spreading fear and anger, often trafficking in misinformation, dangerous habits for a man so close to the presidency.
The immediate aftermath of terrorism incidents are often a breeding ground for rumors of all kinds, and public officials are generally pretty cautious in what they say at those times. Barack Obama, in his remarks about the bombing, emphasized the "strength" of New Yorkers and their refusal to let fear rule their lives. Though New York governor Andrew Cuomo said that "a bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism," he hardly went out on a limb like Trump, who in less than a half hour implied that the attack was linked to Syria and ISIS, and could have possibly been stopped by more aggressive policing and stricter immigration policies.
Trump's Fox & Friends comments were not a one-off, but the continuation of a long habit of loose talk after an attack. Though there are exceptions to the rule—his response to the Dallas attack on police was relatively measured—generally Trump responds to tragic attacks with a mixture of bluster, innuendo, and sometimes outright falsehoods.
In the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting, for instance, Trump said that the killer had been born in Afghanistan, which was either a lie or a clumsy mistake, and darkly insinuated that "there's something going on" with Obama's refusal to say the words "radical Islamic terrorism." He followed those statements up with some more untruths about whether shooter Omar Mateen had been investigated, and, as he did on Monday, talked about Syrian refugees even though Mateen wasn't of Syrian ancestry.
Trump congratulated himself about "being right" after Orlando, and he echoed that sentiment on Fox & Friends Monday, saying "I knew this was going to happen." He doesn't shy away with making stories about terrorism personal to him—after last year's Paris shooting, he childishly fantasized about personally shooting terrorists.
Another of Trump's go-to moves in response to a terrorist attack is to criticize the "toughness" of the current US leadership. On Fox & Friends, he said, when asked how he'd stop attacks like the one in Manhattan, "We're going to have to do something extremely tough over there," without really specifying where "there" is. When host Steve Doocy, to his credit, pressed Trump for details, the details didn't come: "Like, knock the hell out of them," Trump replied. "And we have to get everyone together, and we have to lead for a change because we're not knocking them, we're hitting them every once in a while, we're hitting them in certain places, we're being very gentle about it, we're going to have to be very tough."
After the San Bernardino shooting, Trump was similarly vague, saying that he'd "get myself in so much trouble" if he said what he'd do to terrorists out loud. And this July, he endorsed the use of "vicious" attacks against ISIS, saying "you have to fight fire with fire." In remarks about the March attack in Brussels, Trump was a little more explicit about what being "tough" meant: "Waterboarding would be fine," Trump said at the time. "If they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding. You have to get the information from these people."
Hillary Clinton criticized Trump over that sort of talk. In response to his remarks about the New York bombing, she accused him of "giving aid and comfort to our adversaries" by conflating the war on terror with a war on Islam—and, in fact, at least one al Qaeda affiliate has used Trump's call for a ban on Muslim immigration in a propaganda video.
Trump has also repeatedly advocated for the open profiling of Muslims by police. He used the Orlando shooting as an opportunity to call for the surveillance of mosques, and on Monday, he said that police "are afraid" to go after potential terrorists because of political correctness.
"You know in Israel, they profile," Trump said on Fox & Friends. "They've done an unbelievable job, as good as you can do."
It's true that Israel routinely profiles—a practice that has been harshly criticized for humiliating its Arab citizens and contributes to their resentment of the government. But Trump has been pretty explicit about his lack of concern for the feelings of Muslims. In March, he accused American Muslims of "protecting each other" rather than reporting suspicious activity—again, he brought out the phrase, "there's something going on," that Trumpian catch-all for whatever conspiracies are conjured up in the minds of his listeners.
Trump is, for now, just a guy with his name on the November ballot. But if he becomes president his habit of jumping to conclusions and making broad insinuations could have more serious consequences. Today, all Trump can do with his anger is call Fox News and hit "tweet." In the White House, he'd have an awful lot of guns and missiles at the mercy of his impulses.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.