In the wake of a deadly attack on two New Zealand mosques, carried out, according to police, by a white supremacist, President Trump downplayed the danger posed by white nationalism.
Trump spoke to reporters on Friday afternoon, shortly after issuing the first veto of his presidency, which preserved his declaration of an emergency over the threat to American safety from immigrants from Central America.
Asked whether he saw white nationalism as a rising threat, Trump demurred.
“I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess. If you look what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that’s the case. I don’t know enough about it yet … but it’s certainly a terrible thing,” the president said.
Trump, who said he reached out to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to express his “sorrow” over the killings, described the latest terrorist attack to target Muslims as a “horrible, horrible thing.”
The president then pivoted to decry “crimes of all kinds coming through our southern border,” adding that “people hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is.”
Critics of the president have accused him using rhetoric that stokes unfounded fears about immigrants as he pursues a campaign promise of building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
“The words and imagery coming out of the Trump administration and from Trump himself are heightening these fears,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, told reporters on a conference call last month. “These images of foreign scary invaders threatening diseases, massive refugee caravans coming from the south. This is fear mongering.”
Some white supremacist groups have taken inspiration from Trump’s depiction of immigrants as a threat to American safety and prosperity.
Speaking at a 2017 rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke proclaimed “We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we’ve believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back —and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
In its annual survey released in February, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that last year the number of hate groups active in the U.S. had risen to its highest level in two decades.