WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday he does not believe white nationalism is a rising global threat after a gunman who espoused that ideology massacred 49 Muslims at mosques in New Zealand during their afternoon prayers.
“I don’t really,” Trump said when asked at the White House whether white nationalists were a growing global threat. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.”
Trump said he had not seen the manifesto, purportedly from one of the attackers, that named him as an inspiration for white identity ideology.
Trump’s remarks came during an Oval Office ceremony he held to issue his first veto of a resolution blocking him from moving money around to build a wall along the southern border aimed at keeping out undocumented immigrants.
Trump, who has stoked fear about violent criminals and terrorists coming into the country from Mexico, has also claimed without evidence that “Middle Easterns” are sneaking in with asylum seekers and that Muslim prayer rugs had been found at the border.
During the veto signing, Trump referred to people trying to invade the United States as a reason for the wall. The New Zealand shooter in his manifesto wrote about invasions of foreigners.
Steve Cohen, a former Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said there is concern among law enforcement that Trump used the same language.
“These white supremacists live in this conspiratorial bizarro world,” Cohen said. “They will draw a connection between the use of that language by the person who wrote the manifesto and statements being made by our government. That is what is concerning law enforcement.”
Trump has a long history of derogatory remarks about Muslims, including declaring in 2016 that “Islam hates us.” He formally proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States during the presidential campaign, and since taking office his administration has implemented policies barring citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
Shortly before 7:30 a.m. Friday, the White House issued its first response, in the form of a statement, to the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. Trump followed up with a message on Twitter about 10 minutes later.
“My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques. 49 innocent people have so senselessly died, with so many more seriously injured,” he wrote. “The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do. God bless all!”
Trump also said he had spoken with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to offer his condolences and support.
The alleged shooter wrote that he was a supporter of Trump in one sense but not completely: “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policymaker and leader? Dear god no.”
In the document, the man also stated that he was following the example of notorious right-wing extremists, including Dylann Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway when asked about the shooter’s reference to Trump said, “The shooter is an evil, hateful person who is wrong about that.”