Opinion writer


Donald Trump is deeply, unshakably convinced that talking about terrorism plays to what he chooses to see as his strengths. Back in March, he explicitly said that his focus on the topic “is probably why I’m number one in the polls.” And his response to the Orlando shooting that claimed 50 lives — the deadliest mass shooting in American history, simultaneously an act of terror and a hate crime — was to unleash a blizzard of public statements congratulating himself for his own perspicacity in gauging the true nature of the terror threat.

“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump tweeted, though he modestly added that “I don’t want congrats.” Trump also tweeted, “I called it,” and reiterated his support for a ban on Muslims. And Trump called on Obama to “resign in disgrace” because he won’t use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”

This morning on Fox News, Trump went even further, seeming to insinuate that President Obama is somehow tacitly rooting for terrorist attacks on Americans. He also seemed to try to incite hatred towards Muslims in America.

It’s true that talking about terrorism helped Trump among GOP primary voters. But he appears to be incapable of even contemplating the possibility that a general election audience might take a dimmer view of this sort of response.

Here’s what Trump said on Fox:

“We’re led by a man that either is, is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind, you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot — they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the ways he acts and can’t even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable.”

For good measure, Trump also said the following this morning:

“The problem is we have thousands of people right now in our country. You have people that were born in this country” who are susceptible to becoming “radicalized,” the billionaire real estate mogul told Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends. He claimed that there are Muslims living here who “know who they are” and said it was time to “turn them in.”

As it was, Trump’s self-congratulatory tweets yesterday had already attracted scalding criticism, even from Republicans. As NBC News reports, “party operatives had hoped Trump would remain silent on the attacks so as not to politicize the tragedy,” but they were “likely disappointed.” Meanwhile, some news reports were already taking note of the vast differences in the ways that Trump and Clinton responded to the event. As the Post overview reports, Trump responded with “bombast,” while Clinton expressed sympathy with the victims, directly addressed the issues raised by the event, and called for a redoubled focus on defeating terror threats.

Today this contrast only deepened. As Steve Benen notes, Trump’s latest insinuations about Obama’s intentions towards America may well put pressure on other Republicans to clarify whether they agree with their party’s standard bearer on this matter. Meanwhile, Clinton went on NBC’s Today Show and rejected Trump’s semantic games over whether we should use the phrase “radical Islam.” Instead, she blasted Trump’s “demagoguery,” reiterated that she will not “declare war on an entire religion,” and said Trump’s rhetoric “plays into ISIS’s hands.”

It is routinely suggested that the specter of terrorism helps Trump politically. But if anything, Trump’s response to this horrific event could end up raising further doubts about his temperamental fitness for the presidency. As it is, the polling is mixed on whether Trump holds the advantage on these issues: while some surveys show Trump favored on the narrow question of terrorism, others show Clinton favored on foreign policy and on who would be a better commander in chief. Meanwhile, a Pew poll in February found that by 50-40, Americans say the next president should take care not to implicate all of Islam when talking about terrorism. So there is no particular reason to assume at the outset that the general electorate will respond well to Trump’s efforts to whip up xenophobia about American Muslims.

Indeed, if anything, Trump’s response calls to mind Mitt Romney’s handling of the Benghazi attacks in 2012. As you may recall, barely hours after the attacks, Romney rushed to blame Obama for allegedly making an “apology for American values,” insinuating vaguely that the president sympathized with anti-American interests throughout the Muslim world. That unleashed a torrent of criticism of Romney’s temperament and leadership abilities amid a crisis.

General presidential elections are brutally difficult: Without warning, they serve up moments that pose severe tests to the character and temperament of those vying for the Oval Office, and split-second decisions about how to respond to them end up creating lasting impressions that can prove unshakable. In retrospect, we may look back at Trump’s response to the Orlando shooting as his very own Romney/Benghazi moment — only far worse.


UPDATE: I’ve edited the above to reflect a fuller quote from one of Trump’s self-congratulatory tweets.


* TRUMP PUTS ATTACK ON CLINTONS ON HOLD: Trump had previously said that he would be delivering a speech today attacking both of “the Clintons,” but the Associated Press reports that the Orlando attack has changed his plans: He will instead shift his focus to “further address this terrorist attack, immigration and national security,” according to his campaign.

So if you were trembling with excitement at the prospect of hearing Trump’s devastating rehash of dredged up charges about Bill’s womanizing and crazy 1990s conspiracy theories, you’re just going to have to wait.

* SANDERS SIGNALS IT’S (PROBABLY) OVER: Bernie Sanders was asked on Meet the Press whether he’s “still an active candidate for president.” His answer:

“I…will continue to do everything that I can to make sure that Donald Trump does not become president of the United States. I think this man in a dozen different ways is not fit to become president….I will be meeting with Secretary Clinton on Tuesday evening…and after we can determine whether or not we are going to have a strong and progressive platform, I will be able to make other decisions.”

In other words, it’s likely that, once Clinton has given him the assurances he’s looking for, he’ll concede after the D.C. primary.

* SANDERS STILL HOPES TO CHANGE THE PARTY: Yesterday Sanders met with his top advisers, and emerged saying this:

“We are going to take our campaign to the convention with the full understanding that we are very good at arithmetic and that we know, you know, who has the received the most votes up to now,” Mr. Sanders said after the meeting….Notably, Mr. Sanders also said he would continue his efforts aimed at “transforming the Democratic Party,” a sign that his main goal may no longer be to become the nominee.

That means he hopes to channel his movement’s energy into prodding the party to embrace a robust progressive agenda. Also look for some kind of push to reform the nominating process and make it more inclusive.

 * HILLARY LAUNCHES NEW AD BLASTING TRUMP’S TEMPERAMENT: The Clinton campaign has launched a new minute-long ad that features footage of Trump airing his desire to “knock the crap” out of someone and mocking a disabled reporter, which is contrasted with Clinton’s message that we are “stronger together.”

The ad is the latest sign that Democrats are going to spend the next five months portraying Trump as a dangerous sociopath — and that the campaign is going to be a battle over “what kind of America do we want to be,” as the ad puts it.

* OMAR MATEEN BOUGHT GUN LEGALLY: NBC News reports that the Orlando shooter was twice investigated by the FBI for possible ties to terrorism but still bought the AR-15-style weapon he used legally:

In most states, people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes may still legally purchase guns. That suspected terrorists can legally purchase weapons in the U.S. has been a fierce point of contention in Congress and among gun-control advocates. The Senate voted down an amendment in December that would block suspected terrorists from buying guns and explosives.

It’s not clear yet, however, whether Mateen was on a terror watch list whose members would be prohibited from getting guns if that bill had become law. Meanwhile, in both cases, the FBI determined he was not a threat.

 * AND OBAMA GIVES NO GROUND TO CRITICS: Some good points from E.J. Dionne about Obama’s reaction to the Orlando shooting:

He gave his critics who despise his views on guns nothing, turning the tables on them by saying simply that failing to act to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those who would use them against innocent human beings “is a decision as well.” And it is. He also did something important, showing how futile it is to force an act of evil into the boxes we prefabricate. The Orlando slaughter was, he said, “an act of terror and an act of hate.”

Yes, it can be both of those things.