The audience cheered. Supporters seated behind Trump and clad in white baseball caps bearing the letters “USA” laughed and applauded.
“That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” Trump replied, smiling and shaking his head. “Only in the Panhandle.”
Though Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the suggestion to shoot migrants, his joking response raised concerns that he was tacitly encouraging extrajudicial killings and brutality against asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. The president has long been accused of endorsing acts of violence through his incendiary rhetoric and allusions to the potential for violence at his rallies, a charge that members of his administration deny.
Reached for comment by The Washington Post on Trump’s reaction at the Florida rally, Matt Wolking, deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, pointed to a response he had given to many critics on Twitter. The president, he noted in his tweet, had specifically said that Border Patrol wouldn’t use firearms to stop migrants from entering the country.
The incendiary remark from the crowd came as Trump, standing before about 7,000 people who had gathered at an outdoor amphitheater in the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast town, railed against what he described as an “invasion” of migrants attempting to enter the United States. Often, he claimed, “two or three” border agents will contend with the arrival of “hundreds and hundreds of people.”
“And don’t forget, we don’t let them and we can’t let them use weapons,” Trump said of the border agents. “We can’t. Other countries do. We can’t. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people?"
The fans seated directly behind Trump wore serious, perturbed frowns, which were quickly replaced by broad grins after the shouted suggestion that the solution involved firearms. Uproarious laughter rippled across the room as audience members whistled and offered a round of applause.
To critics, Trump’s failure to outright condemn the idea of shooting migrants amounted to a “tacit endorsement” of the sentiment. Many pointed out that such rhetoric was especially concerning in light of the fact that an armed militia group, the United Constitutional Patriots, had been searching the borderlands for undocumented migrants and detaining them against their will.
Last month, after the group’s leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, was arrested on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, the FBI said that the 69-year-old claimed militia members were training to assassinate former president Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and prominent Democratic donor George Soros.
One member of that militia had also questioned why the group wasn’t killing migrants, according to a police report first obtained by left-leaning news outlet The Young Turks.
“Why are we just apprehending them and not lining them up and shooting them?” Armando Delgado Gonzalez allegedly asked another member during a patrol in April. “We have to go back to Hitler days and put them all in a gas chamber.”
Gonzalez denied making those comments in an interview with BuzzFeed News, though a third member of the group confirmed that the exchange had taken place and told BuzzFeed that the militia had filed a police report because the remarks were a “red flag.”
On Wednesday, Trump’s choice to laugh off the demand for violence, rather than condemn it, struck some as worrisome and possibly portentous.
"We’re at the point where the President and thousands of supporters are laughing and cheering at the idea of shooting immigrants the same week militia groups were discovered to be actually considering it,” liberal activist Jordan Uhl wrote on Twitter. “The logical next step is it actually happening.”
The Trump campaign’s insistence that the president made it clear in his own words that border agents can’t use violence against migrants struck some as irrelevant. Tech CEO and activist Anil Dash wrote that Trump “did specifically incite his followers to commit these acts of violence themselves, in a way that gives him plausible deniability vs directly having border agents do it.”
It isn’t the first time that Trump has mentioned the threat of violence as a potential deterrence for border crossings. As the Daily Beast pointed out, he told Fox News host Sean Hannity in March that the use of firearms would be “very effective,” but wasn’t an option.
“Other countries stand there with machine guns, ready to fire,” Trump said at the time, adding, “We can’t do that. I wouldn’t want to do that, okay? It’s a very effective way of doing it but I wouldn’t want to do it. We can’t do it.”
During a trip to Texas last month, Trump complained that “everybody would go crazy” if soldiers deployed to the border got “a little rough” with migrants. Border Patrol agents, similarly, would be arrested if they “get tough” with people in custody, he lamented.
And Wednesday’s rally is only the latest example of Trump laughing off brutality — or even allegedly condoning it. As The Post’s Aaron Blake has documented, he has a long history of making subtle and not-so-subtle nods toward violence, and encouraged his supporters to rough up protesters at his rallies on more than one occasion during his 2016 campaign.
At a rally in October, Trump lavished praise on Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for assaulting a reporter during his bid for Congress, calling the congressman “my guy.” More recently, in March, the president suggested that his supporters could potentially be tempted to rise up in response to any efforts to remove him from office.