White House press secretary Sean Spicer made an odd comment during the daily press briefing on Monday.
Spicer said that President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had spoken on the phone about the mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec City on Sunday evening, in which six people were killed as they were praying.
“Prime Minister Trudeau was extremely appreciative, and he was also cautious to draw conclusions on the motives at this stage of the investigation, and the president shared those thoughts,” Spicer said. He later continued: “It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant and why the president is taking steps to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security.”
The odd comment is that latter one: How does the attack in Quebec bolster Trump’s security platform, which is heavily focused on the threat of terrorism?
Details of the shooting are still murky. While Trudeau rightly cautioned against rushing to conclusions in his conversation with Trump, he elsewhere indicated that the incident was a terrorist attack. “This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith,” he said in remarks at the House of Commons.
Authorities arrested two men after the shooting, one a French Canadian student at a nearby university and the other a man born in Morocco. Subsequent reports suggest that only the former was involved in the attack; the latter was detained as a witness to the crime. A law enforcement source described the incident to Reuters as a “lone wolf” attack; other reports suggest that the shooter may have been armed with an automatic weapon.
If that’s an accurate depiction of what happened, the incident will look rather familiar to American observers. Mass shootings are rare in Canada, but in the United States, we can readily list off a number of incidents — including a number that involved a young man armed with a rifle and multiple victims. We can just as easily list off terrorist attacks that looked like what allegedly happened in Quebec: The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando or at the Christmas party in San Bernardino, Calif. Or, likely the closest possible analogue, Dylann Roof entering that black church in Charleston and murdering nine people as they prayed.
Imagine Spicer responding to the Charleston shooting by saying that it was “a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant, and why the president is taking steps to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security.” After the shooting, there was a robust debate over whether it should be classified as a terrorist attack, but there wasn’t the presumption that it was. After San Bernardino and Orlando, given the killers’ expressed loyalties to terrorist organizations, there wasn’t really any debate — though there was a debate over the proposed solution. Democrats largely focused on gun control, including a new push on banning weapons sales to people on the no-fly list. Republicans focused on the threats of radicalization and terror.
Were Trump on record as being in favor of a ban on assault weapons, Spicer’s comment might make some sense. New limits on the sale of rapid-fire rifles could be a “proactive instead of reactive” measure. But while Trump once held that position, he doesn’t any longer.
Trump is much more likely to ascribe most mass shootings to mental health problems than terrorist intentions. When there’s any whiff of a possible Islamic angle, though, he has a record of defaulting to radical terrorism as the cause of disasters. He did so after the crash of an EgyptAir flight in May 2016. He did so after a bomb went off in Manhattan last fall. “I should be a newscaster because I called it before the news,” he said at the time.
So here’s a theory about Spicer’s comment: With conflicting evidence, Trump’s team once again assumed an Islamic terror motivation that proved his recent immigration actions correct.
Early reports about the Quebec shooting in some outlets focused on the second person arrested, the one from Morocco. Fox News tweeted the story emphasizing the second man’s nationality, eventually revising the headline of their article to read “Only 1 man arrested in Quebec mosque terrorist attack is a suspect, police say.”
That tweet is still live as of writing, posted an hour before Spicer spoke.
The Intercept uncovered other examples of people assuming that the Moroccan man must have been involved. The conservative site Gateway Pundit, meanwhile, laboriously catalogued the media outlets that did and didn’t report that the shooter had shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he fired.
It’s hard to imagine another way in which to understand Spicer’s comment. The clear implication was that the incident in Quebec proved that his actions on terrorism and immigration were necessary, though it’s not clear how that is the case.
If this is what happened — and I am open to alternate theories — it raises an important question: In what other circumstances will the president’s press secretary suggest to the media that incorrect information proves Trump correct?
Either way, it seems very possible that Trump didn’t exactly share Trudeau’s thoughts on not jumping to conclusions.
Update: The Globe and Mail reports that the suspect was not Muslim and was in fact sympathetic to far-right ideologies like that of French politician Marine Le Pen.