An angry President Obama on Tuesday lashed out at Republicans, and particularly Donald Trump, who have called him soft on terrorism, warning that “loose talk” about Muslims has harmed the United States’ campaign against militant groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Obama challenged the demand by his critics that he characterize acts of terrorism, including the mass shooting in Orlando, as the work of “radical Islam” — a phrase the president has refused to use because he believes it unfairly implicates an entire religious group for the acts of militant extremists.
A day earlier, Trump used the phrase to question Obama’s commitment to stopping terrorist acts, including the Orlando shooting, by saying the president refuses to define the enemy.
“That’s the key, they tell us. We can’t get ISIL unless we call them ‘radical Islamists,’ ” Obama said, referring to the Islamic State militant group after meeting with his National Security Council at the Treasury Department to discuss the administration's counterterrorism strategy. “What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is, none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.”
The president added: “There’s no magic to the phrase, ‘radical Islam.’ It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy.”
The remarks were Obama’s most forceful rebuttal to Trump since the real estate mogul became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Though he did not mention Trump by name, Obama lambasted his proposals to ban all Muslims from immigrating to the United States and challenged Republican leaders to reject his demagoguery.
“We are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be. We are starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we are fighting, where this can lead us,” Obama said. Trump, he said, “singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence. Where does this stop?”
Trump responded in an email to the Associated Press that Obama “claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people.”
The slaying of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday by a shooter who purportedly was inspired by the Islamic State has quickly become a political flashpoint in the 2016 campaign. The massacre represented the worst mass-shooting in U.S. history and has thrust issues of terrorism, gun control and national security to the forefront of the nation’s political debate just as the campaign has begun to shift into a general election contest between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, said Monday that she was not afraid to use the phrase “radical Islam,” but she did not fault Obama for not using it, and said the actions to fight terrorism was more important than the rhetoric.
Obama emphasized that Omar Mateen, the alleged Orlando gunman, was born in the United States, as was one of the perpetrators in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December and the gunman at a mass shooting at the Fort Hood military installation in Texas in 2014.
As he has in the past, the president warned that using inflamed rhetoric about Muslims and Islam threatens to play into the motives of terrorist groups that use propaganda to portray a U.S. war against Islam and recruit new members.
“That’s not the America we want,” said Obama, who will travel to Orlando on Thursday to pay respects to the victims and their families. “It does not reflect our democratic ideals. It won’t make us more safe, it will make us less safe, fueling ISIL’s notion that the West hates Muslims, making young Muslims in this country and around the world feel like, no matter what they do, they’re going to be under suspicion and under attack.”
The president added that such rhetoric “betrays the very values America stands for. We have gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear, and we came to regret it. We have seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history.”
But Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, took issue with Obama in a written statement. “You’re wrong,” he said. “Telling the truth about violent Islam is a prerequisite to a strategy — a strategy you admitted you don’t have. It is the Commander-in-Chief’s duty to actually identify our enemies and to help the American people understand the challenge of violent Islam.”
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Obama “still doesn’t have a plan to defeat ISIS. The White House’s inaction and ineptness allowed these radical Islamist terrorists to spread across Syria, Iraq and Libya."
The president spoke after meeting with his national security advisers for an update on the campaign against the Islamic State, part of a series of meetings outside the White House he started last year as a way of bringing more attention to the issue. Summarizing a largely positive review after the closed-door session, he provided no new details, but said that the “campaign at this stage is firing on all cylinders and as a result, ISIL is under more pressure than ever before.”
On the military front, Obama noted that it has been a year since the Islamic State has been able to mount a major successful offensive operation and that it has lost nearly half the territory it once controlled in Iraq. Since he last offered a major public assessment two months ago, Obama said, he has authorized additional U.S. resources, including raising the number of Special Forces troops in Syria from 50 to 300, and providing more money and assets to Iraq in preparation for a long-delayed offensive against the militant stronghold of Mosul.
The Islamic State’s “morale is sinking,” Obama said, with new constraints on both its resources and ability to recruit. “ISIL is now effectively cut off from the international financial system,” he said. With new international cooperation, “our intelligence community now assesses that the ranks of ISIL fighters has been reduced to the lowest level in more than two and a half years.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.