The Orlando killer pledged allegiance to the Islamic State while in the midst of murdering 49 people at a gay nightclub last weekend. But for a few hours Monday, we couldn't read that part of Omar Mateen's phone conversations with dispatchers and police because the FBI took it out of transcripts of 911 calls it released.
To Republicans, the redacted transcripts were yet another example of how the Obama administration is mishandling this whole war on terror by ducking every opportunity to avoid talking about the real issues behind it — and specifically, Islam.
To wit, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) issued this unprompted, blistering statement about the redacted transcripts Monday afternoon:
"Selectively editing this transcript is preposterous,” Ryan said. "We know the shooter was a radical Islamist extremist inspired by ISIS. We also know he intentionally targeted the LGBT community. The administration should release the full, unredacted transcript so the public is clear-eyed about who did this, and why."
Other Republicans quickly echoed him:
By willfully blinding itself to the real threat, the Obama admin is fighting blind in the war on terror. https://t.co/5fgDEfY8Ge
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) June 20, 2016
Also important to remember this is FAR from the first time the White House has been caught selectively editing. https://t.co/Xovsrix3ef
— Rep. Jeff Duncan (@RepJeffDuncan) June 20, 2016
— Barbara Comstock (@RepComstock) June 20, 2016
The pressure worked. The FBI reversed course Monday afternoon and released the redacted parts of the transcript in which Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, saying the political debate over the redaction had become a distraction.
In another statement, a victorious Ryan said: "This should have never been an issue in the first place."
Ryan's implication here was that the Obama administration was trying to downplay the massacre's ties to terrorism. That would fit right in with a criticism he and other Republicans frequently lob at President Obama: that the president can't or won't acknowledge the roots of the Islamic State because the president can't or won't call it a "radical Islamic" group.
"This is a threat that cannot be contained," Ryan said in a news conference a few days after the massacre, digging at Obama's unfortunately timed statement that ISIS had been "contained" just before the Paris attacks this November. "This is a threat that simply must be defeated. Right now, the president doesn't have a plan to get the job done."
Indeed, what to call the Islamic State has been one of the biggest sticking points between Republicans and Democrats, often overshadowing what to do about the Islamic State. Obama says calling it a radical Islamic group would risk denigrating the world's fastest-growing religion and is beside the point; Republicans like Ryan say it's just common sense and that we can't develop a strategy for defeating the terrorists until we properly label them and understand their motivations.
(For what it's worth, Hillary Clinton is somewhere in between: In the days after the Orlando massacre, she told CNN she'd be willing to call it "radical Islamism" but echoed Obama's argument that the words in this case don't really matter.)
The reason the Obama administration gave for redacting the transcript probably only adds fuel to Republicans' argument. The FBI said in a news conference earlier Monday that it didn't want to propagate terrorist rhetoric by sharing what the killer said. (Somewhat unrelated, it also said that sharing the more violent parts of the transcript would be "excruciatingly painful" for the victims' families.)
As a general rule, Republicans are less concerned with talking about the Islamic State because they think the benefits — having an honest discussion about the movement's roots — outweigh any potential blowback — like inspiring other homegrown terrorists. The Obama administration sees it the other way around. (Both sides think Washington could do more to prevent homegrown jihadist-inspired terrorists.)
It's also notable that what to call the Islamic State is one of the rare moments these days that Republicans seem in lockstep with their presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Echoing Ryan, Trump has made what to call the Islamic State a feature of his post-Orlando campaign — while doubling down on more radical counterterrorism policies that Ryan has condemned. Here's what he tweeted hours after the shooting:
Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn't he should immediately resign in disgrace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
If the past few days are any indication, Washington could — and probably will — go back and forth over what to call the Islamic State for the rest of this presidential campaign. They have been for a few years now, anyway.
But that the partially released transcript of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history revived the debate in its fullest terms underscores just how politicized nearly everything about Orlando has been, right down to the horrific moments of a massacre caught on tape in a phone call.