Authorities said the incident was being investigated as a terrorism attack and eyewitness accounts suggested the attackers were Muslim, making it the third deadly event carried out by Islamist extremists on British soil in as many months.
What followed was the tragically familiar loop of condemnations and appeals for calm by major British politicians. But then there was President Trump.
While spending the weekend at a golf course for the 16th time in his presidency, Trump first retweeted a report from the right-wing Drudge Report on suspected casualty numbers — before British authorities had even confirmed the details of the incident. Then he issued a series of conspicuous — and to some, infuriating — tweets Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
Let's take these one at a time.
- Before even issuing a message of condolence, Trump sought to use death in London to justify his controversial travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries. Two versions of Trump's executive order have been stymied by federal courts and widely criticized by counterterrorism experts, who argue that the ban does nothing to address homegrown threats while dangerously stigmatizing entire communities. At best, it seemed a questionable matter to raise while the United States' closest historic ally was still counting the dead.
- Trump returned to his old hobbyhorse of "political correctness." Trump built his brand on saying supposedly unvarnished truths (or racist lies) to an American public he claimed was sick and tired of liberal niceties. "Getting smart" for Trump and his fellow travelers is a vague dog whistle for a more blunt message: Muslims are the problem, and we need to wise up to the threat. Curiously, such tough talk was nowhere on show when Trump toured Saudi Arabia last month.
(In a statement, British Prime Minister Theresa May said there was "far too much tolerance for extremism in our country," although it was unclear what steps May, who served as home secretary for six years, may take. Her critics, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, pointed to the British government's close ties to the Saudis and Gulf states that "have funded and fueled extremist ideology.")
- Trump then resumed his running feud with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim. In this instance, he twisted Khan's message — in which the mayor urged residents to not be alarmed over a surge in police forces deployed across his city — to somehow suggest Khan was not taking the attack seriously.
- Lastly, Trump tried to score a bizarre point about gun control, but misfired. Were British gun laws as lax as those in the United States, one shudders to think how much potentially worse Saturday's attack could have been. Moreover, it's an odd thing to emphasize given that it took Trump three whole days to react to knife-wielding terrorism in his own country after a Trump-supporting white nationalist fatally stabbed two men on a Portland train.
"A traditional president would have reacted carefully to the London Bridge terrorist attack by instilling calm, being judicious about facts and appealing to the country’s better angels," wrote Philip Rucker, The Washington Post's White House bureau chief. But Trump, Rucker added, "reacted impulsively to Saturday night’s carnage by stoking panic and fear, being indiscreet with details of the event and capitalizing on it to advocate for one of his more polarizing policies and to advance a personal feud."
The American Embassy in London went out of its way to praise Khan in a series of its own tweets, while a spokesman for the mayor dismissed Trump's comments, saying that Khan "has more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump's ill-informed tweet that deliberately takes out of context his remarks."
Commentators back home expressed outrage and embarrassment.
"This is vintage Trump — impulsive and cruel, without an ounce of class or human decency," The Post's conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in a scathing attack on the president. "His behavior no longer surprises us, but it should offend and disturb us, first, that he remains the face and voice of America in the world and, second, that his fans hoot and holler, seeing this as inconsequential or acceptable conduct."
Rubin's second point — that there is an audience for Trump's fear-mongering — is all the more alarming when you consider the actual conversation about mass deportations and Muslim internment camps happening among some right-wingers in both Britain and the United States. Well before Trump was elected, experts on extremist groups feared his brand of politics would play into the hands of the jihadists. We're getting closer to a moment where we may be able to measure whether that's true.
Nevertheless, the real story about Trump's messaging is how it was almost totally at odds with Britain's national mood in the wake of the attack. As Trump appealed to fear and division, Britons showed humor, defiance and unity.
They saw the funny side of tragedy: An image of one man fleeing the scene of the attack with a full pint in his hand went viral.
And they celebrated at a powerful and optimistic concert in Manchester, where American pop star Ariana Grande headlined just weeks after her earlier show was struck by a suicide bomber. Her poise and compassion offered a stark contrast to the American president tweeting fearfully at home.
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