Peter Hoekstra, the new U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, had an awkward first news conference in The Hague on Jan 10. (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

The State Department distanced itself Wednesday from the baseless anti-Muslim theory spread by its ambassador to the Netherlands a few years ago, but it declined to call Peter Hoekstra's 2015 remarks inaccurate.

During a news conference in Washington, Undersecretary Steve Goldstein was asked about Hoekstra's statements about Muslim no-go zones and people being burned alive because of the Islamist movement. Goldstein told reporters that Hoekstra, the new U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, had “made comments that should not have been made.”

“The ambassador made mistakes in 2015,” said Goldstein, who, like Hoekstra, is a recent political appointee. “Those comments were not the position of the State Department, and you will never hear those words from this podium.”

Still, Goldstein refused to label Hoekstra’s comments inaccurate, despite being pressed by reporters at the briefing.

Goldstein was asked whether he believed there were any no-go zones in Europe.

“I'll get back to you on that question,” he said. “That's not the language we would use.”

In 2015, Hoekstra spoke at a conference hosted by a right-wing anti-terrorism group, claiming without evidence that the “Islamic movement” had brought chaos to the Netherlands.

“There are cars being burned. There are politicians that are being burned,” Hoekstra said at the time. “And yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.”

The remarks, which play off an unsupported theory that is popular in right-wing media, have been the subject of multiple inquiries by Dutch reporters, who asked Hoekstra repeatedly Wednesday to provide evidence for them or retract the remarks during a tense first meeting with him.

Hoekstra has declined to substantiate the remarks, and he did not clarify an apology he gave in December after making false statements to a reporter who had asked about them.

During Wednesday's exchange, which was captured on video, the ambassador fell silent as reporters continued to query him, drawing a slew of critical headlines in the Netherlands and coverage across the world.

On the Dutch news show “Jinek,” journalist Jort Kelder said Hoekstra’s appointment had deeper significance for the relationship between the United States and the Netherlands.

“It shows the Netherlands' relation to the United States that we got such a clumsy ambassador,” he said. “We didn't get an important appointee from the Americans.”

On Thursday, reporters questioned Goldstein about the appropriateness of Hoekstra’s ambassadorship in light of his performance at the news conference in the Netherlands and additional statements beyond the 2015 conference, where he appeared to spread anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

“He's been received well by the Dutch government, and we hope that he can be received well by the people of the Netherlands,” Goldstein said. “I have advised, as I've advised most people, that when reporters are in front of you, just as you are in front of me, that it's always good to answer questions.”

Hoekstra, a former Republican congressman from Michigan, talked about “no-go zones” on several occasions; he had referred to their presence in European cities multiple times in conservative media before he became the ambassador.

He speculated that some 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim community in the world — what would amount to as many as 270 million people — were radical Islamist militants and appeared to imply that former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had “egregious” ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a recent conspiracy theory that The Washington Post and other publications have determined to be baseless. Those comments were first unearthed by CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski.

The theory of lawless Muslim “no-go zones” run by sharia courts that are off-limits to police and outsiders in Europe has been fanned on right-wing media, and it found prominence on Fox News shows hosted by Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity in recent years, despite a lack of evidence.

The network has run multiple segments in which hosts or guests mentioned the issue.

In January 2015, Fox News anchor Julie Banderas issued an apology and a correction after a guest talked at length on Pirro's show about the presence of such zones. She acknowledged that “there is no formal designation of these zones” and said the segment had aired “regrettable errors” about Europe's Muslim population.

But Fox News continues to run segments in which the so-called phenomenon is mentioned; a search on the TV News Archive turned up more than 140 examples since the beginning of 2015.

The pundit on Pirro's show who made the discredited remarks, Steve Emerson, runs a nonprofit group called the Investigative Project on Terrorism, where Hoekstra served as a fellow, a fact celebrated on his official State Department biography.

The department recently released its updated travel advisories, and the Netherlands was listed at the lowest level of security threat. Although it noted a risk of terrorism plots, it said the biggest threat related to the 90,000 refugees the country accepted in 2015 and 2016 was “societal animosity and discrimination against certain ethnic/religious minority groups, particularly Muslim immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East.”

Goldstein said that Hoekstra has an interview scheduled with a Dutch media outlet Friday, but he didn't name the organization.

“And he also plans over the weekend to be available within many of the communities in the capital, including Muslim communities,” he said. “The department has had conversations with the ambassador. The ambassador wants to get this behind him.”

Amar Nadhir contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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