As headlines popped up this week declaring that Donald Trump had softened his position on banning most foreign Muslims from entering the United States, some Republicans celebrated the news.
“Glad h e’s walking it back,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tweeted on Thursday.
Except that Trump has not actually walked anything back. The presumptive Republican nominee still wants to ban nearly all members of the world’s fastest-growing religion from entering the United States in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
As Trump first said in December, such a ban would be temporary and last only until U.S. authorities “find out what’s going on.” He also said then that the ban will not apply to U.S. citizens, and that there would be exceptions for world leaders, athletes and others.
The Muslim ban is one of Trump’s most controversial — and popular — proposals, alongside other hard-line steps such as building a U.S.-Mexico border wall and deporting illegal immigrants en masse. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March found that 54 percent of Republicans supported a ban on foreign Muslims, along with 33 percent of political independents and 15 percent of Democrats.
The latest confusion over Trump’s position stemmed from two meandering interviews on Wednesday that led to reports he was retreating in some way from his anti-Muslim policy. Trump’s spokeswoman and campaign manager did not respond to an email Thursday asking if their boss was in fact softening his position.
During an interview on the Fox News Radio, host Brian Kilmeade asked Trump to respond to newly elected London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim and who said earlier this week that “Donald Trump has ignorant views about Islam.” In asking the question, Kilmeade referred to London as “Londonstan.”
“Well, I assume he denies that there’s Islamic terrorism,” Trump responded. “There’s Islamic radical terrorism all over the world right now. It is a disaster what’s going on. I assume that he is denying that. I assume he is like our president that’s denying that its taking place. We have a serious problem — it’s a temporary ban, it hasn’t been called for yet, nobody’s done it, this is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on. But we have radical Islamic terrorism all over the world — I mean, you can start at the World Trade Center, frankly, you can go to Paris, you can go to San Bernardino, all over the world. If they want to deny it, they can deny it, I don’t choose to deny it.”
Some journalists and politicians zeroed in on the word “suggestion” as evidence that Trump was willing to walk away from his proposed religion-based ban.
Flake said on MSNBC Thursday that it was “a good start” for Trump to describe his ban on Muslims “merely a suggestion and not a firm policy,” but that Trump would need to maintain this stance for weeks to come.
“If it’s a temporary just during the campaign, that’s one thing,” Flake said. “If he’s planning to take it on beyond, that’s another.”
In a second interview Wednesday, Trump sat down with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News and discussed a committee he is organizing to study immigration issues and the proposed Muslim ban. At one point, Van Susteren asked Trump: “Have you decided whether you will back off on the ban?”
“Sure, I would back off on it — I would like to back off as soon as possible because, frankly, I would like to see something happen, but we have to be vigilant,” Trump responded. “There is a radical Islamic terrorism problem that, you know, our president doesn’t want to talk about. All you have to do is take a look at the World Trade Center, take a look at San Bernardino or Paris, what a disaster that was, and so many other locations... We’re going to have to solve the problem.”
Van Susteren pressed Trump on if American Muslims would be banned. Trump said all Americans would be allowed in and that there would be exceptions for some foreigners. He made clear that this would be a temporary ban and “ultimately, it’s my aim to have it lifted.”
“Right now there is no ban, but I would like to see — there has to be an idea, there has to be something, because there is some pretty bad things going on,” Trump said. “And I have Muslim friends, great Muslim friends who are telling me: ‘You are so right. There is something going on that we have to get to the bottom of it.’ So we will see what happens.”
Van Susteren came back one more time to make sure she fully understood Trump.
“I don’t want to beat a dead horse,” she said, “but, so, it’s a ban on Muslims with exceptions and it would be temporary?”
“Oh, of course,” Trump said. “Always, you have to have exceptions.”
Van Susteren told Trump that many people do not think there would be exceptions to the ban.
“No, you’d have exceptions and, ideally, you won’t have a ban very long,” Trump said. “I mean, we just have to find out what’s happening... I mean, something has to happen.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.