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Trump says white nationalism is not a rising threat after New Zealand attacks: ‘It’s a small group of people’

After the New Zealand mosque attacks, President Trump said March 15 that white nationalism is not a rising global threat, adding that it is a "terrible thing." (Video: The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this story said a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue happened in September. It happened in October.

President Trump said Friday he does not believe white nationalism is a rising global danger after a suspected gunman who authorities say espoused that ideology killed 49 Muslims in New Zealand.

When asked at the White House whether white nationalists were a growing threat around the world, Trump replied: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.”

Trump also said he had not seen a manifesto, purportedly from an attacker, that named him as an inspiration for white identity ideology.

The responses Friday by Trump and other U.S. politicians divided heavily along partisan lines. While many Republicans de-emphasized the role of white nationalist ideology, some Democrats suggested, either directly or indirectly, that Trump’s history of anti-Muslim remarks and policies contributed to the tragedy.

“Time and time again, this president has embraced and emboldened white supremacists — and instead of condemning racist terrorists, he covers for them,” tweeted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is seeking to challenge Trump in 2020. “This isn’t normal or acceptable. We have to be better than this.

Like the suspect accused of killing 11 Jewish synagogue-goers in Pittsburgh last October, the suspected mosque shooter in New Zealand allegedly drew inspiration from the rise of white nationalism in America. The 74-page manifesto posted online hailed Trump as a symbol “of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

Trump’s comments on the attacks came as he vetoed a congressional resolution that sought to block him from declaring a national emergency to build his long-promised wall along the southern border. Trump has repeatedly warned of violent criminals and terrorists coming into the country from Mexico, including claiming without evidence that “Middle Easterners” are sneaking in with asylum seekers over the southern border.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke March 15 after 49 people were killed in a terrorist attack at mosques in Christchurch. (Video: Reuters)

Trump has a long history of derogatory remarks about Muslims, including declaring in 2016 that “Islam hates us.” He formally proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States during the presidential campaign, and since taking office, his administration has implemented policies barring citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States.

During the veto signing, Trump referred to people trying to invade the United States as a reason for the wall. The manifesto in the New Zealand attack referred to invasions of foreigners as an existential threat to white civilization.

John D. Cohen, a former Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said there is concern among law enforcement officials about Trump using such language.

“These white supremacists live in this conspiratorial bizarro world,” Cohen said. “They will draw a connection between the use of that language by the person who wrote the manifesto and statements being made by our government. That is what is concerning law enforcement.”

The White House issued its first response to the attacks in Christchurch just before 7:30 a.m., followed by a message from Trump on Twitter. Trump spoke later in the day with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to offer his condolences and support.

“My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques. 49 innocent people have so senselessly died, with so many more seriously injured,” he wrote. “The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do. God bless all!”

49 killed in terrorist attack at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand

In the purported manifesto, the alleged shooter wrote that he was a supporter of Trump in one sense but not completely: “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policymaker and leader? Dear god no.”

In the document, the man also stated that he was following the example of notorious right-wing extremists, including Dylann Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

The White House strongly rejected the notion of any connection between Trump and the tragedy.

“It’s outrageous to even make that connection between this deranged individual that committed this evil crime to the president who has repeatedly condemned bigotry, racism and made it very clear that this is a terrorist attack,” Mercedes Schlapp, the White House’s director of strategic communication, told reporters outside the White House on Friday. “We are there to support and stand with the people of New Zealand.”

When asked about Trump being named as an inspiration for white identity, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said, “The shooter is an evil, hateful person who is wrong about that.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) was also asked during a CNN interview about the alleged shooter invoking Trump’s name.

“I’m not defending all of the president’s language on this stuff. What I am saying, though, if you look at the Holocaust where six million Jews were killed and Hitler basically brought a bunch of people into evil thinking to do what they did, that was way before President Trump,” Kinzinger said. “This hate for people whether it’s religion or race has been since the beginning of humanity. This disgusting animal is evil. If President Trump’s language triggered him, that wasn’t President Trump triggering.”

Trump plugs pro-GOP Jewish group shortly after condemning New Zealand mosque attacks

But a number of Democrats said Trump had fanned the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment and pointed to his remarks after a deadly white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, saying that both sides included “some very fine people.”

“My heart goes out to our Muslim brothers and sisters in Christchurch,” tweeted Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.). “But my mind fixes on white supremacy, and whether its recent surge in the US, and presidential acquiescence and talk of ‘good people on all sides’ is having a malign effect around the world.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the two Muslim women to be elected to Congress last year, wrote in a statement: “I am so angry at those who follow the ‘white supremacy’ agenda in my own country that sends a signal across the world that massacres like this is some kind of call to action.”

And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) directly condemned Trump and Republicans.

“Daily reminder that we have a **Muslim Ban** in this country made out of the President’s hostility to Muslim people w/ little-to-no supporting evidence, and a Republican Party that tolerates it,” she tweeted.

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.