This past weekend, London suffered another terror attack, which followed on the attack last weekend, when a suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert. During the most recent attack, three men drove a van into pedestrians on the London Bridge before going on a stabbing spree in nearby bars and restaurants. The three men were killed quickly after the attack, and 12 people have since been arrested.
President Trump immediately took to Twitter to respond. Trump’s Twitter account has received a fair amount of attention during his campaign and his presidency. It’s Twitter, so it has an air of informality and silliness to it. But the tweets are, nonetheless, statements by the President of the United States. And at a minimum, the President’s personal Twitter account offers some window into his real-time thinking.
Trump’s real-time about the London terror attacks went immediately to his “travel ban”—the executive order that temporarily suspends entry into the United States of nationals of several Muslim-majority countries.
Trump’s first tweet about the terror attacks was to retweet an alert about the attack from the Drudge Report. The tweet claimed that the van “‘mow[ed] down 20 people’ on London Bridge.” Official statements have yet to detail the number of pedestrians hit by the van in the attack, though some eyewitness accounts put the number closer to five or six. The President’s first response as the event was unfolding and details scarce was to publicize potentially inaccurate information from a right-wing news source.
Then, within two hours, came a statement in his own words. Trump tweeted:
“We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”
A few observations.
One, Trump’s first thought about the attacks was not to express condolences to a close ally or the victims. It was not to offer help (that came later). Rather, his first thought about the attacks was what it meant for one of his policies, which also happens to be fast approaching the final stages of its adjudication at the Supreme Court. Trump’s first thought was not “what can we do” or “I am sorry.” It was “this terror attack means I am right and I should win.” His instinct is to be combative and to seize on tragedy for political gain.
Two, at the time of the tweet (and indeed, even as of Sunday morning), there was no publicly available information about the attackers beyond a statement by the British Prime Minister that the attack was another instance of the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism.” There was no publicly available information about the attackers’ nationality. The only publicly available information was about the religion of the attackers.
Why is this significant? Well, the administration has been insisting that the entry ban is not a “Muslim” ban because the ban applies to individuals based on their nationality, rather than their religion. The challengers have responded that the entry ban uses nationality as a pretextual proxy for religion, in part because the ban applies to countries who are overwhelmingly majority Muslim.
What made the President think of his travel ban in response to the terror attack? Probably the fact that the perpetrators were Muslim. (This inference is bolstered by the President subsequent tweet about “political correctness,” discussed below.) The President’s tweet confirms yet again that he views nationality (or at least the nationalities identified in his entry ban) as a proxy for religion (and specifically for Muslims). The President thinks that his entry ban sweeps in Muslims, and that’s why he was touting the ban in response to an attack by individuals whose nationality was unknown, but whose religion was known.
On top of that, the statement is another window into the gross stereotyping that forms part of the basis for the order. The challengers are arguing, among other things, that the entry ban was motivated by animus toward Muslims. In this context, animus can mean different things—it can mean bigotry (i.e., we don’t like your kind); it can mean unconscious prejudice; or it can mean negative stereotyping. Trump’s tweet is a perfect example of negative stereotyping: He takes one instance of a terror attack by three individuals who are Muslim, and uses it to suggest that all individuals who are Muslim (or who are from several overwhelmingly Muslim-majority countries) are dangerous. That is a form of animus—a negative stereotype about a group that the President may sincerely believe, but that is based on a stereotype that is far from accurate.
Three, even putting aside animus, the tweet is an example of the kind of hand-waving that has defined the government’s purported “national security rationale” for the order. When the President signed the first entry ban on January 27, there was no inkling (or any argument) that the President had received any intelligence that might justify the entry ban, or that he had talked about the ban with the heads of relevant agencies (many of whom had not been confirmed at that point; some of the acting officials had not been informed of the ban). A group of intelligence officers whose intelligence was current as of January 20 signed an amicus brief arguing that no intelligence justified the ban. To justify the second ban on entry, the government announced that the Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General’s “determination” (or, in Marty Lederman’s words, ipse dixit, without any relevant intelligence, consultations, or determinations) justified a temporary ban on entry.
Four, when the entry ban was signed, the administration insisted it was not a ban. (On January 31st, Sean Spicer said it was not a ban; Secretary Kelly was saying something similar last week.) The President has repeatedly described the ban as a ban, as he did here.
Five, Trump’s framing of the ban as a struggle with the courts is instructive, and frankly alarming (more on this later). During the litigation over the President’s first entry ban, the President repeatedly criticized the judicial rulings that had enjoined the entry ban. At the time, there was concern that the President was maintaining that the courts would be responsible for any terror attacks on the United States, because the courts had blocked the entry ban. This statement suggests the same; it again is attempting to shift blame to the courts for anything bad that might occur.
The statement also framed the entry ban litigation in terms of the courts taking away “our” rights. But the courts have enjoined government action (presidential action) they found is likely unconstitutional. It’s not clear whose “rights” that really affects. As Evan McMullin tweeted in response: “I see what you did there. But it’s still you, who threatens our rights, not the courts.”
Then came another tweet from the President:
“We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don’t get smart it will only get worse.”
This tweet returns to the President’s claim that, in the context of national security, we need to “stop being politically correct.” Of course one could read ambiguity into the President’s tweets. One might posit that we just don’t know what Trump means when he opaquely references “political correctness.” But in context and based on his historical use of the term, there’s a better interpretation of what he means. In the last year, that phrase, to him, has meant the following: It is appropriate to call for surveillance of all Muslims, and all places of Muslim worship; it is appropriate to call for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States; and it is appropriate to refer to “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” So not being “politically correct,” in this context, means saying something bad about all Muslims based on the actions of a few.
Perhaps more interesting is what Matthew Waxman pointed out on Twitter, which is that the President likes to say he’s taking national security seriously, but has utterly failed to take meaningful actions that might protect national security. He has yet to name an FBI Director. He has yet to nominate an ambassador to London. He has yet to nominate individuals for several senior State Department positions. He has yet to nominate many U.S. Attorneys, who would be the ones to prosecute terrorism-related crimes. “Get[ting] down to the business of security” requires something other (or at least in addition to) what the President thinks he has done.
Taking a step back, the President’s series of statements after the London attack say more than just how the President thinks (and has thought) about the entry ban. Equally troubling is what those statements suggest what the President might do in response to an attack on our country. It’s an alarming picture—he will not wait for the facts to emerge before deciding how to respond publicly. He will stoke fear. (Another statement mocked the Mayor of London’s reassurance to the people in London.) He will maintain that civil liberties and egalitarian norms are what make us vulnerable; he will blame the courts that seek to hold his administration accountable to those norms. And he will use terror attacks to further his own policy goals. He’s laying his response out before our eyes.
The President’s statements remind us that politicians who are socialized in the norms of government, and the norms of our legal system, know they cannot make statements suggesting that an entire religion is suspect based on the acts of three people. They also know they cannot enact policies that are premised on that kind of reasoning. That is, well-socialized politicians know they cannot impose an entry ban that applies to several Muslim-majority countries because they might think that all Muslims are dangerous, or because they might think that it is too hard to separate dangerous Muslims from non-dangerous Muslims. Trump either doesn’t know these things, or he doesn’t care. Either way, it’s frankly grotesque.
[Update: This post was written and published before the President's Monday morning statements on the travel ban. His Monday statements included:
"People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN."
"The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politicallly correct version they submitted to the S.C."
"The Justice Dept. should have asked for expedited hearing of the watered down Travel Ban before the Supreme Court - & seek much tougher version!"
"In any event we are EXTREME VETTING people coming into the U.S. in order to keep our country safe. The courts are slow and political."]