In angry and passionate remarks delivered at the end of an otherwise dry recitation of the military progress being made against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, President Obama asked the key question that will define the remainder of an election season dominated by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“Do Republican officials actually agree with this?” Obama demanded.
He was referring to Trump’s controversial comments about Muslim Americans in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting on Sunday morning. But the question is really a larger one -- one that Obama and Democrats up and down the ballot in November will be demanding of their Republican counterparts: Do they support the positions of the man they have endorsed for the presidency?
Obama’s remarks came the day after Trump, in interviews with multiple media outlets and in a speech delivered in New Hampshire, suggested that Muslim Americans are actively harboring terrorists in the U.S., whose numbers he said rise to the level of “thousands of shooters,” ready to carry out additional attacks like the nightclub massacre by a man who claimed that he was allied with ISIS. He reiterated his call to ban Muslim immigrants and for increased surveillance focused on mosques.
“Where does this stop?” Obama demanded. “The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer -- they were all U.S. citizens. Are we going to start treating all Muslim-Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start to discriminate against them, because of their faith?”
He added, “We heard these suggestions during the course of this campaign. Do Republican officials actually agree with this?”
It’s a question that Republican leaders are being forced, more and more, to confront. House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked about Trump’s speech in a press conference Tuesday morning and sought to narrow the focus to just Trump’s demand that Muslims from abroad should be denied entry into the United States indefinitely.
“I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country's interest,” said Ryan, who has endorsed Trump. “I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country.”
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said that Trump’s speech in New Hampshire “wasn't the type of speech one would expect” from a presidential nominee.
Near the end of his remarks Tuesday afternoon, President Obama forcefully defended the United States’ tradition of pluralism and openness, vowing to defend it himself and exhorting others to live up to “our Democratic ideals.”
Demonizing Muslims, he said “won't make us more safe, it will make us less safe, fueling ISIL's notion that the West hates Muslims, making Muslims in this country and around the world feel like, no matter what they do, they're going to be under suspicion and under attack. It makes Muslim-Americans feel like their government is betraying them. It betrays the very values America stands for.”
In a section of his remarks worth quoting at length, the president warned against lashing out at a minority group out of fear.
“We have gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear, and we came to regret it,” he said. “We have seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history.
“This is a country founded on basic freedoms, including freedom of religion. We don't have religious tests here. Our founders, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, are clear about that.
“And if we ever abandon those values, we would not only make it a lot easier to radicalize people here and around the world, but we would have betrayed the very things we are trying to protect. The pluralism and the openness, our rule of law, our civil liberties, the very things that make this country great. The very things that make us exceptional. And then the terrorists would have won. And we cannot let that happen. I will not let that happen.”
While sitting presidents in the modern era have not typically used the full power of the bully pulpit to attack the rival party’s presidential nominee in a general election, today’s appearance marks the third time in as many weeks that President Obama has gone directly after Trump in a high-profile setting.
Since he entered the race, many commentators have said that Trump has thrown out the traditional campaign rulebook. It’s becoming clear that President Obama is prepared to do the same thing in order to keep Trump out of the Oval Office.