White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dodged a question Tuesday about the rise in American anti-Muslim hate groups, many of which have close ties to high-level officials in the Trump administration, and instead opted to talk about terrorism committed by Muslims.
A report released last week from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. tripled in 2016. The SPLC argued the rise was due partly to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who routinely vilified, scapegoated and disparaged Muslims.
“Southern Poverty Law Center said that the number of anti-Muslim groups in the U.S. has tripled between 2015 and 2016, during the time of the campaign,” a reporter asked during Tuesday’s press conference. “Is this message within the administration ― anti-Semitism is not allowed, xenophobia is not allowed ― anti-Muslim sentiment within the administration, has the president been forceful about that particular issue?”
Spicer then issued a largely non-sensical response, talking vaguely about “radical Islamic terrorism,” and not addressing the SPLC report whatsoever.
“I think that the president, in terms of his desire to combat radical Islamic terrorism, he understands that people who want to express a peaceful position have every right in our Constitution,” Spicer said. “But if you come here or want to express views that seek to do our country, or our people, harm, he is going fight it aggressively, whether it’s domestic acts that are going on here or attempts through people abroad to come into this country.”
“So there is a big difference between preventing attacks and making sure that we keep this country safe, so there is no loss of life and allowing people to express themselves in accordance with our First Amendment. Those are two very, very different, different different things.”
It was certainly an awkward connection for Spicer to field. The Trump administration, after all, is awash in people with deep ties to some of the country’s most extreme anti-Muslim groups.
In December, the founder of the SPLC-listed hate group Act for America bragged in a fundraising email of having a “direct line” to the White House.
Mike Pompeo, the congressman Trump tapped to head up the CIA, has deep ties to Act for America, regularly speaking at its events and once even sponsoring a legislative briefing on Capitol Hill for the group. In 2016, Pompeo accepted Act for America’s National Security Eagle Award.
Michael Flynn, who last week resigned as Trump’s national security adviser, was on Act for America’s board of advisers.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s recently confirmed attorney general, is closely affiliated with a SPLC-listed hate group called the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Sessions once accepted an award from the organization, and regularly speaks at its events.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and a member of the National Security Council, routinely praised anti-Muslim hate group leaders as experts on Islam when they were guests on his Breitbart News radio show. He also promoted the paranoid conspiracy theories of Frank Gaffney, who heads the SPLC-listed hate group, the Center for Security Policy.
These anti-Muslim groups believe Islam is an inherently evil and violent political ideology, and that all Muslims are thus potential terrorists. They also believe in thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories alleging Muslims in America have organized a massive, subversive plot to destroy America from within, replacing the U.S. Constitution with a brutal interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law.
During the press conference Tuesday, Spicer dodged another question about the Trump administration’s reported plan to focus the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program solely on Muslims, and not on white supremacists or other potential terrorists.
“There’s nothing to announce on that front,” Spicer said.