WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump, the real estate mogul and reality television star who is now the Republican presidential nominee, has long bragged that he can identify terrorism before anyone else.
On Saturday, Trump called an explosion in New York City a “bomb” before officials said so publicly — then boasted about getting it right “before the news.” He once likened his Spidey Sense for terrorists to his ability to sniff out good locations for properties and said, “I predicted terrorism, because I can feel it.” And at a campaign stop last year, he invoked “a friend” who he says called him “the first guy that really predicted terrorism.”
But there’s a reason presidents (and journalists) try not to guess the motives behind violent acts before the facts roll in, even if an explanation may appear obvious: It’s too risky to get it wrong.
“You get a tremendous amount of confusion and misinformation that happens immediately following an attack,” said Michael Breen, president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project and a decorated former Army officer. “Meanwhile, the president of the United States, especially in that context, everything that comes out of his mouth is national policy ... so it’s extremely dangerous to have somebody in that position potentially committing the United States to a course of action.”
People “have not yet discovered a real basis for saying anyone has ESP,” said Daniel Benjamin, a counterterrorism coordinator for the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2012. “But [Trump] seems to be claiming it.”
Trump has cited The America We Deserve, a book he published in 2000, as evidence of his prescience. In it, he warned of a terrorism threat that would make the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center “look like kids playing with firecrackers.” Trump has since pointed to his book as evidence he predicted the danger of Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. That’s not quite accurate. As FactCheck.org notes, the book makes a single reference to bin Laden, who was already well-known by the time it was published.
The book, however, may have encouraged Trump to keep making predictions. And he was wrong in at least one recent case.
The same day that a shooting in Munich, Germany, left nine people and the shooter dead, Trump pointed to the incident and said, “the rise of terrorism threatens the way of life for all civilized people, and we must do everything in our power to keep it from our shores.”
A teenager with no apparent ties to Islamic terrorism had carried out the shooting. (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
Even when Trump claims that his predictions are successful, he tends to oversimplify. After a couple killed 14 people and injured scores more in a mass shooting at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, last year, Trump called the incident terrorism before the police had a motive. “I mean, you look at the names, you look at what’s happened. You tell me,” Trump said.
Authorities typically investigate more than suspects’ names before determining an attack to be terrorism. And although the shooters supported ISIS, law enforcement did not say they were members of an outside terrorism group.
“[Trump] is just continuing to build the hysteria over the threat, and that increases the premium that the terrorists will see on carrying out an attack.”
Hours after the armed massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Trump tweeted that he appreciated “the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” He also used the incident to bolster support for banning Muslims from entering the United States. But again, that case turned out to be more complicated. The shooter was a U.S.-born citizen who did not show any typical signs of radicalization, despite his invocation of ISIS.
When Trump jumps to terrorism as an explanation, he can give credence to international groups that may have nothing to do with an attack.
“The last thing that we should be doing is building up a group like ISIS or al-Qaeda,” said Benjamin, the former State Department counterterrorism official. “[Trump] is just continuing to build the hysteria over the threat, and that increases the premium that the terrorists will see on carrying out an attack.”
When asked about Trump’s response to the New York explosion, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who previously served as U.S. secretary of state, said, “it is always wiser to wait until you have information before making conclusions.”
Jumping to conclusions before all the facts are known can lead to discrimination and violence. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — which was carried out by homegrown terrorists — some government officials prematurely suggested Islamic terrorist groups were involved. Islamic leaders subsequently reported a series of threats against the Muslim community. A pregnant woman, who was a refugee from Iraq, lost her baby after a brick was thrown through her window.
If Trump is elected president, his quick draw could make it difficult for his administration to develop a coherent national security policy. For instance, if he “puts forward a course of action — ‘we’re going to steal their oil, we’re going to carpet bomb them [or] we’re going to target their children’ ... maybe that takes the form of an order,” Breen said.
“Does that commander who just got that order get a different phone call from somebody else at the White House five minutes later, saying, ‘The president was just thinking out loud, don’t do it’?”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
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