A traditional president would have reacted carefully to the London Bridge
terrorist attack by instilling calm, being judicious about facts and appealing to the country’s better angels.
But Donald Trump is no traditional president. He reacted impulsively to
Saturday night’s carnage by stoking panic and fear, being indiscreet with
details of the event and capitalizing on it to advocate for one of his more
polarizing policies and to advance a personal feud.
Before British authorities detailed exactly what happened on the London Bridge,
before they blamed Islamist extremism and even before they publicly concluded
it was an act of terrorism, President Trump fired off a tweet to his 31 million
followers: An unconfirmed bulletin from the Drudge Report.
“Fears of new terror attack after van ‘mows down 20 people’ on London Bridge . . . ,” read
the Drudge tweet, which Trump retweeted.
Before offering his condolences to the British people, the victims of
three gruesome attacks in as many months, Trump pecked out a second tweet.
“We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” the president wrote, calling on
U.S. courts to affirm his administration’s travel ban on people from
six majority-Muslim nations.
Later that evening, Trump spoke
with British Prime Minister
Theresa May and extended
his support for America’s
closest ally. He tweeted, “Whatever
the United States can do to
help out in London and the U. K., we will be there —
WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
On Sunday morning, however, once the breadth of the horror
in London was clear, Trump was back on Twitter. He criticized
the city’s mayor — Sadiq Khan, a liberal Muslim and an old
Trump foil — for not being tough enough protecting his citizens.
“At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and
Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’ ” Trump tweeted.
Trump took Khan’s quote out of context. The mayor had urged Londoners,
in a BBC interview that was replayed, not to be “alarmed” by an increased
police presence in the city. He said that after condemning the “deliberate
and cowardly attack” as “barbaric.”
A Khan representative swatted away Trump’s taunt, saying in a statement
that the mayor “has more important things to do than respond to
Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet that deliberately takes out of context
his remarks urging Londoners not to be alarmed when they saw
more police — including armed officers — on the streets.”
Trump also stoked the long-running and emotionally charged national
debate over gun laws by pointing out that the London attackers did not use
firearms. “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s
because they used knives and a truck!” Trump tweeted.
Britain has some of the world’s strictest laws on gun purchases. The death
toll in London might have been higher had the attackers used the kind of
semiautomatic weapons that are more easily attainable in the United States.
White House officials did not respond
to questions about Trump’s
comments on Sunday.
With Trump spending another
day at his private golf club
in Sterling, Va., the
White House’s social media director, Dan Scavino, revived an old
Trump-Khan feud on Twitter and scolded the mayor to “WAKE UP!!!!”
Chris Lu, who served as White House Cabinet secretary under
President Barack Obama, was aghast.
“The fact that the White House social media director is commenting
before the national security leadership has spoken is yet another
example of Trump’s ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude towards
handling international incidents,” Lu said.
Historian Robert Dallek said Trump is exhibiting an entirely
new style of presidential leadership. “Trump rubs everything raw,”
he said. “He makes it more acerbic, more contentious.”
Dallek, who has studied former president Franklin D. Roosevelt,
who steered the country through Pearl Harbor, was unsparing in
his critique of Trump’s response to the London attack.
“There’s something so petty about this man,” Dallek said. “What
we’re dealing with is someone who is, and I think this is the best term,
an egomaniac. Everything has to revolve around him — he knows better,
he’s right, he one-ups everything.”
Trump’s supporters are likely to see his swift flurry of commentary as
evidence of strength and unwavering resolve — a leader dispatching with
political correctness and caution to deliver an assessment that is
authentic and immediate.
This is just how Trump behaved on the campaign trail. He was quick
to pounce on terrorist incidents in Paris and Brussels, as well as
Orlando and San Bernardino, Calif., with tough vows, even if
he was loose with his facts.
Last month, after a suicide bomber killed 22 others and injured
scores more at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England,
Trump labeled terrorists “evil losers” and vowed to obliterate
“this wicked ideology.”
Trump last week also prematurely called a deadly attack in a
casino in the Philippines a “terrorist attack.” Philippine President
Rodrigo Duterte later said it was not the work of terrorists but a “crazy” gunman.
Trump’s response to this weekend’s London Bridge incident won praise
Sunday morning from friend Nigel Farage, who as head of the UK Independence
Party led last year’s Brexit movement, which Trump supported and saw as a
precursor to his own election.
In an interview on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends,” a show Trump
is known to watch frequently, Farage sharply criticized Khan and May’s
responses to the London attack as too timid and politically correct.
He also lamented that the city had become, in his assessment, a safe
harbor for Muslim “radicals.”
“We don’t just want speeches given outside 10 Downing Street,” Farage said. “We
want genuine action. And if there’s not action, then the calls for internment will grow.”
Trump echoed Farage’s broad sentiment, assailing political correctness
in the United States as well. “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,” Trump said on Twitter.
Although Trump and May have a relationship that both countries
describe as positive and productive, Trump has long tangled with
Khan, a member of the Labour Party who was elected mayor
last year, London’s first Muslim chief executive.
Khan has positioned himself as a moral and ideological foil to Trump.
During last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, Trump proposed
banning all Muslims from entering the United States, but suggested
he would make an exception for London’s mayor. Khan responded
by saying Trump had an “ignorant view of Islam.”
In January, Khan criticized Trump’s travel ban on people from
seven majority-Muslim countries — it was later revised to six.
The mayor called it “shameful and cruel,” saying that the policy “flies
in the face of the values of freedom and tolerance.”
And just last week, Khan joined the chorus of foreign leaders denouncing
Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the landmark
Paris climate agreement.
After the London attack, Trump’s critics chastised him
for continuing his feud with Khan.
“I don’t think that a major terrorist attack like this is the time
to be divisive and to criticize a mayor who’s trying to organize
his city’s response to this attack,” former vice president Al Gore
said Sunday on CNN. “The terrorists want us to live in a state of constant fear.”