President Trump appears to be laying the groundwork to preemptively shift blame for any future terrorist attack on U.S. soil from his administration to the federal judiciary, as well as to the media.
In recent tweets, Trump personally attacked James L. Robart, a U.S. district judge in Washington state, for putting âour country in such perilâ with his ruling that temporarily blocked enforcement of the administrationâs ban on all refugees as well as citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.
âIf something happens blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!â Trump wrote in a tweet Sunday.
Then on Monday, Trump seemed to spread that blame to include news organizations. In a speech to the U.S. Central Command, the president accused the media of failing to report on some terrorist attacks for what he implied were nefarious reasons.
âISIS is on a campaign of genocide, committing atrocities across the world,â Trump told commanders at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, using an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group. He added: âYouâve seen what happened in Paris and Nice. All over Europe itâs happening. Itâs gotten to a point where itâs not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesnât want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.â
News organizations have reported extensively about terrorist attacks around the world, including the two in France mentioned by the president. Trump did not offer a single example of an attack that had gone unreported to support his accusation.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to clarify Trumpâs remarks, telling reporters traveling on Air Force One that the president believes some terrorist attacks have been âunderreported.â
âHe felt members of the media donât always cover some of those events to the extent that other events might get covered,â Spicer said. âProtests will get blown out of the water, and yet an attack or a foiled attack doesnât necessarily get the same coverage.â
Late Monday, the White House released a list of 78 terrorist attacks worldwide since September 2014, after the Islamic State declared its caliphate, and argued that âmostâ of them were not widely reported.
Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, tweeted a response to Trumpâs remarks: âTrump in Tampa speech claims that terror attacks âall over Europeâ are so frequent that media no longer reports them. Thatâs ludicrous.â
Trumpâs terrorism blame-game is in keeping with how he ran his campaign, looking for scapegoats at nearly every turn. He often blamed his own failings â a poor debate performance or a gaffe or a primary loss â on the media or other perceived enemies, and he fed his own conspiracies that his adversaries were out to undermine him.
âTrump acts instinctively rather than strategically,â said David Frum, a senior editor at the Atlantic and a White House speechwriter under President George W. Bush who is sharply critical of Trump. âHis instinct to pass blame is very strong.â.â.â. I donât know whether people will succumb to this.â
Trumpâs approach is not without risk. He could come across to many Americans as thin-skinned if he skirts the responsibilities of being commander in chief and looks to assign blame to outside forces.
Jennifer Palmieri, a Democrat who served as communications director on Hillary Clintonâs 2016 presidential campaign and in the Obama White House, said Trump is using the tactics of authoritarian leaders.
âHeâs behaving like a demagogue,â Palmieri said. âItâs chilling because the president of the United States should be responsible for keeping the American people safe but is seeking to preemptively blame a judge.â
She added: âIf an attack happens on American soil when heâs commander in chief, then heâs responsible. Itâs chilling to see the president of the United States almost wish for an attack for the purpose of blaming somebody else.â
In the days since Robartâs ruling last Friday night, Trump sent nine tweets about the judge and stoking fear that suddenly the door had been opened for terrorists to enter the country and cause âdeath & destruction.â
âThe judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests at heart. Bad people are very happy!â the president said in one tweet sent Saturday night.
In his commentary, Trump has ignored the screening measures and other counterterrorism precautions that have long been in place by U.S. customs and border officials.
Asked whether the White House had evidence of Islamic militants âpouring inâ to the country, a phrase Trump used in at least two tweets, Spicer said only: âIâm not going to get into specific information that the president has.â
Trumpâs comments came after one of his top White House aides invoked a nonexistent terrorist attack to justify Trumpâs travel ban. Kellyanne Conway, who serves as counselor to the president, cited the âBowling Green massacreâ in an interview last week on MSNBC. She had been referring to attempts in 2011 by two Iraqi citizens, living in Bowling Green, Ky., to send weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Conway later acknowledged her error and said she had misspoken by calling it a âmassacreâ instead of a terrorist plot.
Trump also sought to diminish the credibility of Robart, calling him a âso-called judge.â Although presidents at times critique judicial rulings, they rarely take personal swipes at individual members of the federal bench. Trumpâs breach of protocol could have a chilling affect on the judiciary, which constitutionally rules independently of the executive branch.
Lawmakers of both parties took issue with Trumpâs attack on Robart.
âI donât understand language like that,â Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Sunday on ABC. âWe donât have so-called judges. We donât have so-called senators. We donât have so-called presidents. We have people from three different branches of government who take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.â