Political News

Trump Defends ‘Animals’ Remark, Saying It Referred to MS-13 Gang Members

Posted May 17, 2018 8:59 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday defended his use of the word “animals” to describe dangerous criminals trying to cross into the United States illegally, saying that he had been referring to members of the brutal transnational gang MS-13 when he used language critics called inappropriate.

“I’m referring, and you know I’m referring, to the MS-13 gangs that are coming in,” Trump told a reporter who asked him about the remark, a day after using the term during a White House meeting about immigration. “We have laws that are laughed at on immigration. So when the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals. And guess what — I always will.”

The president was doubling down on a statement he made Wednesday at a round-table discussion with state and local officials from California, at which Trump and his guests criticized the state’s so-called sanctuary laws, which restrict communication between local law enforcement and federal immigration officers. He used the word as one of the officials argued that the state laws made it more difficult for her to share information with immigration authorities about dangerous criminals, including MS-13 members.

“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — we’re stopping a lot of them,” Trump said in response, during a session where he complained that the United States has “the dumbest laws on immigration in the world.”

“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” the president added. “These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”

Within minutes, several reporters and news outlets, including The New York Times, posted the remarks on Twitter, noting that they had been made about unauthorized immigrants but without saying that the president had specifically referred to MS-13, which has ties to El Salvador. Trump often invokes the vicious gang, whose motto is “rape, control, kill,” to argue that the country needs much stricter immigration policies.

Democrats quickly condemned the president’s language, labeling it repugnant.

“When all of our great-great-grandparents came to America they weren’t ‘animals,’ and these people aren’t either,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, wrote on Twitter.

News accounts of the meeting published in The Times and elsewhere later noted that Trump had been discussing dangerous criminals, including MS-13, when he used the word “animals.”

Even so, Trump’s allies and even some conservatives who have criticized his language on immigrants sprang to his defense, saying that it had been clear that he was talking only about MS-13, and attacking news media organizations and journalists they said had deliberately taken his comment out of context.

“On several previous occasions, Trump publicly referred to gang members as ‘animals,'” Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter. “He’s never referred to illegal immigrants with that word. His previous language should have been a clue, but some things are too good to check. Hostility + sensationalism = bad reporting.”

The Republican National Committee issued a news release claiming falsely that many newspapers had published articles saying “that President Trump called all immigrants ‘animals,'” calling it “a media lie that spread like wildfire.”

Fox News, in a broadside against what it called “anti-Trump media organizations,” criticized C-SPAN for supposed selective editing of a video clip.

The Times and most other news organizations declined to comment on the criticism. But The Associated Press said it had deleted a tweet about its report on the comments “because it wasn’t made clear that he was speaking after a comment about gang members.”

On Thursday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, came to a briefing with reporters ready with a statement clarifying Trump’s remarks and suggesting that some reporters and Democrats were siding with brutal killers.

“The president was very clearly referring to MS-13 gang members who enter the country illegally and whose deportations are hamstrung by our laws,” Sanders said. “If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they’re more than welcome to. Frankly, I don’t think the term that the president used was strong enough.”

The “animals” flap was the latest instance in which harsh language by Trump on immigration caused controversy, and in which he focused on dangerous criminals who entered the country illegally as an argument for cracking down at the border. He did so in 2015, when he kicked off his presidential campaign in Trump Tower.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best — they’re not sending you,” Trump said then. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As president, Trump has repeatedly suggested that unauthorized immigrants pose a threat to public safety. In fact, several studies have found no connection between immigration and crime, while others show that immigration is associated with a reduction in crime. His comments this week come after he has complained bitterly about a wave of migrants from Central America — including men, women and children who are fleeing violence and persecution — arriving at the United States border asking for asylum, and as he looks for ways to block their entry or quickly remove them.

On Thursday, a top Mexican official said that Trump’s language was offensive whether he was referring to gang members or not.

“President Trump referred to some immigrants — perhaps he had criminal gangs in mind, I don’t know — as animals, not as persons,” Luis Videgaray, the Mexican foreign minister, said in an interview with Televisa, a Mexican network. “In the opinion of the Mexican government, this is absolutely unacceptable, and we are going to formally communicate this to the U.S. State Department today.”