U.S. President Donald Trump downplayed white nationalism, saying that it is not a rising threat after a terrorist left at least 49 people dead at two mosques in New Zealand.
Trump, whose own previous responses to the movement have drawn scrutiny, expressed sympathy for the victims who died at "places of worship turned into scenes of evil killing." But he declined to join expressions of mounting concern about white nationalism. When asked whether he thought it was a rising threat around the world, he responded, "I don't really."
"I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess," Trump said. "If you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that's the case. I don't know enough about it yet. But it's certainly a terrible thing."
Trump was asked about white nationalism and the shooting deaths of 49 people at mosques in Christchurch after he formally vetoed Congress' resolution to block his declaration of a national emergency at the Mexico border. His veto, aimed at freeing money to build more miles of a border wall against illegal immigration, is expected to survive any congressional effort to overturn it.
Questioned about the accused gunman's reference to him, Trump professed ignorance.
"I didn't see it. I didn't see it," he said. "But I think it's a horrible event ... a horrible, disgraceful thing and a horrible act."
The man accused of the shootings, whose name was not immediately released, left behind a lengthy document that outlined his motivations. He proudly stated that he was a 28-year-old Australian white nationalist who hates immigrants and was set off by attacks in Europe that were perpetrated by Muslims. In a single reference, he mentioned the U.S. president.
"Were/are you a supporter of Donald Trump?" was one of the questions he posed to himself. His answer: "As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no."
The White House immediately denounced the connection. But the mention from the suspect, who embraced Nazi imagery and voiced support for fascism, nonetheless cast an uncomfortable light on the way that the president has been embraced by some on the far right.
Trump, who as a candidate proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, has drawn criticism as being slow to condemn white supremacy and related violence. After a 2017 clash between white nationalists and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one demonstrator dead, Trump said there were "very fine people on both sides" of the confrontation. He also did not immediately reject the support of David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard, during his presidential campaign.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tied Trump's inflammatory language to the violence half a world away.
"Words have consequences like saying we have an invasion on our border and talking about people as though they were different in some fatal way," Blumenthal said on CNN. "I think that the public discourse from the president on down is a factor in some of these actions."
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who declared his Democratic candidacy for president this week, said, "We must call out this hatred, this Islamophobia, this intolerance, and the violence that predictably follows from the rhetoric that we use."
The White House, in comments before those remarks, rejected any link to Trump.
The casualty toll for the attack includes 12 victims who were critically injured and officials are warning that figure could rise.
Forty-two people were injured in the coordinated attacks, Karalyn van Deursen, executive communications director at Christchurch Hospital, told Anadolu Agency.
The dead include a 5-year-old girl and her father, who were chased by a gunman and shot, local Radio New Zealand reported.
The gunman opened fire on worshippers during Friday prayers at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in and around Christchurch, New Zealand's third-largest city.
Four suspects -- three men and one woman -- were taken into custody in connection with the massacres. One has reportedly been released.
A 28-year-old prime suspect is scheduled to appear in court Saturday after having been charged with murder.
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