In a California “sanctuary state” roundtable talk at the White House on Wednesday, President Donald Trump sparked outrage after he followed up a sheriff’s mention of the MS-13 gang with his own unspecified rant about some undocumented immigrants being not human, but “animals.”
“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country,” Trump said, according to the official White House transcript. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. 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. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.”
Many outlets reported on the comments with headlines declaring that Trump had referred to “some undocumented immigrants” (The New York Times) or simply “undocumented immigrants” in general (USA Today) as “animals.” Other outlets, such as the alt-right Breitbart News, said the president was specifically referring to members of the MS-13 gang, rather than undocumented immigrants in general.
The Associated Press said it “deleted a tweet from late Wednesday on Trump’s ‘animals’ comment about immigrants because it wasn’t made clear that he was speaking after a comment about gang members.”
On Thursday, the White House defended Trump’s “animals” comment, saying he used the word to describe undocumented immigrants in the MS-13 gang.
“It took an animal to stab a man 100 times and rip his heart out,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, referring to a reported MS-13 attack. “I think the term animal doesn’t go far enough.”
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The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., also defended his father in a tweet to NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell after she posted about the incident. “He was specifically talking about MS-13, and you know it,” Trump Jr. wrote. “They are animals. I know you would rather side with them than Trump as you so often make clear but it’s a bad look for you Andrea.”
Asked about the comment in the Cabinet Room on Thursday, the president “bristled,” according to a pool report.
“I’m referring and you know I’m referring to the MS-13 gangs that are coming in,” he said. “I was talking about the MS-13. And if you look a little bit further on in the tape you’ll see that. So I’m actually surprised that you’re asking this question ’cause most people got it right.”
“MS-13 — these are animals… We need strong immigration laws. …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,” he said.
Vox argued that it’s unclear to whom the president was referring, “whether he was simply picking up on Sheriff Mims’s reference to MS-13 gang members or referring to deportees more broadly.”
“But he didn’t exactly bend over backward to specify that not all immigrants deported by this administration are ‘animals,’ ” the outlet said.
Vox also noted that Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who first raised the subject of the MS-13 gang in the roundtable, was complaining that California state law prevents the county from notifying ICE about MS-13 members who have not been charged or convicted of serious crimes like the one Sanders mentioned.
Trump has used the word “animals” to describe MS-13 gang members in the past, Vox reported. In a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers on Long Island, he said: “Few communities have suffered worse at the hand of these MS-13 thugs than the people of Long Island. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They are animals.” And in February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said, “These are animals. They cut people. They cut them. They cut them up in little pieces, and they want them to suffer. And we take them into our country.”
The debate on the intent of his words did little to soften the backlash the president received over the comments.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York tweeted, “When all of our great-great-grandparents came to America they weren’t ‘animals,’ and these people aren’t either.”
Former Obama White House photographer Pete Souza, who often uses his Instagram to criticize Trump, on Wednesday shared a photo of zebras, with the caption: “Dear sir: THESE are animals.”
Here’s what others are saying on social media:
And a prominent Jesuit priest, Father James Martin, said that calling any human being — even a member of MS-13 — an “animal” is the kind of “grave sin” that led to the Holocaust.
“Calling people animals is sinful,” Martin tweeted Wednesday in response to Trump’s comments. “Every human being has infinite dignity. Moreover, this is the same kind of language that led to the extermination of Jews (“vermin”) in Germany and of Tutsi (“cockroaches”) in Rwanda. This kind of language cannot be normalized. It is a grave sin.”
“To be clear, even members of MS-13 are not ‘animals,’ ” Martin clarified in a follow-up tweet on Thursday. “Every human being has dignity, even the worst criminals, even murderers. The main danger of the ‘animal’ language is that it begins with criminals, and then is applied to entire classes of people (i.e., migrants, Tutsi, Jews).”