On Thursday, Donald Trump seemed to indicate to two separate reporters that he favored implementing a database for tracking Muslims in America, a Fascist-sounding suggestion which was then widely condemned, even drawing rebukes from his fellow Republican presidential candidates. In the three days since, Trump has now discussed the subject several times, yet quite remarkably, it somehow still remains unclear to what extent he actually supports the idea, and whether that lack of clarity is unintentional or part of some larger strategy to stay atop the polls.
Trump's first attempted clarification came on Friday, when he insisted that the database idea had been suggested by a reporter, not him:
I didn't suggest a database-a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2015
Trump is right about the database. The reporter he is referring to is Yahoo National Correspondent Hunter Walker, whose interview with Trump began the whole story. The key exchange is somewhat buried in the Yahoo piece:
Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.
“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
Wanting to hear the exact question and answer, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York asked Yahoo and Walker for the recording, which they eventually published. Here’s the exchange as extracted from that:
WALKER: And in terms of doing this, to pull off the kind of tracking we need, do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?
TRUMP: Well, we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We're going to have to look at the mosques. We're going to have to look very, very carefully. We have a president that refuses to say radical Islamic terrorism. He refuses to say it, which is the biggest shock in the world, because how can you not say it, if you don't say it, you're not going to get to the problem.
Now whether you agree with Walker and Yahoo's framing of Trump's answer or not, the candidate clearly did not bring up the database himself, and didn't endorse one either. Regardless, NBC reporter Vaughn Hillyard asked Trump for clarification about the issue Thursday night during a post-event rope line in Iowa:
HILLYARD: Should there be a database system that tracks Muslims here in this country?”
TRUMP: There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases. I mean we should have a lot of systems. And today you can do it. But right now we have to have a border. We have to have strength. We have to have a wall. And we cannot let what’s happening to this country happen anymore.
HILLYARD: But that’s something your White House would like to implement?
TRUMP: I would certainly implement that. Absolutely.
Now the constitutional (and moral) response to each of these three questions is of course “no,” but with the exception of the third question from Hillyard, Trump does not say “yes” either. And in the case of the third question, it’s worth considering what exactly Trump thought he was saying yes to. Was it the Muslim database? The “a lot of systems”? The border wall? Asked by Hillyard what effect he thought the Muslim database would have, Trump quizzically responded that “It would stop people from coming in illegally.” Then asked how he would get Muslims registered, Trump replied, “good management.” Asked if Muslims “would have to legally be in this database,” Trump responded that “they key is that people can come to the country, but they have to come in legally.”
So is Trump talking about registering all Muslim Americans because of their faith? Muslim immigrants? Undocumented immigrants from anywhere? It’s clear that Hillyard knows what he’s asking, but it’s a lot less clear that Trump knows what he’s answering, and to anyone who’s even casually watched Trump interact with anyone these past several months, that wouldn’t be the first time — or even the hundredth time — that Trump has gotten himself into trouble by talking too generally, or too much, or at all.
When Hillyard later asked Trump how a Muslim registration system would be any different from the Nazis' registration of Jews, the candidate didn't address the question, simply repeating, “You tell me.” After watching that exchange, The Atlantic’s David A. Graham is, understandably, not willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt:
Trump sure doesn’t lack political courage. It’s not uncommon for politicians and operatives to accuse their rivals of espousing Nazi-like ideologies, but it’s hard to remember a time when a supposedly mainstream candidate had no interest in differentiating ideas he’s endorsed from those of the Nazis.
On Friday, the New York Times passed along that “[Trump’s] campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, insisted that Mr. Trump had been asked leading questions by the NBC reporter under ‘blaring music’ and that he had in mind a terrorist watch list, not a registry of Muslims.” Speaking at an Alabama campaign rally on Saturday, Trump himself insisted that he only wanted a database of Syrian refugees “if we can’t stop them,” and also implied that what he wanted to “implement” was the border wall. Everything else was the media writing “false stuff” about him, and so it was also once again the reporter's fault, Trump assured the crowd:
So now, now what happens is [Thursday], some little wise guy, he looked like he was 12 years old, he’s got a camera, I’m signing autographs, and I’m going like, he’s asking me questions, talking about the wall, we’re gonna build a wall, we’re gonna build this, we’re gonna — and I’m signing autographs and there’s music playing in the background and I’m leaving — bing bing bing, signing — and this little wise guy’s sitting there, and he’s asking me questions. ... So what happens is, they write false stories, and in this case they got called on it by a lot of people, because, you know, you can only go so much, OK?
Trump also later retweeted (and clearly endorsed) Wayne Dupree's argument on Saturday that “Trump was NOT even talking about a Muslim Database!” On Sunday, Trump was forced to address the issue again by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week:
STEPHANOPOULOS: You did stir up a controversy with those comments over the database. Let’s try to clear that up. Are you unequivocally now ruling out a database on all Muslims?
TRUMP: No, not at all. I want a database for the refugees that — if they come into the country. We have no idea who these people are. When the Syrian refugees are going to start pouring into this country, we don’t know if they’re ISIS, we don’t know if it’s a Trojan horse. And I definitely want a database and other checks and balances. We want to go with watch lists. We want to go with databases.
Is Trump saying that no he is not ruling out a database? Or no he is, but wants a Syrian refugee database? Or other unspecified databases? Incredibly, more than three days later, it's still not clear whether or not Trump is okay with registering American Muslims. And maybe that's the point, as Trump just poses from moment to moment, with the substance always improvised. As Hot Air blogger Allahpundit suggests, Trump probably isn’t even trying to propose real policies in exchanges like these, just saying whatever he thinks will help him stand out and stay in the spotlight:
Trump doesn’t seem to care about policy details, including the details of his own immigration policy, so you can fart out pretty much any ol’ idea and if it sounds “tough,” he’ll either play it safe by refusing to rule it out or he’ll casually endorse it amid a flurry of generalities about how we need to do “a lot of things.” You could ask him if we should use a catapult to send illegals back over the border to Mexico and he’d probably just say, “We need to be tougher. Our leaders aren’t tough.” ...
I don’t know if Trump approaches questions like this with that much attention to detail and distinction. I think his approach is, “What would the ‘tough,’ non-PC response be here? What’s the opposite of what Jeb Bush would say?” And that’s the answer he gives. The result may be ugly but in terms of pure political instinct, saying the opposite of what Jeb would say is pretty good advice in a national primary. Just look at the polls.
This logic would seem to be supported by the comments Trump made at the Alabama rally on Saturday, when he spoke of surveilling mosques very much in the context of celebrating that statement's political incorrectness. And then, when Trump recently spoke with The Wall Street Journal, he suggested that a candidate's specific policies, including his own, don't exactly matter anyway:
Only journalists, Mr. Trump says, expect “a 14-point thing on something, on anything, right, you know, policy ... I always find the people don’t want it.” Anyhow, “in the real world,” campaign proposals are opening bids and this or that provision will be traded away to get a deal through Congress. “When you negotiate, you want to go in from strength, you don’t want to go in — you understand what I’m saying. So I’m going in with a plan and I have room in my plan,” he says.
Indeed, as conservative commentator Ed Morrissey argues, perhaps it is an overstatement to say Trump is an actual fascist, because that would be giving the candidate too much credit:
It looks a lot more like Trump doesn’t think much about his proclamations at all, or even pay attention when reporters ask questions. He’s just emoting to please the crowds. There isn’t any substance to Trump; he’s mainly an untethered id with unlimited resources and no boundaries.
So Trump is either a fascist, or pretending to be a fascist, or deliberately wants that question left in the air. Either way, he has yet to state unequivocally that he is opposed to registering American Muslims.