President Donald Trump has retweeted three inflammatory anti-Muslim videos that were posted on Twitter by a far-right British politician; sparking widespread condemnation, repudiation and fears of a backlash against Muslim-Americans.
The videos, one of which incorrectly identified an attacker as a Muslim, first appeared on the Twitter account of Jayda Fransen, deputy head of the anti-immigrant Britain First party.
A White House spokesman said he did not know how Trump had found the videos online, but one of them had previously been retweeted by a conservative talk show host the president admires.
Videos might be fake
Trump reposted the videos on his Twitter feed Wednesday morning, amid a flurry of tweets about a variety of subjects, from North Korea and the U.S. economy to the firing of a prominent journalist accused of sexual misconduct. Asked by a reporter whether it mattered that the videos might be fake, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump’s intent was to raise the issue of security concerns.
“The threat is real and that’s what the president is talking about is the need for national security, the need for military spending, and those are very real things; there’s nothing fake about that,” Sanders said. “It's important to talk about … national security threats."
A short time later, Trump spokesman Raj Shah suggested that the president’s retweets were his way of keeping public attention on the immigration issue.
“A lot of folks want to focus on the videos. We want to focus on the issues,” Shah told reporters. “It’s about safety. It’s about security. It’s about ensuring that individuals that come to the United States don’t pose a public safety or terrorism threat."
Critics countered that the videos could potentially incite violence against Muslims. One of the posts carried a description that read: "VIDEO: Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!" Another read: "VIDEO: Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!" and a third said: "VIDEO: Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!"
The third video has since been debunked by Dutch news outlets, which reported the attacker was neither Muslim nor a migrant.
Fransen, who has more than 70,000 Twitter followers, responded to the presidential retweets with a thank you message noting that Trump had 44 million followers, dramatically increasing the reach of the videos. “God bless you Trump! God bless America,” she tweeted.
Trump’s decision to publicize the videos sparked condemnation on both sides of the Atlantic, and among both his supporters and adversaries.
British Prime Minister Theresa May chastised Trump, saying he had been “wrong” to spread "hateful narratives" that "peddles lies and stokes tensions." In a statement read by a spokesperson, May called the Britain First party "the antithesis of the values of our country.”
Trump responded with a tweet late Wednesday saying, "Theresa, don't focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We're doing just fine!"
On Washington’s Capitol Hill, senators on both sides of the partisan divide said Trump’s decision to retweet the videos was ill-advised. “Wrong. Inappropriate. A new low,” was the terse reply from Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said Trump should “think carefully about the impact of that kind of retweeting.”
Casey agreed that retweeting inflammatory material could pose a danger to Muslims in the United States.
“There’s substantial potential for that, and that’s of concern. When the president uses Twitter to talk about foreign policy or security, the issues are so complicated and so sensitive that you can’t, in a tweet, appropriately convey American policy," he told VOA.
Muslim organizations in the U.S. expressed similar concerns. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) condemned what it called Trump's "incitement to violence against American Muslims."
"President Trump’s actions are putting the lives and safety of American Muslim children and families at risk,” CAIR executive director Nihad Awad said. “Hate speech leads to hate crimes. When hate speech and conspiracy theories are unchallenged, especially against minorities that had been stereotyped for a long time, they foster an atmosphere that causes hate crimes.”
The president’s controversial retweets came on the same day as a new public opinion poll showing that Americans have increasingly favorable views of Arabs and Muslims. The poll was done by the Arab American Institute in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of a counterprotester.
In a news release, Arab American Institute director James Zogby said the data points to a strong partisan divide on the issue, with most of the increase in positive attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims coming from Democrats and independents.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump regularly called for a “Muslim ban.”
WATCH: Britons, May React to Trump Retweets
Among his first moves as president was to issue executive orders that would have blocked entry to the United States from citizens of a handful of Muslim-majority countries. The courts blocked those orders, though subsequent decisions have allowed severe restrictions on migrants from some countries with lax immigration controls.
Fransen, who lives in a London suburb, has had several confrontations with British authorities on the issue of hate speech. She was charged earlier this month with using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior” during speeches she made in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She was previously convicted in 2016 of abusing a woman wearing traditional Muslim dress.
Her party, Britain First, was founded in 2011 by former members of the far-right British National Party. The party has run candidates in parliamentary and European elections and bi-elections, but without success.
In the recent election for mayor of London, the party received 1.2 percent of the vote.
Michael Bowman and Steve Herman contributed to this report.