President Donald Trump's team is engaged in damage control after the commander-in-chief appeared to chuckle at — and make light of — a suggestion from one of his supporters that the federal government shoot migrants.
The comment was made as Trump denounced the legal protections currently granted to migrants in the U.S. and argued that his proposed southern border wall was a necessity.
"I mean, when you have 15,000 people marching up, and you have hundreds and hundreds of people, and you have two or three border security people that are brave and great — and don't forget, we don't let them, and we can't let them use weapons. We can't. Other countries do. We can't. I would never do that," Trump said, describing how border patrol agents are not supposed to shoot undocumented migrants.
After the president rhetorically asked, "How do you stop these people?" a member of the audience in Panama City Beach, Florida, responded: "Shoot them!"
Instead of disavowing the comment, Trump chuckled and replied, "Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement — only in the Panhandle."
Matt Wolking, the deputy director of communications (rapid response) for Trump, addressed critics of the president's quip on Twitter by including a transcript from the rally that left out the audience member's violent remark.
This is not the first time Trump has suggested using guns to stop migrants from crossing the border. While speaking with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity in March, Trump said that "other countries stand there with machine guns ready to fire. We can’t do that. I wouldn’t want to do that, OK? It’s a very effective way of doing it, but I wouldn’t want to do it. We can’t do it."
There has also been a problem of far-right groups engaged in acts of violence against migrants who use political justifications. Last month, it was revealed in the New York Times that an extremist group known as the United Constitutional Patriots had been detaining migrant families at gunpoint before handing them over to Border Patrol agents. One individual from the group defended himself to the Times by comparing their actions to "a verbal citizen’s arrest" and insisting that "we’re just here to support the Border Patrol and show the public the reality of the border." He also noted that "if these people follow our verbal commands, we hold them until Border Patrol comes. Border Patrol has never asked us to stand down."
Trump has been accused of fanning flames of violent resentment against immigrants since he first announced his bid for the White House nearly four years ago. During that address, Trump played on racist stereotypes in order to rally supporters behind his agenda.
"When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best," Trump said in his announcement speech. "They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."