After years of brushing off criticism for avoiding the term “radical Islam,” President Obama fired a point-blank broadside Tuesday at his critics, calling the debate a “political distraction” that will do nothing to combat terrorism.
Speaking during what was expected to be an update for the public on the fight against the Islamic State, Obama lit into his critics and specifically presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Their criticism has mounted in the wake of the Orlando terror attack, which Obama declined to publicly link to radical Islam.
“Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. … There’s no magic to the phrase of radical Islam,” Obama countered Tuesday. “It’s a political talking point.”
Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans swiftly pushed back on the president's remarks.
Trump said Obama "claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people."
He also said: "When I am president, it will always be America first."
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said earlier: “With all due respect Mr. President, you’re wrong. ... Telling the truth about violent Islam is a prerequisite to a strategy -- a strategy you admitted you don’t have. It is the commander-in-chief’s duty to actually identify our enemies and to help the American people understand the challenge of violent Islam.”
Obama, though, went on to warn of a slippery slope in this debate, citing Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration – a proposal many in Trump’s party do not support, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“We don’t have religious tests here,” Obama said, without attacking Trump by name. But answering one of Trump’s most frequent accusations, the president said his reluctance to use the phrase “radical Islam” has “nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism.”
He said groups like ISIS “want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims … who reject their crazy notions,” and a move to single out Muslims in America “betrays the very values America stands for.”
A day earlier, during a speech in New Hampshire, Trump had doubled down on his call for a Muslim immigration ban.
“It we don’t get tough, and we don’t get smart -- and fast -- we’re not going to have a country anymore. There will be nothing left,” Trump said.
Ryan, however, said Tuesday he does not support that proposal. "I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country's interest," Ryan said. "I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party but as a country."
Before tackling the “radical Islam” debate, Obama was speaking Tuesday to deliver a status report to the public on the fight against the Islamic State, after meeting with his National Security Council.
He claimed that campaign is making gains and ISIS is “on defense.”
A day earlier, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton also claimed ISIS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria -- but addressed other concerns about the group’s reach.
“As ISIS loses actual ground in Iraq and Syria, it will seek to stage more attacks and gain stronger footholds wherever it can, from Afghanistan, to Libya, to Europe,” Clinton said. “The threat is metastasizing.”
Further, Clinton referred openly in a TV interview to the threat from “radical Islamism.”
Obama, though, joined Clinton Tuesday in pushing for gun control measures to thwart terror attacks including renewing the assault-weapons ban.
“Make it harder for terrorists to use these weapons to kill us,” Obama said.
On that point, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said, “We should not make it harder for law-abiding Americans to defend themselves when radical Islamic terrorists are successfully launching attacks on U.S. soil.”
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under the George W. Bush administration, said Tuesday that Obama's remarks were like a “lecture” and urged Clinton to break with the president on the terminology issue.
“It shows the president to be a small man,” Bolton told Fox News.