Trump's only mistake in the MS-13 'controversy' was giving animals a worse rap than they deserve

  • President Donald Trump’s comments about the gang MS-13, referring to them as “animals,” became lost in a sea of controversy.
  • When his comments were initially reported, much of the context was left out, implying that he had characterised all immigrants that way.
  • Tweet first, investigate second is a bad habit we should avoid.

Another day last week brought another controversy involving the president of the United States. This one, though, might be less about the President Donald Trump’s words or deeds and more about our collective assumption that when in doubt, he has done or said something wrong.

Last week, Twittersphere (and much of the media) was up in arms about Trump allegedly referring to all immigrants – or at least all unauthorised immigrants – as “animals.” Given his record on immigration, and his repeated digs at various minorities, it’s easy to understand the impulse to assume the worst.

But in doing so, the media gave the Trump administration another weapon to store in their arsenal of accusations of “fake news.”

Understanding the context here is key. Trump was talking to a room full of people about immigration. One of them, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, spoke about the limits of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s power.

“There could be an MS-13 member I know about – if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it,” she told the president.

Trump responded directly to what Mims had just said.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The initial blunders in interpreting that remark led many outlets to revise their reporting on Thursday. The Associated Press tweeted that it had “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.”

Outlets who have corrected their mistake should be commended, but the impulse to publish or tweet without first ensuring absolute accuracy is a habit of the president’s that everyone would be wise to discontinue.

At her press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump, arguing that the word “animal” did not go far enough. She’s right. MS-13’s motto is “mata, viola, controla,” or “kill, rape, control.”

Trump’s greatest mistake here was that he gave animals a worse rap than they deserve. On Wednesday, he’ll participate in a roundtable on the group on Long Island, New York.

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