Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has come under fire from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for how he dealt with a questioner at a campaign event on Thursday who called Obama a foreign-born Muslim and said “we have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims.”
Trump responded almost bemusedly, laughing and saying "We need this question. This is the first question."
The questioner—wearing a “Trump” T-Shirt and attending the town hall meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire—then went onto say "Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?"
"We're going to be looking at a lot of different things," Trump replied. "You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We're going to be looking at that and many other things."
Clinton and Sanders were quick to criticize the response of Trump, who has maintained a steady lead in the Republican primary field in national polls for weeks.
Donald Trump not denouncing false statements about POTUS & hateful rhetoric about Muslims is disturbing, & just plain wrong. Cut it out. -H— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 18, 2015
Trump must apologize to the president and American people for continuing the lie that the president is not an American and not a Christian.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 18, 2015
This nonsense has got to end.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 18, 2015
Let’s stop the racism. Let’s stop the xenophobia.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 18, 2015
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz also released a statement calling on Republicans to denounce the comments from Trump.
"GOP front-runner Donald Trump's racism knows no bounds. This is certainly horrendous, but unfortunately unsurprising given what we have seen already. The vile rhetoric coming from the GOP candidates is appalling," Schultz said. "(Republicans) should be ashamed, and all Republican presidential candidates must denounce Trump's comments immediately or will be tacitly agreeing with him."
Trump’s campaign has said that he meant that he would be “looking into” training camps, and not whether the president was Muslim. (The training camps are a right-wing conspiracy theory, explained ably here by Vox’s Max Fisher, that has even received airtime on Fox News.)
"All he heard was a question about training camps, which he said we have to look into," Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told the Washington Post. "The media want to make this an issue about Obama, but it's about him waging a war on Christianity. They need support and their religious liberty is at stake."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, trailing in the polls by a significant margin, said he would have corrected the questioner had it been his town hall. (When approached with questions about Obama's origins at a town hall during the 2008 campaign, Republican presidential nominee and Sen. John McCain corrected the questioner.)
In comments reported by the Post, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), also a presidential candidate, said he’s “never heard of anything like camps" for terrorists thriving in the United States while the government paid no attention.
Denouncing Trump or even the questioner might not actually be all that helpful, though, in a primary where polls have consistently shown that large portions of the GOP electorate still cling to the myth that Obama is foreign-born and not Constitutionally able to be president.
In a poll from left-leaning Public Policy Polling released earlier this month, only 29 percent of Republicans surveyed said they believed Obama was born in the United States. A plurality—44 percent—said that he wasn't, while 26 percent said they were “not sure.”
The idea that Obama is a Muslim, rather than practicing his professed Christian faith, is even more popular among GOP voters, with 54 percent saying he was a Muslim, 14 percent saying he was a Christian, and 32 percent saying they were “not sure.”
Among Trump voters those numbers were even starker with 66 percent believing Obama is a Muslim and 61 percent saying they thought he wasn’t born in the United States.
The PPP numbers are supported by a recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll of Iowa Republican voters publicized earlier this month in which 42 percent of respondents said Obama was born in the United States, and the vast majority said that either he was not (35 percent) or they did not know (24 percent).
The numbers are also consistent with polling from last year by YouGov that showed only 34 percent of Republicans were certain the president was American-born and from 2011 when a majority of Republican voters surveyed by PPP said they believed he was born in another country.
Trump himself re-upped his “Birther” credentials in July, telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper "I don't know. I really don't know" where the president was born. Trump also played a key role in pushing the “Birther” narrative that eventually led to the president having his long-form birth certificate released and then, shortly thereafter, mocking Trump for his conspiracy theory at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
The latest episode is further evidence that Trump has built a thus far successful campaign on a strategy of cultivating a key and not insignificant part of the Republican primary base that buys into a racist theory about President Obama's origins.