In wake of mosque attacks, Trump downplays threat from white nationalists: 'I think it's a small group of people'

In the wake of a deadly attack on two New Zealand mosques, carried out, according to police, by a white supremacist, President Trump downplayed the danger posed by white nationalism.

Trump spoke to reporters on Friday afternoon, shortly after issuing the first veto of his presidency, which preserved his declaration of an emergency over the threat to American safety from immigrants from Central America.

Asked whether he saw white nationalism as a rising threat, Trump demurred.

“I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess. If you look what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that’s the case. I don’t know enough about it yet … but it’s certainly a terrible thing,” the president said.

Trump, who said he reached out to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to express his “sorrow” over the killings, described the latest terrorist attack to target Muslims as a “horrible, horrible thing.”

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Ambulance staff take a man from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A body lies on the footpath outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Ambulance staff take a man from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.(AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A man reacts as he speaks on a mobile phone outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says many people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.(AP Photo/Mark Baker)
People wait outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Many people were killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday, a witness said. Police have not yet described the scale of the shooting but urged people in central Christchurch to stay indoors. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police attempt to clear people from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Many people were killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday, a witness said. Police have not yet described the scale of the shooting but urged people in central Christchurch to stay indoors.(AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A man talks on his mobile phone across the road from a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. A witness says a number of people have been killed in a mass shooting at a mosque in the New Zealand city of Christchurch; police urge people to stay indoors. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police attempt to move people away from outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of worshippers attending Friday prayers on what the prime minister called "one of New Zealand's darkest days," as authorities detained four people and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned attack. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police stand outside a mosque in Linwood, Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed during shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police stand outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers, as New Zealand police warned people to stay indoors as they tried to determine if more than one gunman was involved. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
A police officer escorts a man away from a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers, as New Zealand police warned people to stay indoors as they tried to determine if more than one gunman was involved. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Police keep watch at a park across the road from a a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers, as New Zealand police warned people to stay indoors as they tried to determine if more than one gunman was involved. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: Members of the public react in front of the Masjd Al Noor Mosque as they fear for their relatives on March 15, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 49 people have been confirmed dead and more than 20 are injured following attacks at two mosques in Christchurch. Four people are in custody following shootings at Al Noor mosque on Dean's Road and the Linwood Masjid in Christchurch. Mosques across New Zealand have been closed and police are urging people not to attend Friday prayers as a safety precaution. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: A floral tribute is seen on Linwood Avenue near the Linwood Masjid on March 15, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 49 people have been confirmed dead and more than 20 are injured following attacks at two mosques in Christchurch. Four people are in custody following shootings at Al Noor mosque on Dean's Road and the Linwood Masjid in Christchurch. Mosques across New Zealand have been closed and police are urging people not to attend Friday prayers as a safety precaution. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on March 15, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. One person is in custody and police are searching for another gunmen following several shootings at mosques in Christchurch. Police have not confirmed the number of casualties or fatalities. All schools and businesses are in lock down as police continue to search for other gunmen. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 15: Police Commissioner Mike Bush speaks to media during a press conference at Royal Society Te Aparangi on March 15, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. One person is in custody and police are searching for another gunmen following several shootings at mosques in Christchurch. Police have not confirmed the number of casualties or fatalities. All schools and businesses are in lock down as police continue to search for other gunmen. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
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The president then pivoted to decry “crimes of all kinds coming through our southern border,” adding that “people hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is.”

Critics of the president have accused him using rhetoric that stokes unfounded fears about immigrants as he pursues a campaign promise of building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

"The words and imagery coming out of the Trump administration and from Trump himself are heightening these fears," Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, told reporters on a conference call last month. "These images of foreign scary invaders threatening diseases, massive refugee caravans coming from the south. This is fear mongering."

Some white supremacist groups have taken inspiration from Trump’s depiction of immigrants as a threat to American safety and prosperity.

Speaking at a 2017 rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke proclaimed “We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we’ve believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back —and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

In its annual survey released in February, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that last year the number of hate groups active in the U.S. had risen to its highest level in two decades.

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