Several of Britain’s leading conservative figures criticized U.S. President Trump’s decision to retweet Islamophobic videos posted by the fringe Britain First group — even as U.S. Republicans have remained relatively quiet.
Trump appeared to endorse the far-right hate group when he retweeted three separate videos early Wednesday morning from the account of Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First. The videos — at least one of which has been completely discredited — included captions like “Muslim destroys a statue of Virgin Mary!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” Fransen herself is facing charges of “religious aggravated harassment” after verbally attacking a woman wearing a hijab last year.
The president has a long history of targeting Muslims. Trump has repeatedly linked Islam to violent extremism, in addition to presenting three different versions of a travel ban targeting refugees and citizens from predominately majority-Muslim countries. That approach has been popular with a number of far-right figures across the pond, many of whom have offered Trump their support. But for many, the president’s seeming endorsement of Britain First was a step too far.
“Britain First is a divisive, hateful group whose views are not in line with our values. UK has a proud history as an open, tolerant society & hate speech has no place here,” wrote Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Twitter.
Johnson, who supported the “leave” movement during the Brexit vote, is known for his conservative politics, as well as a number of high-profile gaffes and inflammatory comments — including but not limited to: claiming President Obama had an “ancestral dislike” of the United Kingdom, implying Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed her Commonwealth visits thanks to the “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies,” and penning a controversial limerick about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Inflammatory British commentator and tabloid writer Piers Morgan was also critical of the tweets, linking Trump’s elevation of Britain First to supporting white supremacist movements in the United States.
“By endorsing Britain First, Trump may as well have worn a KKK hood in the Oval Office,” Morgan wrote.
One of the more surprising critiques came from Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP. Farage has been a strong supporter of Trump’s — he is a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — whose own far-right brand of politics has often centered on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. But the videos were a step too far for Farage, who told Leading Britain’s Conversation (LBC) radio station that Trump had made a “mistake.”
“I do think these videos are very bad taste and he showed poor judgement,” Farage said. “Of that I have no doubt at all.”
“There are times when perhaps its better to put your hands up and say ‘I got this wrong’ and frankly try to move on,” he added.
But outrage across the pond hasn’t translated to action at home, where Trump administration officials have defended his recent tweets as completely acceptable and most members of Trump’s party have remained mum on the topic when contacted by reporters.
“We think that it’s never the wrong time to talk about security and public safety for the American people,” the principal deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, told reporters on Wednesday. “Those are the issues he was raising with the tweets this morning.”
“Look, I‘m not talking about the nature of the video,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “The threat is real and that’s what the president is talking about is the need for national security, the need for military spending, and those are very real things. There’s nothing fake about that.”
PBS asked every senator for their reaction to to Trump’s tweets. Less than half responded; of those, 11 Republicans said they had not seen the tweets and one declined to comment. Only four GOP senators criticized the president.
One of the lone exceptions included Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who called Trump’s comments “highly inappropriate.” Flake has openly sparred with Trump since announcing last month that he will not run for re-election. Another critic was Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC). “You don’t want to take a fringe group and elevate their content,” Graham said.
Trump’s Britain First tweets also drew condemnation from more traditional sources in the U.K., including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whose long-standing feud with Trump stretches back months. Along with numerous lawmakers from all over the political spectrum, Khan denounced Trump’s Islamophobia and demanded the president’s U.K. visit be scrapped.
“Many Brits who love America and Americans will see this as a betrayal of the special relationship between our two countries,” Khan said, pointing to Trump’s behavior. “It beggars belief that the President of our closest ally doesn’t see that his support of this extremist group actively undermines the values of tolerance and diversity that makes Britain so great.”
Religious figures also piled on. “I join the urgent call of faith groups and others for President Trump not just to remove these tweets, but to make clear his opposition to racism and hatred in all forms,” wrote the head of the Church of England, echoing comments made by a number of other faith leaders.
The negative reactions from far-right U.K. leaders, however, have disproportionately focused on the origin of Trump’s tweets. Given that figures like Farage have actively perpetuated Islamophobia in the past, it’s likely the source, rather than content, that is the leading point of contention for Trump’s U.K. detractors. Britain First’s controversial status in the U.K. also may not translate as well to a U.S. audience.
The attention has ultimately been a win for Britain First and Fransen herself thanked Trump for the exposure. “The important message here is Donald Trump has been made aware of the persecution and prosecution of a political leader in Britain for giving what has been said by police to be an anti-Islamic speech,” she said. In a video address Wednesday night, Fransen asked Trump for his help.
“I am appealing to you for your help,” she said. “I am appealing for your intervention before I am thrown in jail, and others receive the same treatment, for simply speaking out. God bless you, President Donald Trump.”