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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Donald Trump on Orlando Shooting

The GOP candidate distorts the facts on the Orlando and San Bernardino shootings and Syrian refugees.


A day after the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump made a series of false statements, misstatements and overstatements in TV interviews and a speech about the attack:

  • Trump said “many people” thought the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, “was a whack job,” but they didn’t report him. In fact, Mateen’s co-workers in 2013 reported that he boasted of having terrorist ties, and the FBI investigated and interviewed him.
  • Trump said U.S. law enforcement agencies “have to look at the mosques” to stop terrorism. In fact, the FBI investigated Mateen again in July 2014 because he attended the same mosque as a Florida man who carried out a suicide bombing mission in Syria. As it did before, the FBI closed its investigation without action.
  • There is no evidence for Trump’s claim that “many people,” including neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters, saw “bombs all over the floor” of the apartment, but did not report it to authorities because of concerns about racial profiling.
  • Trump implied that some Syrian refugees are members of ISIS because they had “cell phones with ISIS flags on them.” Norwegian officials found images of ISIS flags on some refugees’ phones, but the head of Norway’s asylum program said there may be other reasons for that — including the need to pass through areas controlled by ISIS.
  • He repeated his claim that Syrian refugees are coming into the United States with “no documentation” and “no paperwork.” Some refugees may lack documentation, but the head of the refugee affairs division of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told Congress that “in general they have many, many documents.”
  • Trump called for a “stop [to] the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States.” The civil war in Syria has displaced nearly 5 million Syrians since March 2011. Under Obama, the U.S. has accepted about 6,000 Syrian refugees — which represents 1.2 percent of all refugees who have been placed in the U.S. during that time.


Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, addressed the June 12 shooting in a speech in New Hampshire and on several TV shows a day after the attack in Orlando. Omar Mateen, who was born in New York and lived in Florida, killed 49 people and injured 53 others. Mateen, who pledged allegiance to the terrorist group the Islamic State, was killed at the scene.

Trump reiterated his calls for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., and a halt to accepting Syrian refugees. He also broadly accused “the Muslim community” in the U.S. of being complicit in the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando without any evidence. The Dec. 2, 2015, shooting in San Bernardino was carried out by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was born in the United States, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who came to the U.S. from Pakistan in July 2014. Fourteen people were killed. 

FBI Investigates Mateen 

On CNN’s “New Day,” Trump said that the U.S. needs to “stop people from coming in from Syria.” CNN’s Christine Romans asked Trump what the shooting has to do with Syrian refugees, and Trump responded by saying he was concerned that “the Muslim community does not report people like this.”

Romans, June 13: But how do you equate what happened here with what — with a Syrian refugee?

Trump: OK. This is the case of surveillance. This is the case of intelligence gathering, information. You will find that many people that knew him felt that he was a whack job, he was going — something like this would have happened. I already hear it starting to happen of people that knew him, the ex-wife and other people. They don’t report them. For some reason, the Muslim community does not report people like this.

Trump said something similar in his afternoon speech.

Trump, June 13: But the Muslims have to work with us. They have to work with us. They know what’s going on. They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what? They didn’t turn ’em in, and we had death and destruction.

And later that night in an interview on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” with Bill O’Reilly.

O’Reilly, June 13: Do you believe Muslim Americans fear you a little bit?

Trump: I hope not. I want to straighten things out. But it’s so important that they — and they’re tremendous people — it’s so important that when they see trouble going on, like they did in San Bernardino. I mean, there were numerous people that saw bombs all over this apartment floor, they knew something was going on. They never reported him or her. They never reported and that 14 people were killed and many, many people injured. Same thing here, you’re going to find out with this savage that did this horrible thing over the weekend that many people said, “Oh, I knew that was going to happen.” They have got to report him. Because the Muslims are the ones that see what’s going on. The Muslims are the ones that have to report him. And if they don’t report him, then they there have to be consequences to them.

Let’s set aside for now what happened in San Bernardino and focus on Orlando. There is no evidence to date that anyone, other than possibly Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, had any prior knowledge of the Orlando attack. Other people who knew Mateen was a “whack job” did report him, and the FBI opened a 10-month investigation.

FBI Director James Comey said at a June 13 midday press conference that his agency became aware of Mateen in May 2013. At the time, Mateen was working as a security guard at a local court house, and he made some “inflammatory and contradictory” claims about having terrorist ties that concerned his co-workers, Comey said. He told co-workers that he had family connections to al Qaeda and that he was a member of Hezbollah, two organizations that are at odds with each other, Comey said.

“When this was reported to us the FBI’s Miami office opened a preliminary investigation,” Comey said.

As the New York Times reported on June 12, the FBI interviewed Mateen twice — which Comey confirmed at his press conference — “but after surveillance, records checks and witness interviews, agents were unable to verify any terrorist links and closed their investigation.” Comey said the investigation lasted 10 months.

So the people who knew that Mateen was, in Trump’s words, “a whack job” did report him, and there is no evidence to date that “the Muslim community” at large knew of Mateen’s horrific plans. NBC News and others reported a day after Trump’s speech that Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, may have known about her husband’s plans. She may face criminal charges, NBC News reported.

Update, June 21: Mohammed A. Malik, who has known Mateen since 2006, wrote in the Washington Post on June 20 that he contacted the FBI in 2014 after he learned that Mateen had been watching videotapes of “Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic Yemen-based imam who helped radicalize several Muslims.” Malik said he wrote his op-ed in the Post to refute Trump’s claim that “the Muslim community does not report people like this.” Malik writes, “I’m just tired of negative rhetoric and ignorant comments about my faith. Trump’s assertions about our community – that we have the ability to help our country but have simply declined to do so – are tragic, ugly and wrong.” The Post says  a federal law enforcement official confirmed Malik’s cooperation with the FBI.

In the CNN interview, Trump also said U.S. law enforcement agencies “have to look at the mosques” to stop terrorism. “We have to look at the mosques,” he said. “We have to look at all — we have to look at the community. And believe me, the community knows the people that have potential for blow up.”

In this case, the FBI did “look at the mosques,” as Trump put it.

At his press conference, Comey said that the FBI opened a second investigation of Mateen in July 2014 because he attended the same mosque as Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, a Florida man who carried out a suicide bombing mission in Syria. Comey said Abu-Salha knew Mateen “casually from attending the same mosque in that area of Florida.” He said the FBI again interviewed Mateen. “But our investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them,” Comey said.

So Trump’s call for law enforcement to “look at the mosques” is something that actually happened in Mateen’s case.

San Bernardino Shooters

There is also no evidence for Trump’s repeated claim that “many people” including neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters saw “bombs all over the floor” of the apartment, but did not report it to authorities because of politically correct concerns about racial profiling.

One friend of a neighbor said the neighbor noticed a lot of packages arriving at the home of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, and that they were doing a lot of work in their garage. The friend said the neighbor did not report it because she did not want to racially profile the couple. And a worker in the neighborhood reported seeing a half dozen well-dressed Middle Eastern men walking from the home to a nearby lunch spot on several occasions, which the man said he found unusual but did not report.

In neither case did anyone report that they had seen “bombs all over the floor” of the couple’s home, and failed to report it to authorities.

Trump debuted the unsubstantiated claim several months ago, and he has begun to repeat it again in the wake of the Orlando shooting, making the case that neighbors, and particularly those in the Muslim community, must have been aware of the danger of people like the Orlando shooter, but remained silent, just as he claims they did in San Bernardino.

Trump first repeated the claim on “Fox and Friends” on June 13 (at the 6:07 mark):

Trump, June 13: Like in the case of San Bernardino, there were bombs all over the floor. Many people saw the bombs. Those bombs weren’t there as play toys. And they could have been reported long before San Bernardino took effect. Nobody’s reporting these people.

He made a similar point in his speech that afternoon:

Trump: In San Bernardino, as an example, people who know what was going on, they knew exactly, but they used the excuse of racial profiling for not reporting it. They said, “Oh we thought so but we didn’t want to use racial profiling,” which was probably an excuse given to them by their lawyer so they don’t get in trouble.

Trump reiterated the claim in three other interviews that day, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” on CNN’s “New Day” and later in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News.

Trump, “Good Morning America”: We have to get the people that surround these maniacs to start talking. People know when they’re sickos, I mean for the large part like in San Bernardino with the bombs all over the apartment. People saw those bombs nobody reported them.

Trump, “New Day”: In San Bernardino, there were bombs all over the apartment floor. In other cases, they knew when they went to interview — and you’re going to find that with this madman. People in the area, the people in the neighborhood, they know there’s something off with him, and they don’t report them to the police. They don’t report them to the FBI.

Trump, “The O’Reilly Factor”: It’s so important that when they see trouble going on, like they did in San Bernardino. I mean, there were numerous people who saw bombs all over this apartment floor, they knew something was going on. They never reported him or her.

Despite Trump’s repeated claim, there is no evidence that any neighbors saw “bombs all over the floor” but declined to report it due to political correctness and not wanting to seem as though they were racially profiling.

Authorities did find what the Los Angeles Times described as “an armory of weapons and explosives … including a dozen pipe bombs and thousands of rounds of ammunition” in the Redlands home of the couple responsible for the shooting rampage that left 14 dead. But there is no evidence so far that any neighbors knew about that cache of explosives.

On the day of the shooting on Dec. 2, 2015, CBS Los Angeles aired an interview with a “man who worked in the neighborhood the past three months” who “said he noticed unusual activity.” But the extent of the “unusual activity” reported by the man — who was not identified in the news report — was that he noticed six well-dressed “Middle Eastern guys” walk from the home to a nearby lunch spot on several occasions. The man said he and his co-workers wondered, “What are those guys doing in this neighborhood?”

On Dec. 3, 2015, Los Angeles’ KTLA 5 aired an interview with a man, Aaron Elswick, who is a friend of one of the neighbors. Elswick said the neighbor told him she noticed, “They were receiving quite a number of packages and they were also working a lot in their garage.”

“And it sounds like she didn’t do anything about it,” Elswick said. “She didn’t want to do any kind of racial profiling.”

Neither of those reported cases includes someone who saw bombs on the floor of the home.

A friend and former neighbor of Syed Farook, Enrique Marquez Jr., is accused of providing Farook with two of the rifles used in the shooting. Marquez has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and lying about the rifle purchases. According to the affidavit in the criminal complaint against him, Marquez — who has pleaded not guilty — said he was introduced to Islam by Farook, and that he converted to the religion in 2007. Marquez said Farook then introduced him to radical Islamic ideology, and in 2011 the two subsequently discussed and planned an attack at Riverside Community College. The attack never happened, though, and Marquez told investigators that in recent years he had tried to distance himself from Farook.

“Prosecutors have said there is no evidence Marquez had any knowledge of the San Bernardino attack before it happened,” the Washington Post reported earlier this month.

During the fifth Republican debate in mid-December, Trump accused the mother of the San Bernardino shooter of having advance knowledge of her son’s plans. “You take a look at just the attack in California the other day,” Trump said. “There were numerous people, including the mother, that knew what was going on.”

We noted then that the FBI was investigating what — if anything — the mother of Syed Farook, Rafia Farook, knew prior to the mass shooting on Dec. 2.

“Obviously, it’s something that we’re looking at very, very closely,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Dec. 6, 2015. But she also said, “I can’t characterize the knowledge of any of the other witnesses in the case.”

NBC has reported that the mother lived in the same house where her son and his wife were building pipe bombs and stockpiling ammunition. The London Daily Mail later reported that FBI agents found shooting targets inside a car owned by the mother.

But so far officials have not brought any charges or made any accusation against the mother, whose lawyer says that his client didn’t know what her son was planning.

We reached out to Trump’s campaign for clarification about who the “many people” were who saw bombs in the home of the San Bernardino shooters and “knew exactly what was going on” but refused to report that to authorities. We did not get a response.

Syrian Refugees & ISIS Flags

Trump also used his speech and interviews to call on the U.S. to stop accepting Syrian refugees.

The civil war that broke out in Syria in March 2011 so far has displaced nearly 5 million Syrian people, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Obama administration plans to accept as many as 10,000 during this fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, 2016.

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” Trump warned about the dangers of accepting Syrian refugees and cited as evidence that “some of them have cell phones with ISIS flags on them.”

Stephanopoulos, June 13: But, sir, let me interrupt you on that one right there. How would the ban have made a difference here? This man was a United States citizen. He was born in New York. He lived in Florida.

Trump: No, that’s right. But we have many people coming in whose hate is equal to his and — just as bad — and even worse, frankly. And we have stop people from coming in, we have no documentation. We don’t know where they come from. They could be ISIS. In fact, some of them have cell phones with ISIS flags on them. We are taking in people and it’s getting worse.

We will get to Trump’s misleading claim that Syrian refugees have “no documentation” later. But first let’s take his muddled claim about Syrian cell phones and the ISIS flags.

Trump didn’t make it clear — and Stephanopoulos didn’t ask him about it — but Trump was not talking about Syrian refugees in the U.S. He is referring to a report that Norwegian officials found images of ISIS flags on some refugees’ phones. However, Trump neglected to mention that the report also quoted the head of Norway’s asylum program saying that there may be other explanations for the images, including the need for refugees to pass through areas controlled by ISIS.

Here’s what happened: As part of the asylum registration and review process, Norwegian officials checked the cell phones and luggage of Syrians seeking asylum and found some images of ISIS flags and disturbing photos, as was reported about six months ago by Nettavisen, an online Norwegian news site.

“Among these findings should have been photos and videos of executions and brutal punishments, such as photos of people holding up severed heads or hands,” Nettavisen wrote, according to a Google translation of the article. “It should also have been found images of dead children and other victims of war, crimes or terrorism. It has also been found flags, symbols and characters that can be linked to the terrorist group IS, as well as other terrorist groups.”

Infowars, a conservative website in the U.S., and the British tabloid the Daily Mail both ran stories on Dec. 14, 2015, about Nettavisen’s report, and Trump the next day made reference to it at a Republican primary debate.

But Infowars in its report ignored the possible explanations for these images, and so did Trump. Nettavisen wrote that Erik Haugland, who is identified as “the head of the asylum responsibility,” said the images may not be as alarming as they seem.

Nettavisen: There may be several reasons why you have such images. One can be a witness and have a desire to show what you’ve seen, or you may have been tactically and have symbols associated with organizations that control areas passing through. What looks alarmingly out, may have other explanations than support to terrorist organizations, he says to the newspaper.

Nettavisen wrote an article after the GOP debate about Trump’s reference to its story. In that article, the Norwegian news site noted that Trump did not include the possible reasons for asylum-seekers carrying such images on their cell phones.

Screening Refugees

In his New Hampshire speech, and in a subsequent interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump also falsely claimed Clinton wanted to increase the number of Syrian refugees “without a screening plan,” and exaggerated when he claimed that the refugees have “no paperwork” and “no documentation.”

Trump, New Hampshire: Having learned nothing from these attacks, she now plans to massively increase admissions without a screening plan, including a 500 percent increase in Syrian refugees coming into our country.

Trump, “The O’Reilly Factor”: Because she doesn’t know who is coming in. There is no paperwork. There is no documentation.

In fact, Clinton has stressed the need for screening refugees. At a Democratic debate in November, Clinton explained that the U.S. should increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted “only” if there is a “careful” screening process.

Clinton, Nov. 14, 2015: I also said that we should take increased numbers of refugees. The administration originally said 10[thousand]. I said we should go to 65[thousand], but only if we have as careful a screening and vetting process as we can imagine, whatever resources it takes because I do not want us to, in any way, inadvertently allow people who wish us harm to come into our country.

The current process for admitting a refugee to the U.S. is very lengthy.

First, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or sometimes a U.S. embassy, refers a qualified refugee for resettlement in the U.S. After that, there’s an initial multistep security clearance, including the collection of the refugee’s personal data and background information. That is followed by an in-person interview abroad with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has to approve the application. The security clearance involves checking the refugee’s name and fingerprints against several government databases. That’s followed by a medical screening and a pairing with one of the voluntary agencies in the U.S. that sponsors refugees. And, finally, there’s another security clearance, to check for any new information, to complete the process.

According to the State Department, on average, the process, from the UNHCR referral to finally being admitted into the U.S., takes 18 to 24 months.

And while it may be the case that some Syrian refugees lack the documentation necessary to identify them, that is not the case for everyone.

When Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions raised a similar concern last year at a Senate subcommittee hearing on refugee resettlement, Barbara Strack, chief of the refugee affairs division of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that Syrian refugees tend to have “many, many documents.”

Sessions, Oct. 1, 2015: And what if they don’t have any documents? A lot of people don’t have any documents. What do you refer to then?

Strack: In general, again, as I mentioned, we’ve found with Syrian refugees … in general they have many, many documents. We involve the law enforcement community, intelligence community. We invite them in to train our refugee officers and to talk to them about country conditions information.

So if someone doesn’t have documents, for example, they might tell us, “My documents were destroyed when a barrel bomb fell on my house.” We’ll ask when and where that happened, and then we can check with intelligence community, or often even open-source information, to find out if that’s realistic. Was that happening at that place at that time?

So we have a multifaceted approach to this.

That point was also emphasized by a “senior administration official” during a background briefing on the refugee screening process by the State Department in November.

Senior Administration Official Two, Nov. 17, 2015: I mean, there’s been also, I know, quite a bit of talk about whether refugees have or don’t have documents. We really — our experience worldwide covers the gamut. There are refugee populations who have very minimal documents. Maybe people have been living in refugee camps for generations, or people who fled in a way that they — they — their documents were destroyed or they were stolen or taken from them as they travel.

I would say in contrast to that, Iraqis and Syrians tend to be a very, very heavily documented population. And members of families tend to have passports and family registries and military books, and they have a lot of information in most instances. And people who are interviewing them from their first time they register with UNHCR, going through the administrative form-filling process and then coming for their refugee interview, are pretty familiar with the kinds of documents that various populations have, and are pretty sophisticated about what they should see, and if something’s missing, why is it missing. That would be a line of questioning.

Other officials have voiced concerns about the vetting of Syrian refugees.

Michael Steinbach, who last year was the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, said that unreliable information from Syria could make the screening process difficult.

“You have to have information to vet, so the concern in Syria is that we don’t have systems in places on the ground to collect the information to vet,” Steinbach said at a February 2015 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Databases don’t hold the information on those individuals, and that’s the concern.”

And FBI Director James Comey, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 22, 2015, said that “we have improved dramatically our ability as an interagency — all parts of the U.S. government — to query and check people.” But even he said that “our ability to touch data with respect to people who may come from Syria, may be limited.”

That said, it’s false for Trump to declare that there is “no paperwork” and “no documentation” for refugees coming from Syria. Syrian refugees often have a lot of documentation, as government officials have stated.

Syrian Refugees in the U.S.

In his speech, Trump also referred to “the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States.” Of course, Trump wants to stop all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., and he is entitled to that opinion. But let’s look at the facts.

As we stated earlier, there are about 5 million Syrian refugees, and the Obama administration has agreed to accept up to 10,000 in fiscal year 2016, which ends on Sept. 30. As we already noted, the process to screen and resettle refugees takes up to two years. As of June 13, the United States under Obama has accepted a total of 5,954 Syrian refugees in eight years — most of them in 2015 and 2016, as the administration responded to the international crisis. That’s a fraction of the millions of Syrian refugees worldwide.

It is also a small percentage — 1.2 percent — of the 503,205 refugees who have been placed in the U.S. in the past eight years.

It is also worth noting that the vast majority of the Syrian refugees are women and children, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. Of the 5,954 Syrian refugees that have come to the United States, 2,838 were females of all ages and 1,406 were boys under the age of 14. That means that 71 percent were women and children under 14.

Clarification, June 15: We revised a sentence to make clear that the refugee crisis in Syria was the result of an ongoing civil war, as we accurately stated elsewhere in this story.  

— by Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley and D’Angelo Gore


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