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Trump Adviser Defends President's Approach To 'Radical Islamic Terrorism'


President Donald Trump gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress last night using the moment to strike a more positive tone.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A new national pride is sweeping across our nation and a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit. Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow was watching the speech. He covered the 2016 Trump campaign. Now he covers Congress. He's in the studio now. Good morning, Scott.


MARTIN: There was a lot of hype before this speech because this is a president, as we know, who does not always adhere to traditional norms. So there were questions about how he was going to handle this most presidential of moments. How did he do stylistically?

DETROW: This was a night where President Trump stuck to the script, both the literal script of his speech and also the bigger picture expectations for what a presidential address looks and feels like. A lot of the policy was exactly the same - a hard line on immigration, a nationalist stance but a much more measured tone and a lot of the traditional stagecraft that you see from a joint address to Congress.

MARTIN: He talked about a whole range of issues - defended his travel ban, talked about national security, also nodded to the big infrastructure spending investment he wants to make. Let's listen to a little clip of that.


TRUMP: To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States financed through both public and private capital creating millions of new jobs.

MARTIN: Scott, is Congress going to get behind that?

DETROW: Well, it's interesting because this is the one example - for all that Democrats oppose President Trump on, infrastructure spending is the one thing where they say, yeah, we can work together on that. That's consistent with what Trump campaigned on. But the thing is he's really going against a lot of his party here. Typically, Republicans have opposed big spending stimulus bills like this. That's what they did in President Obama's term.


OK, let's broaden the discussion, bring in another voice here. Sebastian Gorka is on the line. He's deputy assistant to the president. He focuses on national security issues. Mr. Gorka, welcome back to the program.

SEBASTIAN GORKA: Great to be back. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: We just heard about the change in style. Did the president realize that his previous approach was just not making a sale for a lot of Americans?

GORKA: No, not at all. Any good orator, any statesman understands that every audience has to have its specific tone and every audience is a different one. So when you're in an aircraft hangar in Florida or making a stump speech or in front of a joint session of Congress, these require different deliveries and different tones. So he hit it out of the park with what was quintessentially presidential last night.

INSKEEP: Now, there were three words that did not change. And I even sensed he was emphasizing them. He said the phrase radical Islamic terrorism. That's a phrase he used a lot in the campaign. He was criticized a lot for seeming to criticize all Muslims with that phrase. H.R. McMaster, the new national security advisor, we're aware told his staff that that's a counterproductive phrase. Why does the president continue to use it?

GORKA: Well, he didn't actually say that, Steve. And you really shouldn't believe everything you read in The New York Times. So other people who were there at the meeting said that's not what he said. He was talking specifically about a given threat group. And as a result, sticking to our guns on this issue is incredibly important. We're not wavering on this one. The threat has been obfuscated for eight years under Obama. You couldn't even use the word jihad when the enemy called themselves jihadis.

So that's absurdity like something out of a bad "SNL" skit. That was jettisoned January the 20. And the president is very clear. Those are the most - the clearest three words of his speech, the enemy is radical Islamic terrorism. And that has not changed, and it will not change.

INSKEEP: I just want to give you a quote from H.R. McMaster, according to our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's been covering this. He quotes McMaster as telling his staff, quote, "I don't think we should call them radical Islamic extremists. They're not Islamic. They are criminals. They're perverting Islam." What's wrong with that?

GORKA: He didn't actually say that. He was talking specifically about ISIS at the time. We're talking about the broader threats. And of course they're criminals. Anybody who thinks they're not criminals when they're running slave markets and decapitating people for having the wrong passport, of course they're criminals. Our point is a broader one. It's not just about specific threat groups doing specific crimes. It's about a global movement that I like to call global jihadism, in which the president is clear on.

It is radical Islamic terrorism, and that's never changed and it will not change.

INSKEEP: On Feb. 3 when you were on the program, we asked if you felt the president believes Islam is a religion. The reason we had to ask that is because the previous national security advisor Michael Flynn made some statements suggesting he didn't believe it was a religion. You weren't aware then what the president's view was. Have you learned since? Does the president believe Islam is a religion?

GORKA: It would be nice if you actually reported things accurately. I didn't say I would refuse to do anything of the sort. This is not a theological seminary. This is the White House. And we're not going to get into theological debates. If the president has a certain attitude to a certain religion, that's something you can ask him. But we're talking about national security and the totalitarian ideologies that drive the groups that threaten America.

INSKEEP: Well, the bottom-line question, of course, is is Islam itself the enemy here?

GORKA: Well, of course it isn't. That would be asinine. As I've written in my book, this isn't a war with Islam, this is a war in Islam. As the king of Jordan, King Abdullah, as the president of the most populous Arab nation in the world, President Sisi, has stated, this is a war for the heart of Islam. Which version is going to win, an atavistic, 7th century, blood curdled version such as propagated by al-Qaida and ISIS or whether it's going to be the one that is our allies' version, the Jordanian, Egyptian the Emirates?

It's not a war with Islam. That would be absurd. It is a war inside Islam. And we want to see our friends win that war.

INSKEEP: Let's clarify another thing here if we can, Mr. Gorka. The president made a really strong statement at the top of his speech about attacks on synagogues. And let's listen to some of that.


TRUMP: Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.


INSKEEP: Extended applause there. One of the big bipartisan applause lines. But there'd been an incident earlier in the day. The Pennsylvania attorney general met with the president, among others, yesterday and heard the president say something different about these synagogue attacks, that sometimes such attacks could be made to make others look bad, as if they were false flag operations is what they're called.

Are the threats on synagogues around the country a false flag operation?

GORKA: Of course not, otherwise they wouldn't have been the opening comments of the president's speech. But if you deny the fact that we have found individuals red-handed across college campuses and elsewhere manufacturing fake graffiti attacks or threats of attacks have been found out to be simply doing so because they don't like President Trump and his administration. Both things can exist at the same time, Steve. And that's the reality.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another thing because the president looked ahead to a new immigration order. Of course, the immigration order of some weeks ago, which stopped visitors from seven majority-Muslim nations and also stopped refugees, that's been hung up in court. He talked of a new immigration order. In talking about it, though, he cited attacks in Boston and San Bernardino, which you know were not actually linked to the seven countries he's targeting.

And that raises a larger question for me. As the battle continues over this travel order, which a lot of terrorism experts have not said is their top priority anyway, what else specifically is the president doing to focus on actual sources of the threat here?

GORKA: The EO and the one that we're going to issue imminently is exactly what we're doing. It needs to be understood that good counterterrorism is not reactive. You don't wait until the terrorists from those seven nations have killed hundreds of people to do something about it. Good counterterrorism is preventative. And as we decide upon exactly how we're going to destroy ISIS, obliterate it, as the president said, we know there will be jihadis coming from those seven nations trying to do us harm.

We're not going to wait until 82 people are mown down by a truck here in America as they were in...

INSKEEP: But let me - in the minute we have...

GORKA: That's why we're...

INSKEEP: In the minute we have, I just want to be clear on something. Terrorism specialists have focused more on people who are radicalized who are already in the United States, who may have a personal problem or they pick up an ideology, they're radicalized. That's a problem we've actually seen in recent years. In about 30 seconds, what specifically is the administration doing to focus on that?

GORKA: We're not going to listen to so-called terrorism experts who were linked in any way to the last eight years of disastrous counterterrorism. We're going to take a new approach. We have a new president.

INSKEEP: Self-Radicalization is not a problem? Are you saying it's not a problem?

GORKA: No, I'm not. I wish you wouldn't try and put words into my mouth. I'm trying to explain that we have a different approach because the last eight years of denying what the threat is, saying we need jobs for jihadis, it's about root causes and upstream factors is wholly fallacious. If it were poverty and lack of education...

INSKEEP: Dr. Gorka...

GORKA: ...Was the cause of terrorism, then half of India would be terrorists. And they're not.

INSKEEP: I've got to stop you there. But I enjoyed you taking the time. Thank you very much, really appreciate it. That's presidential advisor Sebastian Gorka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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