The story of Donald Trump's call for a database, or some sort of national registry, of Muslims in the United States consumed much of the political conversation Thursday and Friday. "Trump says he would 'absolutely' implement Muslim database" was the headline of an AP story Friday. In short order, critics were bringing up Nazi Germany to condemn Trump's purported proposal.
What was happening? Just to be clear right from the start, a national Muslim database seems blatantly unconstitutional, although there are terror watch lists and the FBI and other agencies certainly have some terror suspects who are Muslim, and some mosques that are suspected of ties to terrorism, under surveillance. Trump made a careless, egregious mistake by not paying attention and batting down the idea when it was first suggested to him by the press.
But exactly how did it get started? The ball began rolling on Thursday, when Yahoo Politics reporter Hunter Walker published a story based on an interview of Trump. Walker reported that "Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn't rule it out."
Really? I asked Walker and Yahoo to provide a transcript or audio of the interview, and late Friday afternoon they posted a three-minute-19-second excerpt. Probably the best way to describe Trump's reaction when Walker raised the database question is to say Trump didn't address it at all. Trump certainly did not say, or even suggest, that he wouldn't rule out a Muslim database. Here is a transcript of the excerpt Yahoo posted:
WALKER: On Paris, I know you've said we might need some sort of national version of the surveillance program that we saw the NYPD do here on Muslims. And I'm a Brooklyn guy, I know you know Ray Kelly. Is he someone you might consider for a role in the Trump administration?
TRUMP: Sure. Ray's a great guy. Ray did a fabulous job as commissioner. We have a very good commissioner now in Bratton. But Ray did a fabulous job as commissioner. And sure, Ray would be somebody I would certainly consider.
WALKER: As you know, it looks like legally states can't do much to stop Obama from accepting these Syrian refugees. So that means that if you're president, they'll probably be here —
TRUMP: No, they're going to be gone. They will go back. And I've said it before the fact, and everybody hears what I say, including them, believe it or not, but if they're here, they have to go back. Because we cannot take a chance. You look at the migration — it's young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated. And if you know some of the people — I don't know if you heard this, they're already missing. Some of the people that have come here. Did you know that?
TRUMP: They're already gone.
TRUMP: At least two.
WALKER: France declared this state of emergency where they closed the borders and they established some degree of warrantless searches. I know how you feel about the borders, but do you think there is some kind of state of emergency here, and do we need warrantless searches of Muslims?
TRUMP: Well, we're going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy.
TRUMP: So we're going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago. When you look at what's happening — I mean now they say they're going to attack Washington, which is probably not going to happen, because unlike our presiden t— he tells people exactly what we're going to do — they're going to probably say the opposite, but it's a camouflage. But we have to err on the side of security for our people and our nation.
WALKER: And in terms of doing this, to pull off the kind of tracking we need, do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?
TRUMP: Well, we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We're going to have to look at the mosques. We're going to have to look very, very carefully. We have a president that refuses to say radical Islamic terrorism. He refuses to say it, which is the biggest shock in the world, because how can you not say it, if you don't say it, you're not going to get to the problem.
TRUMP: And then you had Hillary Clinton refuse to say it also, because she's taking her orders from the president. So we have a real problem. It's a problem having to do with radical Islamic terrorism —
TRUMP: And it has to be solved. And unless Obama is going to finally 'fess up and admit that, he's never going to solve the problem. And he's not going to solve it anyway, Hunter, because I watched his press conference yesterday. It was sad. It was pathetic. He wasn't angry at the people who did the killing — he was more angry at the reporter.
That was it. With the scoop in hand, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow jumped into action, sending an inquiry to the Trump campaign: "Would Mr. Trump rule out a database of American Muslims, or would he consider that? And would he rule out having them carry a form of ID that notes their religion, or would he consider that?"
Maddow did not hear back from Trump, but after an event in Iowa, an MSNBC reporter asked a clearly distracted Trump on a ropeline, "Should there be a database system that tracks Muslims here in this country?" Trump again beat around the bush, but later in the interview ended up agreeing. In another brief encounter around the same time, with CNN, Trump noted that he had never said anything about a database in the Yahoo interview and declined to engage on the issue.
Trump's offhand decision to tell MSNBC he would implement a database was an enormously stupid thing to do. And by Friday afternoon, Trump tweeted, "I didn't suggest a database -- a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America."
But the damage had been done. In the end, the responsibility is always the candidate's to be on guard for attempts, by journalists or rival campaign operatives, to entice him into saying damaging things. Sometimes those are attempts to create a story out of nothing. The Muslim database affair seems a particularly audacious example of that.