U.S. President Donald Trump sharply rebuked British Prime Minister Theresa May on Twitter after Britain criticised him for retweeting anti-Islam videos originally posted by a leader of a British far-right fringe party.
His tweet, in which he told May to focus on terrorism instead of him, was an unprecedented public attack on the leader of the United States’ closest security ally.
“Theresa @theresamay, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine,” Trump tweeted.
The tweet was a reaction to a comment from May’s spokesman, who said on Wednesday in response to Trump’s retweets of the anti-Islam videos: “It is wrong for the president to have done this.”
Trump had sparked a storm of criticism on both sides of the Atlantic on Wednesday by sharing anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of anti-immigration fringe group Britain First, who was convicted this month of abusing a Muslim woman. Fransen has also called in a Facebook post for her “pro-EU, Islamist loving” political opponents to be lynched, according to The Huffington Post.
Islamist militants have carried out several major attacks in Britain this year that have killed a total of 36 people, including a bombing in Manchester and two attacks on bridges in London in which victims were rammed with vehicles and stabbed.
A spokesman for May’s Downing Street office in London declined to comment on Trump’s tweet on Thursday. May was on a trip to the Middle East.
Trump initially addressed his tweet to a Twitter handle that is not May’s, though he later retweeted to the British leader’s account.
Since Trump became president, May has gone out of her way to cultivate a good relationship with him, as Britain prepares to exit the European Union in 2019.
She was the first foreign leader to visit him after his inauguration, and they were filmed emerging from the White House holding hands. She also invited him to make a state visit to Britain, angering Trump’s many critics in Britain.
Trump’s tweet drew outraged reactions in Britain, including from Brendan Cox, the husband of lawmaker Jo Cox who was murdered in 2016 by a far-right extremist.
“The impact of this strategy is to legitimise those driven by hatred, Cox wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian. “It makes them think that their views are mainstream, when in fact they are not – and makes those already driven by hatred more likely to act on it.”
The videos shared by Trump purported to show a group of people who were Muslims beating a teenage boy to death and destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary. Reuters was unable to verify the videos. A third video purported to show what Trump called “a Muslim migrant” beating up a boy on crutches. The Dutch embassy in the Netherlands later replied via Twitter that the assailant was in fact Dutch-born and had been convicted and sentenced.
British lawmakers demanded that Trump make an apology for retweeting the videos, while U.S. Muslim groups said the president’s action was incendiary and reckless.
Tom Tugendhat, a lawmaker from May’s Conservative Party who was previously in the military, wrote: “I went to war alongside courageous @USArmy to fight extremism, not promote it. It’s not ok to ignore vile racism and worse to back it.”
Britain First’s Fransen welcomed Trump’s retweeting of the videos.
“I’m delighted,” Fransen, who has 53,000 Twitter followers, told Reuters. She said Trump’s retweets showed the president shared her aim of raising awareness of “issues such as Islam”.
The White House defended the retweets by the Republican president, who during the 2016 U.S. election campaign called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, saying that he was raising security issues.
It repeatedly refused to be drawn into the content of the videos or whether Trump was aware of the source of the tweets.
“It’s about ensuring that individuals who come into the United States don’t pose a public safety or terrorism threat,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters aboard Air Force One.