Wrapping up a two-day trip to India, President Trump declined Tuesday to condemn India’s new citizenship law, which discriminates against Muslims, and downplayed the threat from the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly around the globe, claiming it’s “very well under control in our country.”
At a news conference in New Delhi, the normally opinionated president appeared visibly uncomfortable and tentative at times as he tried to deflect thorny questions about India’s religious violence and the guilty verdict in New York for former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein on rape charges.
When asked about the verdict and whether justice was served, Trump, who has faced numerous sexual misconduct allegations, instead discussed Weinstein in personal and political terms, claiming that Michelle Obama “loved him” and that Weinstein wanted Hillary Clinton to win in 2016.
“I was never a fan of Harvey Weinstein,” Trump said. “He said he was going to work hard to defeat me in the election. How did that work out?”
Asked specifically by a reporter to deliver a message to “women in America who are still afraid to come forward and share their stories of sexual harassment and assault,” Trump, an avid watcher of television news, claimed he had not paid close attention to the trial while he was in India. Weinstein was convicted of rape and a felony sex crime Monday in New York.
“I don’t know the actual results,” Trump said. “From the standpoint of women, I think it was a great thing and it sends a very strong message.”
Trump was also asked numerous times about the growing threat from the coronavirus, which has panicked the world and roiled financial markets.
Trump tried to downplay the threat, claiming it’s “very well under control in our country” and that people infected in the United States “are getting better. They’re all getting better.” The reach of the deadly virus has increased quickly and there is no known cure or vaccine.
Saying he didn’t want to say anything to overshadow his “fantastic” trip to India, Trump declined to criticize Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law, which excludes Muslims and has helped fuel a new wave of communal violence.
Ten people have been reported killed in Muslim-majority neighborhoods north of the capital since Sunday. The clashes began between protesters in favor of the law and those against it, but the violence quickly took on religious overtones, with Hindu and Muslim mobs fighting each other.
The law passed by India’s parliament last year prioritizes citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians while excluding Muslims.
Trump, asked several times about Modi’s support for the new law, praised the Indian leader.
“He wants people to have religious freedom,” Trump insisted. “They have really worked hard on religious freedom.”
Trump appeared to back Modi’s concern that the majority-Hindu country is being overrun by Muslims.
“He told me, I guess they have 200 plus, 200 million Muslims in India, and a fairly short while ago, they had 14 million,” Trump said.
India had about 35 million Muslims in 1951, according to the first census after independence, or about 9.8% of the population. The 201 million Muslims today are 14.2% of the population.
Later, Trump was asked again about the citizenship law. “I don’t want to discuss that, and hopefully they’re going to make the right decision for the people,” he said.
The question was awkward for Trump, who has drawn criticism for his own anti-immigrant policies, including his travel ban. The White House pitched a ban on all Muslims entering the country, but federal courts blocked that, so it was later trimmed to visa restrictions on 13 specific countries — including six added this month. Most, but not all, are Muslim majority.
Trump defended the restrictions again Tuesday while insisting they are not intended to single out Muslims.
Trump’s failure to criticize Modi is consistent with his treatment of other foreign leaders accused of human rights abuses. Unlike previous presidents, who raised concerns about human rights and press freedoms while abroad, Trump has tended to stay silent and instead focus on trade and other economic issues, often praising strongmen leaders for being “tough” and powerful.
The 45-minute news conference, at the ITC Maruya Hotel, followed a day of meetings and statements intended to show the close relationship between Washington and New Delhi. Trump then attended a state banquet before boarding Air Force One for his flight home.
Though the sides failed to reach a comprehensive trade deal, Trump claimed victory on smaller agreements to increase trade and expand cooperation in other areas, including efforts to control opioid abuse.
For Trump, a massive public rally Monday at a new cricket statium in Ahmedabad — complete with elaborate dancing, Bollywood stars and deafening applause — clearly was the highlight of his visit, however. He repeatedly talked about how much he has loved the trip.
“When I look at 125,000 seats and that was an incredible scene,” he said. “It was an incredible thing. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”
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