How Would President Trump Respond to a Terror Attack?

Tough Talk, Muslim Surveillance and WWII-Style Internment Are Among Options

Terror groups have made no secret of their desire to strike the U.S. homeland, so Donald Trump may well be confronted with handling a terrorist attack during his presidency. His response could push American democracy to a breaking point.

Scenario One: Tough Talk. Trump behaves basically as President Barack Obama has, but with harsher rhetoric. Unlike Obama, Trump will explicitly brand the perpetrators Islamic terrorists — but practically speaking, expect no radical draconian overreach. Trump would talk about the need to remain vigilant and revisit his campaign theme of law and order. He may encourage citizens to arm themselves, as he did after the San Bernardino shooting:

“If there were guns on the other side pointed at the other direction so the bullets are flying both ways you, wouldn’t have had that happen,” Trump said, referring to the San Bernardino shooting during a February 2016 rally in North Charleston, S.C.

Heated rhetoric by a president in a time of terror is dangerous — it could even prove fatal in isolated cases and increase the likelihood of future terror attacks. It would encourage more violence against Muslims by angry, ignorant Americans who can’t be bothered to distinguish the overwhelming majority of Muslims who reject terrorism from those who perpetrate or condone it. Alienating the American Muslim community could also make this key ally less likely to share intelligence and cooperate with local law enforcement and FBI.

This scenario would be deeply alarming, and potentially tragic if it fed violence against the innocent. It could make us more vulnerable to future attacks. It would play into terrorists’ hands by compounding chaos and division when calm and unity was needed. But it would not threaten to destroy American democracy.

Scenario Two: Surveillance State. After the Paris Attacks last November, Trump promised to implement a database of Muslims in America. He later claimed his position was different than media characterizations. But this radical promise — like the many others would later try to alter after the fact—were already heard by white supremacist and xenophobic supporters before he tried to gaslight the American public. Many of those supporters voted for him because of those bold proposals and will expect Trump to deliver.

Following the Paris Attacks, Trump also said he wants “surveillance of certain mosques” and said he would “strongly consider” shutting down some Islamic houses of worship:

“Well, I would hate to do it but it’s something you’re going to have to strongly consider,” Trump said during an interview on MSNBC. “Some of the absolute hatred is coming from these areas…The hatred is incredible. It’s embedded. The hatred is beyond belief. The hatred is greater than anybody understands.”

With Breitbart Executive Chairman Stephen Bannon in his ear, the alt-right (read: white supremacist and xenophobic) approach to handling terrorism will almost certainly be among the options arrayed before President Trump. You may be wondering, but wouldn’t the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure block the Trump administration from implementing an unconstitutional surveillance state? To answer that question with a question: Did it restrain the Bush and Obama administrations from carrying out unconstitutional surveillance?

Under this scenario, expect an even harsher response by emboldened Islamophobes toward American Muslims. It should also be considered that alienating Muslims may be a feature, not a bug, of this approach, by making Muslims feel unwelcome in the United States, perhaps with the goal of keeping foreign Muslims away and hastening the departure of those here.

Scenario Three: Korematsu Part II. Following the San Bernardino attacks last December, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” As for what he’d do about Muslims already in the U.S.? A disturbing line of reasoning by one Trump associate may provide insight. A spokesman for the pro-Trump Great American PAC Carl Higbie recently pointed to the World War II Japanese internment Supreme Court case — Korematsu v. U.S. — as legal precedent for Trump implementing a Muslim registry.

But given this view of the nature of presidential power, what if the logic is extended a step further? If a Supreme Court case upholding the internment of Japanese during WWII provides constitutional cover for creating a Muslim database, might the Trump campaign also use the full authority granted by the Korematsu decision to intern Muslims?

During his campaign, Trump ruled out creating internment camps for Muslims — but this promise may not be as ironclad as it sounds. Trump told ABC News’ Jon Karl in March: “I would rule it out but we would have to be very vigilant.” Yet Trump has also said he’s not sure if he would have supported the United States’ WWII-era internment camps. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he told Time Magazine. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”

So if Trump believes the decision to intern an ethnic group should be made on a case-by-case basis, can Americans trust that he’s really ruled out interning Muslims if he decides the circumstances so dictate, say, in the wake of a heinous terror attack on U.S. soil? If Trump shares his associate’s belief that Korematsu grants the president vast powers to target ethnic groups in times of war, what’s to stop Trump from following through?

Trump’s path to the presidency was paved by bold promises: to explicitly link ISIS and other terror groups to Islam, to specifically expose Muslims to heightened surveillance and force them to join a government database, to block their entry into the United States indefinitely, and to root out Islamic terrorism else “it’s going to eat our country alive.” However, it may well be President Trump’s restraint — not strength — that determines the fate of American democracy.