WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday defended his use of the word "animals" to describe some immigrants who enter the country illegally, saying he would continue to use the term to refer to violent gang members in spite of a sharp rebuke from Democratic leaders.
Answering a reporter's question during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump said his comment a day earlier had clearly been directed at members of the MS-13 gang.
"MS-13, these are animals coming onto our country," Trump said, repeating his language from Wednesday. He added: "When the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals. And guess what? I always will."
Trump has been under fire for comments he made Wednesday while railing against California for its so-called sanctuary immigration policies. Trump was speaking at a roundtable with local California officials when he responded to a comment that had referenced MS-13.
"We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we're stopping a lot of them," Trump said after Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims complained about state restrictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. "You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals."
Trump has repeatedly referred to members of the violent street gang as "animals" in speeches, rallies and at White House events. He has also used the term to describe terrorists and school shooters.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded on Twitter to the president, saying, "When all of our great-great-grandparents came to America they weren't 'animals,' and these people aren't either."
And House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi said, "Every day that you think you've seen it all, along comes another manifestation of why their policies are so inhumane."
Mexico's foreign ministry sent a formal diplomatic letter to the U.S. State Department complaining that Trump's comments were "absolutely unacceptable." The foreign ministry released a statement saying such comments create a difficult climate for Mexicans living in the United States.
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president's comments, arguing the word "animals" didn't go far enough.
"This is one of the most vicious and deadly gangs that operates by the motto of, 'Rape, control and kill,'" she said, adding that, "If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they're more than welcome to. Frankly, I don't think the term that the president used was strong enough."
Trump was joined at the Wednesday White House meeting by mayors, sheriffs and other local leaders from California who oppose the state's immigration policies and who applauded his administration's hard-line efforts.
"This is your Republican resistance right here against what they're doing in California," said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, coopting a term used by Democrats opposed to Trump's presidency. She, like others, said the president and his policies were far more popular in the state than people realize.
They were criticizing legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last year that bars police from asking people about their immigration status or helping federal agents with immigration enforcement. Jail officials can transfer inmates to federal immigration authorities if they have been convicted of one of about 800 crimes, mostly felonies, but not for minor offenses.
Brown insists the legislation, which took effect Jan. 1, doesn't prevent federal immigration officials from doing their jobs. But the Trump administration has sued to reverse it, calling the policies unconstitutional and dangerous. Some counties, including San Diego and Orange, have voted to support the lawsuit or have passed their own anti-sanctuary resolutions.
Republicans see backlash to the law as a potentially galvanizing issue during the midterm elections, especially with Trump's anti-immigrant base. And Trump has held numerous events in recent months during which he's drawn attention to California's policies.
During the session, Trump thanked the officials, saying they had "bravely resisted California's deadly and unconstitutional sanctuary state laws." He claimed those laws are forcing "the release of illegal immigrant criminals, drug dealers, gang members and violent predators into your communities" and providing "safe harbor to some of the most vicious and violent offenders on earth."
Brown responded on Twitter, writing that Trump "is lying on immigration, lying about crime and lying about the laws of CA."
The Democratic governor added: "Flying in a dozen Republican politicians to flatter him and praise his reckless policies changes nothing. We, the citizens of the fifth largest economy in the world, are not impressed."
Associated Press writers Alan Fram in Washington, Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.