In Context: Donald Trump's turban talk

Two protesters are escorted from an event for Donald Trump at Muscatine High School in Muscatine, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2016. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)
Two protesters are escorted from an event for Donald Trump at Muscatine High School in Muscatine, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2016. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)

When Donald Trump appeared to call out a turban-wearing protester at one of his campaign rallies, some observers seized upon the moment as further evidence of Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiments.

"He wasn’t wearing one of those hats, was he?" Trump said as the man was ejected from a Jan. 24 rally in Muscatine, Iowa.

Many media outlets, including Reuters, New York Daily News, and Complex, took this as Trump making a xenophobic joke. But others, like Mediaite, say this take is an inaccurate smear.

So what really happened in Iowa: Did Trump taunt or mock the protester’s turban?

The Trump campaign didn’t get back to us. We watched the entire Trump rally and consulted an expert.

It’s more likely Trump confused the allegedly Sikh protester’s red turban with his own campaign swag. Trump made at least one reference to the (in)famous "Make America Great Again" hats before the comments about the protester.

He kicked off the rally tipping his cap to supporters donning the gear: "Look at all these beautiful hats, ‘Make America Great Again.’ We’re gonna follow what it says. We’re gonna make America great again. We’re gonna do such a great job."

A few minutes later, Trump gave a shout-out to a supporter who may have been wearing the hat, "Look at that person! ‘Make America Great Again.’ You better believe it man, thank you."

He then commented on the other presidential candidates before segueing into a discussion about terrorism. As he brought up the planes flying "into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon and wherever the third plane was going," he noticed two protesters holding up a banner emblazoned with the words "Stop Hate" as the crowd chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A."

"Bye, bye, bye, goodbye," Trump called out while security ejected the protestors and said of the turban-wearing man, "He wasn’t wearing one of those hats, was he? Was he wearing one of those? And he never will. And he never will. And that’s okay."

Mediaite pointed to the fuller version of Trump’s comments to say he was not talking about a turban. Some, however, have expressed skepticism that Trump could mistake the headwear.

"The rally was held at the gym of the Muscatine High School, which, judging from online photos, does not look particularly large," reads a Jan. 24 Gawker post. "Is it really conceivable that Trump could not distinguish between a turban and a baseball cap in such a relatively small room?"

We asked an expert for her take. Given his previous mentions of the Make America Great Again headgear, the billionaire was likely referring to his own caps when he vaguely said "those hats," said Kathleen Kendall, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in political communications.

"Without the context of his prior comments, you could misinterpret his hat reference," she said.