In Context: Donald Trump's comments on a database of American Muslims

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands and signs autographs with his supporters after speaking at a campaign rally  Nov. 23, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands and signs autographs with his supporters after speaking at a campaign rally Nov. 23, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)

Does Donald Trump want a registry for all Muslims? Or just some Muslims? Or no database at all?

The Republican presidential candidate’s comments on the topic have drawn a lot of criticism, with some pundits and commentators comparing it with the registration of Jews in in Nazi Germany. But Trump has said he didn’t propose such an idea -- a reporter did, and Trump just didn’t understand the question.

His comments and the media coverage of them have left us confused, so we did a deep dive into what exactly Trump said about registering Muslim people in a database.  

After going through all of his comments from this past weekend, it seems that Trump definitely wants a database of Syrian refugees, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a database for all Muslims -- though he isn’t actively calling for the latter. And we’ll warn you now that many of Trump’s comments strike us as contradictory or confusing.

Thursday, Nov. 19

It all started on Thursday, Nov. 19, when a Yahoo News reporter asked Trump about his position on increased surveillance of American Muslims.

"France declared this state of emergency where they closed the borders and they established some degree of warrantless searches. I know how you feel about the borders, but do you think there is some kind of state of emergency here, and do we need warrantless searches of Muslims?" the reporter asked.

"We’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago," Trump said.

The Yahoo reporter then asked Trump, "Do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?"

Trump responded, "We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully."

Here, Trump didn’t reject the idea of a Muslim registry, but he also didn’t give an affirmative "yes" that he wanted to create such a database.

It escalated the next day.

Friday, Nov. 20

The next day, an MSNBC reporter asked Trump, "Should there be a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country?"

"There should be a lot of systems," Trump responded. "Beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems."

Trump then digressed to talk about a wall along the southern border, before the reporter interjected, "But that’s something your White House would like to implement."

"I would certainly implement that. Absolutely," Trump said.

Here, we’re not clear if Trump is talking about implementing a wall or implementing a database.

But a few seconds later, when asked how he would register people into a database, Trump said, "It would just be good management."

Finally, the reporter asked if Muslims would legally have to be part of the database.

"They have to be — they have to be," Trump said. "Let me just tell you: The key is people can come to the country, but they have to come legally."

While many headlines came out after this exchange saying Trump would "absolutely" require Muslims to register in a database, it’s not entirely clear that’s what he said. Trump was talking about building a wall along the border when the reporter asked if he would implement an unspecified policy -- "that" -- as president.

Through the end of the conversation, it’s possible Trump thought the exchange was about illegal immigration.

The same day, an NBC reporter also repeatedly asked Trump what the difference is between a registry for Muslims and the registry for Jews under Nazi Germany, to which Trump only replied, "You tell me."

Later that day, Trump wrote on Twitter, "I didn't suggest a database -- a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America."

While that is accurate, Trump also did not dismiss the idea of a database.

After Trump’s tweet, Fox News asked him about his position on a Muslim registry.

"Let's hear it directly from you," said host Kimberly Guilfoyle. "Would President Donald Trump support a full Muslim database?"

"Basically the suggestion was made and (it’s) certainly something we should start thinking about," Trump said, repeating that the reporter presented the idea. "But what I want is a watch list. I want surveillance programs. Obviously, there are a lot of problems. … But, certainly, I would want to have a database for the refugees, for the Syrian refugees that are coming in because nobody knows where they're coming from."

Guilfoyle followed up: "So to be clear, you are not saying anything with respect to a religious database. You are talking about the Syrian refugees in light of the national security development affecting this country as we speak here tonight."

Trump said he didn’t hear the MSNBC reporter’s question clearly, "but even if I did, I mean, I want databases for the Syrian refugees that Obama is going to let in if they come in."

Listening to this interview, we noticed that Trump still didn’t give a definitive "yes" or "no" answer on whether he would want an all-encompassing Muslim registry, though he said it’s "certainly something we should start thinking about." He also clearly said he wants a registry for Syrian refugees.

Saturday, Nov. 21

At a rally in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday night, Trump addressed the registry question in a somewhat rambling way but still did not deliver a straightforward answer.

"So the database -- I said yeah, that’s alright fine," he said. "But they also said the wall, and I said the wall, and I was referring to the wall, but database is okay, and watch list is okay, and surveillance is okay. If you don’t mind, I want to be -- I want to surveil. I want surveillance of these people that are coming in -- the Trojan Horse -- I want to know who the hell they are. And the biggest story yesterday -- the biggest -- was ‘Trump wants database on Muslims.’ I said what’s all happening here?"

He then explained that he couldn’t hear the MSNBC or NBC reporter’s questions well. "But I do want databases for those people coming in, but I also insist on a wall. And it was all fine, all of a sudden I end up with some story, and I’m saying, what are you talking about? So here’s the story -- just to say it clear -- I want surveillance of these people. I want surveillance if we have to, and I don’t care. Are you ready for this folks? Are you ready? They’re going to make it such a big deal … I want surveillance of certain mosques."

While much of that passage is incoherent, it seems Trump is trying to say that he was previously talking about illegal immigration and a wall -- not a registry for Muslims. And he seems taken aback by stories that said he wanted such a database. But he does say "database is okay," which might indicate that he is on board with the idea. Then he specifies that he wants a registry for Syrian refugees.

Sunday, Nov. 22 

On ABC News’ This Week, host George Stephanopoulos asked Trump, "You did stir up a controversy with those comments over the database. Let's try to clear that up. Are you unequivocally now ruling out a database on all Muslims?"

"No, not at all," Trump responded. "I want a database for the refugees that -- if they come into the country. We have no idea who these people are. When the Syrian refugees are going to start pouring into this country, we don't know if they're ISIS, we don't know if it's a Trojan horse. And I definitely want a database and other checks and balances. We want to go with watchlists. We want to go with databases. And we have no choice."

Trump’s exchange with Stephanopoulos seems to be the clearest explanation of his position. No, he would not rule out a database on all Muslims. But for now, he wants a database for refugees.