South Florida

Obama slams Trump criticism; reports emerge Orlando killer was club regular

President Barack Obama speaks at the Treasury Department in Washington, Tuesday, June 14, 2016, following a meeting with his National Security Council to get updates on the investigation into the attack in Orlando and review efforts to degrade and destroy the Islamic State.
President Barack Obama speaks at the Treasury Department in Washington, Tuesday, June 14, 2016, following a meeting with his National Security Council to get updates on the investigation into the attack in Orlando and review efforts to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. AP

As federal authorities weigh whether to charge the wife of Orlando mass killer Omar Mateen, a stern President Barack Obama dismissed Donald Trump’s charge that Democrats have failed to clamp down on “radical Islam.”

“There is no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam,’ ” Obama said. “It’s a political talking point. It’s not a strategy. And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism.”

Obama, in his most forceful words yet following the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, argued that fear mongering by Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, would only embolden support for terror groups such as the Islamic State. Trump’s rival candidate, Hillary Clinton, also hit similar talking points in a speech, labeling the millionaire businessman’s speech “bizarre rants.”

“It doesn’t reflect our Democratic ideals,” said Obama, who spoke at the U.S. Treasury Department after a security briefing. “It will make less safe, fueling [ISIS’s] notion that America hates Muslims.”

Earlier this week in a speech, Trump claimed Obama wasn’t letting law enforcement “do their job” and repeated his campaign call to temporarily banning Muslim immigrants. He also sent out a tweet the day of the massacre: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”

In addition to scolding Trump, Obama called for curbing the ability to buy heavy weaponry, such as the assault rifle Mateen bought days before the Orlando slaughter.

“Enough talking about being tough on terrorism,” he said. “Actually, be tough on terrorism and stop making it easy as possible for terrorists to buy assault weapons.”

Republican Party Committee Chairman Reince Priebus fired back on the administration’s record on fighting terrorism and faulting Clinton and Obama for pushing for gun control in the wake of the tragedy in Florida.

“Let’s not forget: President Obama’s hasty and politically driven withdrawal from Iraq, which Hillary Clinton supported, created the vacuum that enabled the rise of this terrorist group,” Priebus said in a statement.

Tuesday marked three days since Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard from Fort Pierce, entered the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people, wounding 53 and engaging in a three-hour standoff before he was felled by police bullets.

The emerging portrait of Mateen also grew more complex on Tuesday. Authorities said they are investigating reports that Mateen may have been a regular at Pulse, raising the possibility that Mateen himself might have been gay — which would further complicate his motive for the bloodshed.

The FBI and Obama have already said they believe Mateen was inspired by online Islamic radicalism, but that there is no evidence that he plotted with anyone abroad. But several bar patrons have told media outlets that Mateen, a married father, often drank at the popular club and was prone to outbursts. One patron told the Orlando Sentinel he had seen Mateen there at least a dozen times.

James Van Horn, 71, said that he met Mateen, who he called socially awkward one year ago at the club. Mateen approached him at the bar, and Van Horn said there was little doubt the man was there to pick up men.

“He talked to me about his divorce. He was really a nice guy, good looking. He was flirtatious,” Van Horn told the Miami Herald.

Van Horn said his friends warned him that Mateen had once pulled a knife on someone during an argument in the club. He said he was shocked when he saw Mateen’s photo on TV.

“He was purging his inner demons by killing all the gays,” Van Horn said.

Another man told the Los Angeles Times that Mateen, for about a year, had messaged him off and on on a gay chat app called Jack’d. Another former police academy classmate told the Palm Beach Post that he and Mateen hung out at gay clubs.

Mateen’s ex-wife, who has publicly called Mateen mentally ill and abusive, told CNN she did not know whether he was closeted but said he had admitted he enjoyed going to nightclubs and expressed strong views against homosexuality. Soon after the shooting, Mateen’s father, Seddique Mateen, said his son might have been angered by recently two gay men kiss at Miami’s Bayside Marketplace.

In other developments:

▪ Investigators are also now considering whether to charge Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, for failing to report the plans.

A law-enforcement source told the Miami Herald that Salman told agents that he had discussed with her the Pulse nightclub as a possible target — as well as Walt Disney World. She told the FBI soon after the shooting that the couple had discussed the plot during a recent trip to the theme park, and she claimed she tried to talk him out of it. There is a federal law that punishes someone who fails to report a crime they know will happen.

Salman made a brief appearance late Monday to the couple’s Fort Pierce condo to pick up belongings; video shot by TV news cameras showed her getting into a car, her face covered. Police said later said the home may have broken into because the door was found ajar.

▪ Surgeons and survivors gathered for a news conference Tuesday at the hospital just blocks from the nightclub. They recalled the “war scene” of scores of patients being brought in with gunshot wounds in the middle of the night.

In all, nine of 44 people died at the hospital, while 27 remain hospitalized at the Orlando Regional Medical Center.

The emotional punch Tuesday was delivered by Angel Colon, 26, who was struck by bullets just as he was getting ready to leave the club. As he lay wounded, the gunman returned, executing a woman besides Colon, then shooting him in the hand and side.

“I hear him coming back. He is shooting everyone that’s already dead on the floor, making sure they are dead,” Colon said tearfully. “I am thinking, I am next. I am dead.”

A police officer later dragged him out of the building, laying him in nearby parking lot.

“I looked over and there’s just bodies everywhere. We are all in pain.”

▪ Disney announced it was donating $1 million to the OneOrlando Fund, which was established by the city’s mayor to help people affected by the mass shooting. The company also said donations from Disney employees will be matched dollar for dollar.

The group Equality Florida, which started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for victims, also said the campaign had raised over $2 million, a record for the website.

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