WASHINGTON, D.C. — Facing harsh criticism for his proposal to temporarily halt Muslim immigration to the U.S., Donald Trump on Wednesday said he was acting in the Islamic community’s best interests.
“I’m doing good for the Muslims,” Trump told Don Lemon in an interview for “CNN Tonight.” “Many Muslim friends of mine are in agreement with me. They say, ‘Donald, you brought something up to the fore that is so brilliant and so fantastic.'”
Among those reaching out to thank him, the Republican front-runner said, was “one of the most important people in Middle East” — Trump didn’t reveal the name — who called on Wednesday to say, “Donald, you’re doing a great service.”
“I have many friends who are Muslims,” Trump told Lemon. “They’re phenomenal people. They are so happy at what I’m doing.”
The feeling, he said, is mutual.
“I love the Middle East,” Trump declared. “I love the people of the Middle East.”
Trump also said his plan had been misrepresented and explained that the immigration ban may not last long.
“It could go quickly, but it’s a subject that has to be discussed,” he said, adding that there would be exceptions for Muslim athletes and diplomats.
Trump pinned the fierce backlash that followed his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” on Republican establishment figures and his primary opponents.
“The group that is not criticizing me,” he said, “is the public. The public agrees with what I said. They saw those two animals last week go out and shoot people (in San Bernardino).”
On a possible independent run for the White House
Trump said he was not likely to wage a third-party candidacy, but the billionaire businessman would not rule it out.
“I think it’s highly unlikely unless they break the pledge to me, because it’s a two-way street,” Trump said. “They said they would be honorable. So far, they, I can’t tell you if they are, but the establishment is not exactly being very good to me.”
He added, “If they don’t treat me with a certain amount of decorum and respect. If they don’t treat me as the front-runner…If the playing field is not level, then certainly all options are open. But that’s nothing I want to do…I’ll know that over a period of a couple months. We’ll go through the primaries. We’ll see what happens, and I’ll make a determination.”
On being likened to Adolf Hitler
Trump said the comparisons, which have become increasingly direct, did not upset him.
“You know where things bother me?” he asked. “If things are true. If that were true, it would bother me tremendously. But of course if you were a racist you probably wouldn’t care. But if things are true, it would bother me. But if it’s so false, and honestly I don’t hear it often.”
On ‘stupid’ President Barack Obama
Trump was harshly critical of the President’s strategy for fighting ISIS.
“We have a president who is a stupid person,” Trump said, slamming Obama for making public his plans to send special forces to Kurdish-held territory in Syria near the Iraq border.
The White House announcement put a target “on their hearts,” he said. “If I win, I want to be unpredictable.”
On Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu
“I didn’t say that, no,” Trump said when asked if he would be meeting the Israeli leader. “I have respect for him. I actually did a commercial for him, for his campaign….I like him a lot. I’m going to Israel, I’m not saying who I’m meeting with.”
The comment marked a departure from last week in Virginia, when Trump told supporters at a rally, “I’m going to Israel, and I’ll be meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, who’s a great guy.” CNN also reported Wednesday that the two would be meeting later this month, according to an Israeli official.
Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office criticized Trump for his comments about Muslims.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu rejects Donald Trump’s recent remarks about Muslims,” the office said in a statement. “The State of Israel respects all religions and strictly guarantees the rights of all its citizens. At the same time, Israel is fighting against militant Islam that targets Muslims, Christians and Jews alike and threatens the entire world.”
On whether he is a racist
Asked by Lemon if he is bigoted or Islamophobic, Trump replied with a firm no.
“I am the least racist person that you have ever met,” he said.