- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2015

After years of personal animosity between President Obama and Donald Trump, the White House resorted to dishing out schoolyard taunts at the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, mocking his “fake hair” and “outrageous” physical appearance during a clash over Muslims and terrorism.

While trying to shame Mr. Trump’s rivals into rejecting his proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S., presidential spokesman Josh Earnest couldn’t help but parrot some of his boss’ well-known scorn for the real estate mogul in a tone that was deeply personal.

“The Trump campaign, for months now, has had a dustbin-of-history-like quality to it, from the vacuous sloganeering to the outright lies to even the fake hair, the whole carnival barker routine,” Mr. Earnest said in remarks that were written in advance, indicating prior approval from the highest levels of the West Wing.

When a reporter questioned whether the White House was engaging in the same kind of mockery of physical appearances that Mr. Trump has been accused of using, the president’s spokesman doubled down on the insult.

“I was describing why it would be easy for people to dismiss the Trump campaign as not particularly serious — because he’s got a rather outrageous appearance,” Mr. Earnest said. “That’s a hallmark of his campaign and his identity.”

Mr. Trump’s elaborate comb-over has often been the target of mockery, and Mr. Obama is said to be sensitive about people poking fun at his ears.

It was the latest example of Mr. Trump and the president getting under each other’s skin, and the “neener-neener” quality of the debate threatened to obscure the White House’s message about the importance of rejecting Mr. Trump’s call for imposing a religious test for entry into the country.

Mr. Trump has rankled Mr. Obama since the start of his presidency, taking the lead of the “birther” movement that claimed Mr. Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore wasn’t eligible to be president. On Tuesday, the White House argued that Mr. Trump had disqualified himself from the presidency because of his stand against Muslim immigrants.

“What he said is disqualifying, and any Republican who’s too fearful of the Republican base to admit it has no business serving as president either,” Mr. Earnest said, calling on other presidential candidates to repudiate Mr. Trump. Most of Mr. Trump’s rivals, but not all, have done so.

Their clash of egos even surfaced at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2011, when Mr. Obama delighted in poking fun at Mr. Trump, who was seated in the audience.

“No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

When Mr. Trump surged to the front of the Republican field this summer, in part by vowing to crack down on immigration from Mexico, the White House criticized him for engaging in a “cynical” ploy for votes.

But the hostile rhetoric between Mr. Trump and the White House has risen to new levels since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris and last week’s massacre in San Bernardino, California, that investigators believe was inspired by the Islamic State group. Mr. Trump angered the White House by railing against the president’s plan to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, saying it “could be one of the great Trojan horses” that would allow Islamist terrorists to slip into the country.

In a rare Oval Office address to the nation Sunday night, Mr. Obama devoted a large portion of his speech to urging Americans not to engage in bigotry and discrimination against Muslims.

Less than 24 hours later, Mr. Trump came out with his plan to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S. temporarily until the government can “figure out what is going on.”

White House officials say Mr. Trump’s proposal is unconstitutional and dangerous. They worry that it will alienate Muslim Americans instead of encouraging them to cooperate with law enforcement and promote an anti-extremist outlook.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said administration officials have an obligation to challenge Mr. Trump’s rhetoric publicly.

“When a leading candidate for office proposes something that is irresponsible, probably illegal, unconstitutional and contrary to international law, un-American, and will actually hurt our efforts at homeland security and national security, we have to speak out,” Mr. Johnson said on MSNBC. “We’re in an age right now that involves terrorists-inspired as well as terrorists-directed attack. The Islamic State has targeted the Muslim community. So it is all the more important that we reach out and build bridges to American Muslims and American Muslim communities … not driving them away, not vilifying them, not driving them into the shadows is absolutely critical to our national security efforts.”

Mr. Earnest said Mr. Trump’s proposal is “contrary to our values.”

Told that Mr. Trump received a standing ovation from his audience in South Carolina when he made the proposal, Mr. Earnest said nevertheless that “the vast majority of Americans believe in defending the values that are enshrined in our Constitution.”

“We’re talking about values that are fundamental to the creation of this country,” he said of religious freedom. “Mr. Trump has been rather cynical in appealing to people’s fears and anxieties. It’s not good for the country, and it’s not good for our homeland security.”

A Democrat who is close to the White House conceded that, since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, Democratic lawmakers were “looking for a more robust response from the administration” on its strategy for confronting the Islamic State. The operative said Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is “potentially very problematic” for the administration’s national security efforts.

Mr. Trump seemed unconcerned about the broadsides from the White House. In a Twitter post Tuesday afternoon, he was focused instead on the prospect of establishment Republicans trying to force him out of the primary.

“A new poll indicates that 68% of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP & ran as an independent,” he said.

Mr. Trump also retweeted this Twitter posting from Rupert Murdoch, executive co-chairman of News Corp.: “Has Trump gone too far? Regardless, public is obsessed on radical Muslim dangers, Complete refugee pause to fix vetting makes sense.”

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