WASHINGTON - Republican frontrunner Donald Trump called Monday for a "total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the United States, unleashing some of the most provocative and divisive remarks of his controversial presidential campaign.
The stunning statement followed last week's mass shooting in California by a Muslim couple believed to have been radicalized by extremists, and landed with a thunderclap just as fellow presidential candidates were contemplating ways to improve national security.
His aides did not specify if the proposal would affect both tourists and immigrants, and did not say either if it would target American Muslims currently abroad.
In a rambling, 50-minute speech aboard the USS Yorktown later Monday, Trump read part of his statement aloud, hardening the tone and saying the halt on Muslims entering the country should remain in place "until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on." "We have no choice," Trump said, saying that Islamist radicals want to kill Americans.
"It's going to get worse and worse. We're going to have more World Trade Centres," he said, referring to the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.
Trump drew swift condemnation by presidential rivals and the White House, which denounced his call to bar Muslims as "totally contrary" to US values.
"We have, in our Bill of Rights, respect for the freedom of religion," said one of President Barack Obama's top foreign policy aides, Ben Rhodes.
Trump's campaign cited poll data allegedly showing "hatred toward Americans by large segments of the Muslim population." "Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine," the billionaire real estate mogul, who is leading in opinion polls among likely Republican voters, said in the statement.
"Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life." Trump has been increasingly virulent in his remarks targeting Muslim Americans since the deadly Paris attacks, and again in the wake of last week's shooting rampage in California, which left 14 dead and 21 wounded.
Last month, he caused a furor when he claimed he saw "thousands and thousands of people" cheering in parts of New Jersey with substantial Arab-American populations as the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11.
But his latest statement was particularly jarring, and it unleashed severe condemnation on Twitter, including from other Republicans running for president.
"Donald Trump is unhinged," former Florida governor Jeb Bush tweeted. "His 'policy' proposals are not serious." Rivals Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham were among those who rejected Trump's proposal.
Hillary Clinton, the main Democratic presidential hopeful, described Trump's comments as "reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive." "You don't get it," she tweeted to Trump. "This makes us less safe." Democratic contender Martin O'Malley slammed Trump as "a fascist demagogue." Trump has appeared immune to the denunciations.
He remains the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination less than two months before the first state-wide votes are cast in the primary race, even amid broad public outrage at many of his remarks.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organisation, said it was "extremely shocked" about Trump's comments.
"It is reckless and simply un-American," CAIR executive director Nihad Awad said.
"Donald Trump sounds more like a leader of a lynch mob than a great nation like ours." Trump's campaign said some of the poll figures it cited were from the Center for Security Policy, which CAIR noted has been branded a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In New Jersey, director Ahmed Shedeed of the Islamic Center of Jersey City warned that Trump's remarks were "giving the right to people to hurt us." "I'm asking him, I'm begging him. It has to stop, all these accusations," he said after prayers at a mosque in the city, as he urged Trump and others to see Muslims as "part of the American mosaic." Protesters interrupted his speech at least three times, with a visibly frustrated Trump criticising what he described as poor security at the event.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Trump was tapping into a darker side to "play on people's fears in order to build on support for his campaign." Instead of condemning the Muslim community, US officials should work with Muslim leaders to root out extremist voices and "insulate those who are vulnerable to being radicalized," Earnest told MSNBC.