Describing gang violence inflicted by MS-13 members in chilling and gruesome detail, President Donald Trump vowed Wednesday to make "radical" changes to U.S. aid practices by withholding government assistance from countries whose criminals slip into the United States.
"We're going to work out something where every time somebody comes in from a certain country, we're going to deduct a rather large amount of money from what we give them in aid — if we give them aid at all," Trump said during a roundtable discussion on MS-13 on New York's Long Island attended by federal and local officials.
White House officials did not immediately respond to questions about which countries the president was referencing or how far along the plan was.
Trump defended his references to MS-13 gang members as "animals" as he and others recounted a litany of hackings, decapitations, bludgeonings and other gruesome crimes that law enforcement authorities blame on the group.
"I called them animals the other day and I was met with rebuke," Trump said, referencing Democratic criticism. He specifically mentioned House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as saying even gang members are people.
"They're not people," Trump said. "These are animals and we have to be very, very tough."
Pelosi had commented more broadly on Trump's rhetoric and policies directed at immigrants, including changes the administration wants that could lead to more children being separated from their parents as they cross the border illegally.
During a similar roundtable last week at the White House, Trump used the word "animals" to describe some people who enter the country illegally, in response to a comment about MS-13. He later said he will continue to use the term when referring to the gang.
Trump's comments, reported by some news organizations without context, sparked a furious blowback that the White House quickly seized on and used to suggest Democrats were defending members of a gang known for brutal violence.
But Democrats argue that the Trump administration is using MS-13 to demonize all immigrants, noting immigrants themselves are the biggest victims of MS-13.
The president frequently cites MS-13 when he discusses the dangers posed by undocumented immigrants, tying the gang to his calls for tougher immigration policies and border security.
MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, grew out of poor Los Angeles neighborhoods where many refugees from civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua lived in the 1980s. Ramped up deportations in the late 1990s and 2000s moved many of them back to Central American countries, taking MS-13 with them. Still struggling to emerge from those wars, weak states in the region created ideal conditions for MS-13 to flourish.
In the U.S., MS-13 spread beyond Los Angeles, and has wreaked violence in cities and suburbs across the country, including Long Island.
The Trump administration estimates there are more than 10,000 MS-13 gang members across 40 U.S. states, a fraction of the total 1.4 million active gang members nationwide and a figure that, according to FBI estimates, has remained steady since 2006.
And while it is not known how many MS-13 members are citizens and immigrants, in notable raids by ICE's gang unit — including a national sweep in May 2017 — most of the people caught were found to be U.S. citizens.
Trump opened Wednesday's event by reading a list of crimes said to have been committed by MS-13 members, including the killing and hacking of a teenager in Nassau County and the stabbing of a man 100 times, followed by his decapitation and removal of his heart, in Maryland.
Families of MS-13 victims spoke through tears Wednesday, backing the president's harsh words.
"You said the other day that these individuals are animals," Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of a MS-13 victim, said. "You're correct. They are animals."
Trump in February threatened to cut off aid and slap sanctions on countries that refuse to accept nationals the U.S. tries to deport, saying, "If they don't take 'em back, we'll put sanctions on the countries, we'll put tariffs on the countries."
He has also threatened to cut off aid to the countries, which include China and Sierra Leone, as well as countries that produce illegal drugs, saying they're "not our friends."
Sitting at the table with Trump was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a frequent target of the president's fury because he is overseeing the special counsel's investigation into Russian election meddling. He and Trump appeared on good terms Wednesday, with no hints of any tension between them.
Trump later returned to the White House after stopping by a campaign dinner in Manhattan. But his trip back to midtown didn't come without a not-so-warm welcome as his motorcade pulled up to the Lotte New York Palace hotel.
A mariachi band also showed up to protest Trump's visit. Rudy Giuliani was also booed by the crowd.