Donald Trump said Saturday that he would order surveillance "of certain mosques" to combat terrorism after the Paris attacks and claimed to have watched as "thousands and thousands of people were cheering" while the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001.
In a rally at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, dismissed accounts of his apparent support for creating a registry of Muslims in the United States as an effort by the news media to entrap him. He then seemed to clarify that idea Saturday, saying he wanted a database of refugees entering the country from Syria, and adding, to cheers, "I want surveillance of certain mosques, OK?"
"We've had it before and we'll have it again," he added. Trump has recently spoken of the New York Police Department's use of informants in mosques after the Sept. 11 attacks.
It is unclear whether a database of Syrian refugees would be markedly different from the records being kept in screening by federal agencies. But Trump, the leading Republican candidate in some polls, has been perhaps the most strident of all the contenders on the issue of whether to accept refugees after the Paris attacks, raising the possibility that some extremists could slip in among them and telling the crowd Saturday that should he win the presidency, the refugees are "going back, we can't have them."
Earlier this year, Trump said that accepting a limited number of refugees from Syria was a humanitarian decision.
Perhaps the most striking comment of the day was his recounting of the Sept. 11 attacks as he talked about the security landscape since the Paris massacre:
"Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering. So something's going on. We've got to find out what it is."
It was not clear what Trump was referring to. There were cheers of support in some Middle Eastern countries that day, which were broadcast on television. But a persistent Internet rumor of Muslims celebrating in Paterson, New Jersey, was discounted by police officials at the time. A search of news accounts from that period shows no reports of mass cheering in Jersey City.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the response of Muslim-Americans on Sept. 11 was disgust.
"I know because I wrote it," he said of the council's reaction, adding that if Trump had evidence of cheering, he should present it.
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, would not elaborate on his comments; his aides have repeatedly declined to make him available to address the controversies over some of his statements. Hicks said only that Trump had drawn an "unprecedented" crowd of 10,000 in Birmingham, adding, "Mr. Trump's speech was great and unbelievably well received."
Since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris by Islamic extremists, which killed 130 people, the national mood has turned against admitting refugees from Syria, where the Islamic State has taken control of certain areas, a poll by Bloomberg Politics showed last week. And Trump has been riding a wave of anger and mistrust of government and politicians since he entered the race in June.
Trump's calls for surveillance came after he said earlier in the week that he supported closing some mosques. He has not been alone in making such calls; a top donor to Hillary Clinton also urged such surveillance in the wake of the Paris attacks. The donor, Haim Saban, later said he had misspoken.
Meanwhile, at the Alabama rally, a protester whom Trump called to have ejected — "Get him the hell out of here," he ordered security guards — was punched and kicked by some attendees, CNN reported.
The protester, who wore a shirt saying "Black Lives Matter" and refused to leave the rally, was hit by roughly a half-dozen attendees, CNN said. The police told the network that the man had not required medical attention.
Hicks did not respond to an email asking about the removal of the protester.