Trump praises far-right French candidate Le Pen as vote looms

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday praised far-right French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen as “the strongest” candidate on immigration and terrorism, in an unusually clear political signal two days before a first round of voting. Trump also predicted that that a deadly shooting Thursday night on the famed Champs-Élysées avenue in Paris would “probably help” her prospects.

Trump, who made those comments in an interview with the Associated Press, denied that he was delivering an endorsement of Le Pen. But he said she was “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” language he has used before to describe terrorist attacks there.

“Whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism, and whoever is the toughest at the borders, will do well in the election,” he said.

The president also said that he isn’t worried about his remarks potentially sending a message to extremists that their attacks can sway democratic elections, the AP reported.

Earlier in the day, Trump had predicted that the attack would have a “big effect” on the elections, which will shape the future of Europe and its relations with the United States. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack almost immediately, an unusually speedy reaction perhaps timed to affect the vote.

Trump did not elaborate, but Le Pen has tapped into voter resentment about immigrants and the European Union, as well as fears about terrorism. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Le Pen promised to implement a “battle plan against Islamist terrorism” if elected president. Le Pen was spotted at Trump Tower in January, though Trump’s transition team said it was not for the purpose of meeting with the incoming U.S. administration.

If, as is almost certainly the case, no candidate secures an absolute majority in the first round of voting on Sunday, the top two will go on to a decisive second round set for May 7. Le Pen, who has called the election a clash between “patriots and globalists” and suggested a referendum on France’s European Union membership, is seen as likely to make it to the second round.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer twice denied that Trump favored any particular candidate. Reached by Yahoo News early in the day, Spicer replied: “His tweet on this matter speaks for itself.” Later, at his midday briefing, asked whether the president had a favorite candidate, Spicer replied: “No.”

Trump’s comment came a day after the campaign of centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron posted a video of Barack Obama advising him by telephone to campaign relentlessly up until the final hours and wishing him “good luck.” A spokesman for the former president would not say whether Obama knew that the telephone call would be used by Macron in a political ad, but drily noted that the video was “unusual.” In a statement on Thursday, the spokesman, Kevin Lewis, had said that “an endorsement was not the purpose of the call, as President Obama is not making any formal endorsement in advance of the runoff election on Sunday.”

Obama had waded into Britain’s debate about whether or not to vote to leave the European Union, warning that doing so would hurt relations with the United States, only to have British voters endorse Brexit.

The Paris attack occurred as the 11 presidential candidates took part in a primetime televised debate. A gunman, reportedly known to French intelligence services, drew up alongside a police van just a few hundred yards from the Arc de Triomphe monument and opened fire. He killed one officer and wounded two others. A note praising the Islamic State was found near the body, Agence France-Presse reported.

France has suffered a string of high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years, including the January 2015 killings at the headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket; the November 2015 attacks on the Stade de France soccer stadium and a nightclub that left more than 100 dead; and the July 2016 assault in which 86 people were killed while celebrating Bastille Day, when an assailant deliberately drove a truck into the crowd.

It was not Trump’s first response to the shooting. At a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni on Thursday, the president had offered his condolences to the French people.

“Again it’s happening, it seems,” said Trump. “And what can you say? It just never ends. We have to be strong, and we have to be vigilant, and I’ve been saying it for a long time.”

This post was updated to include Trump’s Associated Press interview.

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