SALT LAKE CITY — Donald Trump Jr. spoke for the first time Wednesday about comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of candy with pieces that "would kill you," saying even one death connected to their arrival in the United States is "a problem."
Speaking to the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards, Trump Jr. said the picture he tweeted earlier this week was about his concern as a father of five about what could happen "if we're not vetting people and we're arbitrarily letting them into a country."
"We've seen what's going on in Europe. We can't be naive to that and pretend that's not happening there," Trump Jr. said. "If there's one death associated with it because we messed up and we didn't do it right, that's a problem for me."
He said the tweeted picture did not represent a ratio of terrorists to refugees because he "didn't say numbers of Skittles," even though the accompanying text asks who would take a handful of the candies knowing "just three would kill you."
The controversy over the tweet, which included a call to "end the politically correct agenda that doesn't put America first," drew attention to a recent study that said the risk of an American being killed by a refugee in a terror attack is 1 in 3.64 billion.
Trump Jr., who campaigned in Utah on Wednesday for his father, Donald Trump, told the editorial boards during a wide-ranging discussion that the GOP presidential nominee is a "realist" on immigration and wants better vetting of refugees.
However, Trump Jr. was unable to elaborate on what that would entail. Utah voters have expressed unease about Trump's stand on immigration issues, including a previous proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country.
University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless, associated with the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Trump Jr. did nothing to help alleviate those concerns with his latest statements.
"You wonder where is his and his father's sense of humanity and decency," Chambless said, noting that many Utahns trace their roots back to the Mormon pioneers who were driven out of their homes and came West as refugees themselves.
He said Trump Jr. seems to be oblivious to the suffering embodied in a recent picture of a young boy, bloodied and stunned, after a recent attack in Syria, "painfully unaware of the struggles that desperate people have."
But Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, a Trump supporter, said he believes Utahns will be more comfortable with the candidate's position on the issue after hearing Trump Jr. talk about it in terms of national security.
"I do think there is a climate out there where people are cynical about this candidate and they’re going to find offense," Hughes said after Trump Jr. spoke briefly to the House GOP caucus Thursday.
During his meeting with the editorial board, Trump Jr. blamed President Barack Obama for the Syrian refugee crisis. Obama drew a "red line" in 2012, warning of military intervention if chemical weapons were used against Syrians in the country's ongoing civil war, as happened a year later.
The administration "kept backing away from that line," Trump Jr. said. "Had we perhaps actually held to our guns, and when we make a claim and we say something, actually backed it up, it could be a very different scenario."
But Trump Jr. said he wasn't saying the United States should have invaded Syria, even though "we've seen throughout world history that when you have weak leaders making promises that they don't fulfill, people take advantage of that."
Trump Jr. also said even though his father has spoken of a "tremendous problem" with Utah, he doesn't really have issues with the state's voters because he's running for president on "so many of those values held dear in this community."
He said Utahns may have an "impression of a different guy" because of Trump's brash nature and conflict with the Republicans' 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
"There's egos at those levels," Trump Jr. said of Romney's criticism of his father, which included labeling the billionaire businessman a fraud and a phony in a speech at the University of Utah earlier this year.
Trump, who finished a distant third in Utah's GOP presidential preference caucus vote in March, now leads Democrat Hillary Clinton in polls of the state's voters and will win here in November, his son said.
"I think it's about speaking not to the political elite but speaking to the people. That’s what my father has done from day one," Trump Jr. said, describing his father's campaign rallies as "almost a rock concert for people who are fed up."
His "blue-collar billionaire" father's work ethic and relationship with his family are values that will appeal to Utahns, Trump Jr. said.
Connecting with blue-collar voters is something Romney was not able to do in his race against President Barack Obama, Trump Jr. said, because he "didn't want to embrace his success."
Romney was endorsed by Trump in 2012 and sought contributions "all the time" from the Trump family, Trump Jr. said. Romney has not backed a presidential candidate but has said he won't vote for Trump or Clinton.
Trump Jr. also said his father will not release his tax returns until an audit is completed, despite mounting questions about his personal wealth and charitable contributions.
He suggested the tax returns would be a distraction to voters at this point in the campaign.
"What we don't want to do is take away from the narrative," Trump Jr. said, calling it "foolish" to open up thousands of pages of tax returns to "300 million independent auditors."
Trump Jr. is spending several days in the West campaigning as one of his father's top surrogates and advisers. He appeared at a campaign fundraiser in Bountiful that cost a minimum of $2,700 to attend.