It was a statement that anti-discrimination groups and Democrats say was too long in the making.
Touring a new museum devoted to African-American history, Trump said Tuesday he will do what he can to improve race relations and denounced recent threats and vandalism aimed at Jews.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump said after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an earlier interview on MSNBC, Trump said, “Anti-Semitism is horrible, and it’s going stop and it has to stop.”
Trump had been criticized for passing up previous chances to denounce a spate of anti-Semitic incidents that include desecration of a Jewish cemetery and bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers. Federal authorities have been investigating bomb threats to at least 10 Jewish community centers, including in Alabama, Ohio and Illinois. No one was injured, and the threats appeared to be hoaxes, the Jewish Community Center Association of North America told NBC News on Monday.
While Trump’s statement was a clear repudiation of the latest incidents, critics say it’s too little, too late after his presidential campaign attracted some prominent anti-Semites and white nationalists.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump’s critics are being unfair and that Trump’s comments are “never good enough.”
“He has been very forceful with his denunciation” of hate groups, Spicer told reporters. “It’s something he’s going to continue to fight and make clear it has no place in” his administration. “He’s been very clear previous to this he wants to be someone who brings this country together,” Spicer said.
For months, pressure has been building on Trump to repudiate hate groups as critics accused his campaign of providing safe space to white nationalist groups, beginning with its choice of a campaign slogan, “America First,” that was also the name of an organization tied to anti-Semites that urged the United States to appease German Chancellor Adolf Hitler before the U.S. entrance into World War II.
Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon, is also the former head of the alt-right Breitbart News, an information source for white nationalists. Critics also say Trump’s campaign promoted anti-Semitic stereotypes and failed to decisively condemn anti-Semitic leaders, including his repeated failure — with four different attempts — during a February 2016 CNN interview to condemn former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. After coming under attack, Trump took to Twitter to say “I disavow” Duke.
Trump is contending with critics who believe his campaign fanned intolerance against minorities, including Jews and Muslims, and can be linked to the rise of a number of hate groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual census, the number of such groups rose for a second year in a row in 2016 as “the radical right was energized by the candidacy of Donald Trump.” The “most dramatic growth” was the near-tripling of anti-Muslim groups, from 34 to 101 last year, the group says. Still, the group’s “hate map” also includes a number of black separatist groups.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Twitter users had viewed language associated with anti-Semitism more than 10 billion times in 2016, the social media equivalent of a $20 million Super Bowl ad. In a Washington Post article, Twitter disputed the high number, without providing specifics.
Given the history, Trump’s words Tuesday didn’t go far enough for some.
“The president’s sudden acknowledgement is a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration,” said Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. It’s “a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting anti-Semitism,” Goldstein said in a Facebook post.
“When President Trump responds to anti-Semitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that’s when we’ll be able to say this president has turned a corner,” Goldstein said. “This is not that moment.”
Last week Trump was asked twice on separate occasions about rising anti-Semitism, including by a Jewish reporter in a press conference. He responded by shouting down the reporter and insisting he is “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
Both Hillary Clinton and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who converted to her husband’s Jewish faith, had spoken out against the anti-Semitic acts, upping the ante for Trump to take a stand. Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband and a top White House adviser, is an Orthodox Jew.
Earlier on Tuesday, Clinton tweeted: “JCC threats, cemetery desecration & online attacks are so troubling & they need to be stopped. Everyone must speak out, starting w/ @POTUS.”
Last month, Trump came under fire for the White House statement on International Holocaust Memorial Day that failed to mention the Jewish faith of the millions of “innocent people” who were killed and the anti-Semitism that led to their slaughter. It was a break with the tradition of past presidential statements.
“They have played footsie with racist and anti-Semitic groups for a long time,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who spoke to i24 News, which broadcasts to the Middle East. “I’m blaming the Trump campaign for setting the mood for it.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., asked why it’s taken Trump “so long to even say the word ‘anti-Semitism?’ ” and suggested Trump has been “placating his base.”
The comments bring to a head tensions building since early in Trump’s campaign:
• In a December 2015 speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump seemed to invoke stereotypes about Jews and money often considered anti-Semitic. “You’re not gonna support me even though you know I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel. And I’ll be that,” said Trump. “And I know why you’re not going to support me. You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. Isn’t it crazy?”
• In early July, Trump posted on Twitter an image of the Star of David shape next to a picture of Clinton atop a pile of money, calling her the “most corrupt candidate ever.” After coming under fire on social media, Trump deleted the post and replaced it with one that had a circle instead of the six-pointed star shape. Then he said he should have never taken it down, saying he would have rather defended it as “just a star.” Ten days earlier, the image had appeared on a white supremacist message board that included neo-Nazi propaganda and was tweeted out by a Twitter user who had frequently posted racist memes, CNN confirmed. His campaign said they got it from an “anti-Hillary Twitter user” and that the “sheriff’s badge” fit with a “corrupt Hillary” theme. House Speaker Paul Ryan called the tweet “anti-Semitic” and said such images have “no place in a presidential campaign.”
• Later, retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, retweeted an anti-Semitic message where he referred to the “corrupt Democratic machine” on a message that said “not anymore Jews” before quickly apologizing.
• Trump was criticized for closing out his campaign with an ad denouncing an international global power structure that featured a number of prominent Jews in the financial industry, including Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
As Trump’s campaign came under attack for these incidents, an old interview with Barbara Walters in 1990 came to light in which Trump was asked about keeping a copy of Hitler’s speeches, My New Order at his bedside.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. A friend of mine sent me a book,” he said, confusing it with the book Mein Kampf. “It happened to be that book,” he said, adding that he might sue Vanity Fair, whose writer, Marie Brenner, had claimed he admires the speeches.
Contributing: David Jackson