Politics | Analysis
February 21, 2017 at 3:58 PM
After a rash of bomb threats at Jewish community centers nationwide and vandalism at a Jewish cemetery over the weekend, President Trump was pressed for a response more forceful than those he offered during news conferences last week.
Asked about that spike in anti-Semitic activity last Wednesday, Trump chose first to talk about his electoral vote totals, implying that concerns that he may be tacitly supporting anti-Semitic actions were offset by the "tremendous enthusiasm" his candidacy had received. He then suggested that there was nothing new about such behavior, saying that his administration was "going to do everything within our power to stop long-simmering racism and every other thing that's going on, because a lot of bad things have been taking place over a long period of time." The following day, he was asked by a Jewish reporter specifically about the bomb threats, and insisted that "I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life."
On Tuesday morning, he offered a reply more typical of a politician.
"The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community at 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," he said in prepared remarks. In an interview with a reporter from NBC earlier, he insisted that "it's going to stop."
Unfortunately for the president's efforts to turn the page on the question, though, press secretary Sean Spicer made points during his daily media briefing that illustrate why questions about anti-Semitism and racism have hounded Trump for months.
Spicer was asked by Margaret Brennan of CBS to respond to a strong condemnation of Trump's Tuesday morning statement by the Anne Frank Center.
BRENNAN: The Anne Frank Center released a pretty strongly worded [statement], saying that these remarks, while well received, are a "Band-Aid" on the cancer within the Trump administration. Saying that there is, whether blessed or otherwise, a sense of xenophobia within this administration.
SPICER: Look. The president has made clear since the day he was elected — and frankly going back through the campaign — that he is someone who seeks to unite this country. He has brought a diverse group of folks into his administration, both in terms of actual positions and people that he has sought the advice of. And I think he has been very forceful with his denunciation of people who seek to attack people because of their religion, because of their gender, because of the color of their skin.
It is something that he's going to continue to fight and make very, very clear that [it] has no place in this administration. But I think that it's ironic that no matter how many times he talks about this that it's never good enough.
Today I think was an unbelievably forceful comment by the president as far as his denunciation of the actions that are currently targeted toward Jewish community centers, but I think he's been very clear previous to this that he wants to be someone that brings this country together but not divide people, especially in those areas.
So, I saw that statement. I wish that they had praised the president for his leadership in this area. Hopefully as time continues to go by they recognize his commitment to civil rights, to voting rights, to equality for all Americans.
Many of the seeds of Trump's problem are contained in that response.
First of all, it's true that Trump has repeatedly said he wants America to be united. As we've pointed out, though, that insistence has almost uniformly been expressed as a desire for Trump's opponents to embrace his presidency. Trump made very little effort to reach out to his political opponents after he won the election, criticizing protesters as being paid and Hillary Clinton voters as being fraudulent. He never moderated his positions from the primary to the general election and then to his administration — certainly his right, but a move that helped assure that his opponents would stay opposed to his presidency. That Spicer thinks the Anne Frank Center should "praise the president for his leadership in this area" is simply baffling.
Second, it's a stretch to say that Trump has "brought a diverse group of folks into his administration." Trump's Cabinet was more white and more male than any since that of Ronald Reagan — until his first pick for labor secretary dropped out and was replaced with a man who is Hispanic. Spicer qualifies this questionable claim with "people that he has sought the advice of," which offers an infinite amount of wiggle room.
Third, Trump's commitment to voting rights is already highly questionable. Trump's insistence that voter fraud is a rampant problem (which it isn't) seems poised to precede a new effort to restrict voting access. Those efforts have consistently and demonstrably curtailed voting by nonwhite voters.
But the most egregious claim Spicer made — a claim he made over the weekend, too — is that Trump has been "very forceful with his denunciations" and that "no matter how many times he talks about this that it's never good enough."
Last week, we catalogued Trump's previous responses when asked about anti-Semitism and racism. Rarely did he explicitly condemn racist or anti-Semitic behavior, choosing instead to defend himself or distance himself from those acts. A good example was cited by The Washington Post's Erik Wemple. When a reporter who profiled Melania Trump was attacked by anti-Semitic Trump supporters, Trump told Wolf Blitzer that "I don't have a message to the fans. A woman wrote a — a article that was inaccurate. Now, I'm used to it. I get such bad articles. I get such — the press is so dishonest, Wolf, I can't even tell you. It's so dishonest."
That's the first main problem for Trump: He has consistently been squishy about replying to questions about racism and anti-Semitism. The second problem? Many of his policy proposals — on immigration, for example — overlap with the stated aims of racist groups, and the rationalizations for those proposals often use language that reinforces negative or erroneous claims about minority groups.
In his opening statement, Spicer described a new initiative from the Department of Homeland Security that was first described in a memo signed by Secretary John F. Kelly on Friday. DHS will institute an office called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE. Why? Because "criminal aliens routinely victimize Americans and other legal residents," in the words of Kelly's memo. There are certainly crimes committed by immigrants here illegally, although research indicates that those here illegally and first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. The net effect of that claim is to reinforce an idea presented by Trump from the moment he announced his candidacy: Immigrants are often (if not usually) dangerous.
After he replied to her question about the Anne Frank Center, Brennan then asked Spicer to specifically clarify whether the administration has been as internally forceful about anti-Muslim sentiment as it purportedly has about anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
Spicer's answer dealt with terrorism:
BRENNAN: The Southern Poverty Law Center said that the number of anti-Muslim groups in the U.S. has tripled between 2015 and 2016, during the time of the campaign. Is this message, within the administration — anti-Semitism is not allowed, xenophobia is not allowed. Anti-Muslim sentiment within the administration: Has the president been forceful about that particular issue?
SPICER: I think that the president, in terms of his desire to combat radical Islamic terrorism, he understands that people who want to express a peaceful position have every right under our Constitution — but if you come here or want to express views that seek to do our country or our people harm, he is going to fight it aggressively, whether it is domestic acts that are going on here, or attempts through people abroad to come into this country.
So there's a big difference between preventing attacks and making sure that we keep this country safe so that there is no loss of life, and allowing people to express themselves in accordance with our First Amendment. Those are two very, very different — different, different things.
Spicer's job is to articulate the positions of the White House, and it can be challenging to offer a robust, comprehensive reply to a question you've just heard when there are scores of microphones listening to what you say. What Spicer meant to say isn't really clear, to be honest, but the framework is. Asked about an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and about the extent to which Trump has been forceful in pushing back against such sentiment within the White House, Spicer defended the administration's efforts to keep terrorists out of the country.
It's the sort of reply that will raise eyebrows among Trump's critics. And it's the sort of reply that, had it come from Trump, Spicer may have insisted was a "very forceful denunciation."