As D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) tried Monday to apologize for a Facebook post in which he claimed that Jewish financiers control the climate, new footage released by the city showed it wasn’t the first time he had made such comments.
White also contended that the Rothschilds — a European business dynasty and frequent subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — control the World Bank and the federal government, making those remarks during a Feb. 27 gathering of top city officials, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other council members.
“There’s this whole concept with the Rothschilds — control the World Bank, as we all know — infusing dollars into major cities,” said White, according to video footage that the city routinely releases after official meetings. “They really pretty much control the federal government, and now they have this concept called resilient cities in which they are using their money and influence into local cities.”
He asked how much money the Rothschilds had invested in the University of the District of Columbia, whose president had just finished a presentation. “How does this influence this? Because it’s really about infrastructure and climate control,” White said. “What does this have to do with UDC? Have they put money into UDC? What’s the relationship between the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers?”
No one in the room challenged his remarks. Bowser wore a puzzled look; City Administrator Rashad M. Young explained that the “resilient cities” initiative from the Rockefeller Foundation was about helping communities prepare for disasters.
White’s views didn’t draw public criticism until Sunday, when The Washington Post published an article about his recent Facebook posting that suggested a brief snowfall in the District was “climate control” by the Rothschilds, who “create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities.”
After initially standing by his comments, White was met with a blizzard of criticism and later apologized, saying he did not realize that his remarks were anti-Semitic.
On Monday, the council member fielded a large number of calls, texts and private meetings at city hall, including with Rabbi Batya Glazer of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and Lou Dubin, a Jewish developer working on a project in Anacostia, which White represents.
“I’ve been in conversations with a lot of people from the Jewish community coming to the office, especially those who know me, showing their support to me,” said White, who was elected to a four-year term in 2016. “It has been a learning experience for me.”
Between his meetings, White was asked by a reporter about his views regarding climate change. He declined to discuss them.
“I’m not going to go into it,” he said. “That’s just talking about the same issue all over again. I just want to be apologetic about it.”
He promised to host a “program around sensitivity,” though he had no specific plans.
“There are both public and private gestures that need to happen to address this issue and send a clear message that this type of speech is not condoned,” said D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), one of the council’s two Jewish members. The other, member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), also condemned White’s remarks. They were joined by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), David Grosso (I-At Large) and Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4).
“I take his apology as sincere, and that’s all I’m going to say,” Mendelson said as he left the closed-door meeting with White and Glazer. “There’s no question it was inappropriate.”
Council members Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large) did not respond to inquiries, and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) declined to comment.
After this story published, Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he condemned anti-Semitism in all its forms and wanted to hear from his colleagues before recommending what to do about White’s comments.
And on Tuesday, Robert White released a statement in which he said Trayon White’s comments led him to learn about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that he didn’t know existed, despite the fact that he works closely with Jewish colleagues. He called Trayon White’s apology “heartfelt” and said he hoped the episode would renew historic ties between African American and Jewish communities, referring to their partnership during the civil rights movement.
It is unclear if the council, which has scheduled a breakfast next Tuesday with Jewish community leaders in response to the controversy, will formally sanction White.
Bowser and Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) both said White’s comments were not acceptable.
Racine, who employed White before he ran for the council, said he spoke to his former employee about what made his comments troubling.
“They are unacceptable not only because they perpetuate a history of anti-Semitism, but also because the notion of climate control is completely unsupportable by facts,” Racine said in a statement. “I’m encouraged by Trayon’s apology and his direct outreach to rabbis and other leaders of the District’s Jewish community, and I expect that he will learn from this and use it as an opportunity to bring people together rather than divide them.”
But Cheh said that while she was glad that White understood that his remarks were anti-Semitic, she was still troubled by the fact that an elected official believes some entity can control the climate.
“His comments apparently embrace irrational, anti-science conspiracy theories about an agency or group controlling the weather,” Cheh said in a statement. “We cannot normalize such fringe theories and conspiracies or we risk permitting the radical — or worse, dangerous — to enter into the mainstream. Our only option is to condemn them as soon as they are voiced and identify them for what they are. We need good judgment on the Council to solve the many real problems we face, including the challenges of climate change. I remain deeply concerned.”
Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, did not seem bothered by White’s views on climate change.
“Council member White has expressed his regret and apologized for his comment,” Tidwell said, after his organization initially declined to comment. “We have no reason to doubt his regret and look forward to advancing strong environmental policies in the city with his future assistance.”
Several Washington-area Jewish organizations said they were ready to forgive White and move on.
Jews United for Justice, a progressive group that endorsed White’s candidacy in 2016, spoke with him Sunday.
“We’ve known him for years. Hearing that he said this was really surprising and, yeah, hurtful and disappointing,” said Rebecca Ennen, deputy director of Jews United for Justice. “But also, that’s not the guy we know; it must be from a position of ignorance and making a mistake. We feel his apology has been sincere, and we want to work with him.”
The organization is setting up conversations between White and Jewish community members to help White better understand anti-Semitism, she said.
“When I first read the comment, my first reaction was, ‘Boy is this bizarre,’ ” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “But in fairness to the council member, he apologized, and from people who I know have spoken to him, it’s a real apology, and I’m going to take him at his word.”
Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that D.C. Council Member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) refused to comment on White’s remarks. Allen condemned them in a post on his Facebook page.