The president of the United States is coming to speak. What an honor. What a coup.
But be careful. If the past is any guide, you might end up having to say sorry. Or admonish your own. Or generally do damage control.
This is the baggage that comes with hosting Donald Trump, who takes pride in pushing rhetorical boundaries. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness,” Trump, then a candidate, said during a Republican primary debate in 2015.
The latest cleanup effort came after Trump’s remarks Tuesday at the 2018 convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a nonprofit veterans service organization founded in 1899 by James C. Putnam, a veteran of the Spanish-American War.
During his speech in Kansas City, Mo., Trump lashed out at the news media, which prompted some in the audience to boo and heckle members of the press.
“Don’t believe the crap you see from these people,” he said, referring to the media and singling out NBC and CNN. The president judged: “CNN is the worst.”
Within hours, the VFW rebuked its members for taunting the press and distanced itself from the president’s words.
“We were disappointed to hear some of our members boo the press during President Trump’s remarks,” the organization said in a statement. “We rely on the media to spread the VFW message, and CNN, NBC News, ABC News, Fox News, CBS News, and others on site today, were our invited guests. We were happy to have them there.”
It was an awkward moment for an organization that has hosted presidents of both parties going back years without having to weigh in afterward to clarify its values.
But the veterans are not alone.
Last summer, the Boy Scouts of America apologized after Trump used a speech at the organization’s national conference to attack his political opponents, boast of his electoral conquest and speak coyly about antics on yachts. In keeping with tradition, he also attacked the “fake news.”
The Boy Scouts were not able to contain the ensuing controversy with a simple affirmation of their respect for the “wide variety of viewpoints in this country” and offered a full-throated apology two days later.
“I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent,” Michael Surbaugh, the chief executive of the Boy Scouts, wrote in a message posted on the scouting website.
Past presidents have emphasized other themes in addressing youth ages 11 to 17. President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered observations about the meaning of citizenship. President George H.W. Bush spoke about “serving others.” Trump’s speech hit some of these notes — “Never quit. Persevere. Never, ever quit!” he said — but he ran into trouble by discussing a whole lot else.
Trump unsettled groups that gave him a platform even before he was elected president. In spring 2016, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee found itself in the position that the Boy Scouts and VFW would come to share — apologizing for Trump and scolding its own members for applauding his trash talk. Trump earned applause during his speech at the organization’s conference when he said, “With President Obama in his final year — yay!” At another point, he called the sitting president “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.”
“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama,” AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus countered. “There were people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry. We are disappointed that so many people applauded the sentiment that we neither agree with or condone. Let us close this conference in recognition that when we say ‘Come together,’ we still have a lot to learn from each other, and we still have much work to do.”
In that context, Trump was no exception. Past presidential candidates have attacked sitting presidents. In 2012, Mitt Romney, vying for the Republican nomination, faulted Obama for “lecturing” Israel.
But the public reproach of Trump’s remarks lacked precedent. A story in the Jerusalem Post observed that the episode shattered the illusion of the “Israel lobby’s careful claims to bipartisanship.”
It was an early warning that no group was safe from the political shrapnel of Donald Trump.
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