President Trump questioned who was behind a recent spate of anti-Semitic threats and incidents during a meeting with state attorneys general on Tuesday, according to two people present.
When Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) asked him about the recent threats against Jewish facilities, the president responded by condemning the incidents but then “suggested the ‘reverse’ may be true,” Shapiro said.
“I don’t know what the president meant by that statement,” Shapiro said in a statement.
Trump “made this reference that sometimes it’s the reverse” and then “used that word ‘reverse’ several times,” Joe Grace, a spokesman for Shapiro, said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. Grace was relaying what Shapiro had said publicly during a phone call with reporters earlier Tuesday.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), who was at the meeting, confirmed Shapiro’s account and said he was disturbed by the president’s comments.
“I sensed in the room a palpable unease with the comment, and certainly uncertainty and confusion as to its meaning,” Racine said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “And I can tell you that after the session with the president concluded, certainly some Democratic [attorneys general] were openly talking about what that meant. And obviously we were disturbed by that.”
Racine said that he was struck by Trump’s statement that “it can be the reverse” and then the president’s repetition of that phrase.
When he and other attorneys general discussed it after, Racine said: “We wondered whether that statement in some way questioned the underlying fact of increased anti-Semitic conduct.”
Shapiro’s account of the meeting with Trump was first reported by Billy Penn. According to the Billy Penn report, a reporter asked if Shapiro interpreted Trump’s statements to mean that the president thinks his supporters are being framed, but Shapiro responded by saying he is unsure what Trump was implying.
“The attorney general honestly does not know what the president meant by that,” Grace said, adding that Shapiro “hoped that there would be clarity on those remarks” when Trump delivered a speech before Congress on Tuesday evening.
Trump did mention the anti-Semitic incidents during his speech to Congress on Tuesday night, although he did not elaborate on who he thinks could be responsible. He opened his remarks by mentioning both the anti-Semitic threats and vandalism and the fatal shooting of an Indian man in Kansas last week.
“Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said. (The shooting death of an Indian man in Kansas actually occurred in Olathe, Kan., just outside Kansas City.)
Asked Wednesday for an explanation of what Trump meant with his comments to the attorneys general, a White House spokeswoman did not elaborate and pointed to his remarks before Congress.
“The president was extremely clear where he stands on this issue in his speech last night,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal White House deputy press secretary, wrote in an email Wednesday morning. Sanders did not respond to a list of follow-up questions regarding what the president meant.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), a Trump supporter during the campaign, also attended the meeting on Tuesday, but she declined to comment about what was said.
“I know first-hand President Trump cares deeply about our Jewish community and is extremely upset by these attacks,” Bondi said in a statement. “His daughter, son-in-law and three of his grandchildren are Jewish. We pray these attacks, as well as any potential copycat attacks, cease.”
Trump’s comments on the issue came after a wave of bomb threats at Jewish centers and schools on Monday and the toppling of more than 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia over the weekend. The bomb threats were the latest in a spate of such incidents nationwide so far this year, while the headstone episode occurred a week after similar vandalism at a cemetery near St. Louis.
There have been a total of 100 bomb threats called in to Jewish schools and Jewish Community Centers since the beginning of January, according to the Jewish Community Center Association of North America.
Last week, Trump offered his first public condemnation of the anti-Semitic incidents, relenting in the face of extensive criticism about his refusal to comment publicly. Trump was asked about the subject during two news conferences earlier this month, but he declined to condemn the anti-Semitic episodes, instead responding to one question by discussing his electoral victory and replying in the other briefing by criticizing the reporter who asked the question.
The reports promised swift and sharp condemnations from groups that have already expressed unhappiness with Trump’s behavior on the issue. The Anti-Defamation League pilloried the comments on the origins of the threats, calling on Trump’s White House to offer further explanation.
“We are astonished by what the President reportedly said,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL, said in a statement. “It is incumbent upon the White House to immediately clarify these remarks. In light of the ongoing attacks on the Jewish community, it is also incumbent upon the President to lay out in his speech tonight his plans for what the federal government will do to address this rash of anti-Semitic incidents.”
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a nonprofit organization targeting discrimination and a group that has criticized Trump, released an even more critical statement.
“Mr. President, have you no decency?” Steven Goldstein, the nonprofit’s executive director, said in a statement. “To cast doubt on the authenticity of Anti-Semitic hate crimes in America constitutes Anti-Semitism in itself, and that’s something none of us ever dreamed would disgrace our nation from the White House. If the reports are true, you owe the American Jewish community an apology.”
Trump’s reported comments would not be the first time he has suggested that racist, anti-Semitic or other “horrible” sentiment has been expressed by his political opponents seeking to make him or his supporters look bad, as Aaron Blake documents at The Fix.
“But you have some of those signs and some of that anger is caused by the other side,” Trump said to a reporter during a news conference earlier this month. “They’ll do signs, and they’ll do drawings that are inappropriate. It won’t be my people. It will be the people on the other side to anger people like you.”
Trump has often sought to blame issues on his political opposition. During the campaign, he accused Democrats of being behind violence at his rallies, stating that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and former president Barack Obama were behind such issues. (The facts don’t bear that out.) This week, Trump accused Obama of helping organize the swaths of protests that have happened during the first weeks of his presidency.
Earlier on Tuesday, Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier with ties to Trump who has accepted a White House position, posted on Twitter noting that it was not clear who was behind the Jewish Community Center threats. In his tweet, he included a link to a story alleging Democratic Party attempts to incite violence at Trump rallies.
When it was pointed out that he appeared to be suggesting Democrats were behind the threatening calls, Scaramucci argued otherwise:
On Wednesday morning, Scaramucci said he was surprised by the level of controversy provoked by his tweets, and argued that people simply did not know who was behind the threats.
“We actually don’t know who’s behind it,” Scaramucci said in an interview with CNN’s “New Day.” “And so what you’re finding is there’s a lot of allegations being made, and I think people are suggesting that potentially that it could be Trump supporters behind it, or people that are affiliated with the president or his administration, I think that’s categorically very unfair.”
During his interview, Scaramucci did not elaborate on who he believes is blaming the threats on people affiliated with Trump or his administration.
This story, first published on Tuesday afternoon, has been updated to add new information.