CINCINNATI — Donald Trump said Wednesday that his campaign should not have deleted a tweet containing an image that had been posted weeks earlier on a white supremacist website and featured Hillary Clinton, $100 bills and a red six-point star with the text: “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Although Jewish activists and many others have denounced the image as being anti-Semitic, Trump repeatedly said Wednesday that the six-point star is "just a star," not the Jewish Star of David, and that media outlets that covered the controversy are "racially profiling."
"I said: 'You shouldn't have taken it down.' You know, they took the star down," Trump said to a crowd of several thousand at a rally on Wednesday night. "I said: 'Too bad. You should have left it up.' I would have rather defended it — just leave it up and say: No, that's not a Star of David. That's just a star."
For more than five minutes, Trump defended the tweet, uttering the word "star" at least two dozen times and keeping alive a five-day-old controversy that most leaders of the Republican Party had hoped would fade away. Trump tried to narrow the controversy to the proper name of the six-point shape while ignoring that the image had previously appeared on a white supremacist website, according to mic.com, and that it was positioned atop a sea of money, which is a common way to denigrate Jews.
The tweet in question first appeared on Trump's personal Twitter account on Saturday morning, as news broke that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had privately met with former president Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac in Phoenix. The tweet included this message: “Crooked Hillary – – Makes History!” In less than two hours, Trump's campaign had deleted the tweet and issued a new image featuring a red circle instead of a six-point star.
The tweet was embraced and celebrated by several prominent white supremacists, who considered the tweet a signal from Trump. The Anti-Defamation League called on Trump to "unequivocally reject the hate-filled extremists orbiting around his campaign and take a stand against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate.” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that anti-Semitic images have “no place in a presidential campaign," and some leading Jewish Republican donors and activists also voiced concerns.
Later Wednesday, Trump also tweeted a picture of a product for the Disney movie "Frozen" that featured a purple star.
At the rally on Wednesday, Trump said the image was tweeted by his director of social media Daniel Scavino Jr., a former golf caddy whom Trump described as "a very fine person" who is "married to a Jewish woman." Trump said that when he first saw the tweet, he saw "a star, like a star." But Trump said that the media — and no one else — decided it was a Star of David and that its use was inappropriate.
"It could have been a sheriff's star. It could have been a regular star," Trump said. "My boy comes home from school — Barron — he draws stars all over the place. I never said: 'Oh, that's the Star of David, Barron...' It's a star! Have you all seen this? It's a star!"
Trump then made clear that he considers this particular shape a "sheriff's star." As Trump spoke, the crowd of several thousand cheered him on. One woman yelled: "Yes!" While a man kept saying aloud: "It's a star! It's a star!"
Trump criticized CNN — which he called "dishonest as hell" — for reporting on the tweet "from morning to night" instead of focusing on the controversy surrounding the Justice Department's investigation into a private email server Clinton used while serving as secretary of state.
"I have tweets where they're saying: 'CNN won't talk about anything but the star. They say it's the Star of David.' All right?" Trump said. "I have a son-in-law who's Jewish, Jared, who's a great guy. My daughter is Jewish. I have grandchildren that are Jewish. Okay? And I love them. I love them. They are great people."
The crowd applauded Trump's list of Jewish relatives.
Trump said that CNN and other media outlets that reported on the tweet are "racially profiling" — even though Judaism is a religion — and he questioned why reporters kept bringing the issue up.
"CNN started this dialogue going: It's the Star of David, and because it's the Star of David, Donald Trump has racist tendencies," Trump said. "These people are sick, folks. I'm telling you. They're sick."
Trump bashed some of the other television networks and then continued.
"How sick are they? Actually, they're the ones with the bad tendencies when they can think that way," Trump said. "These are sick people. They're bad people. They're bad people."
After the rally, several supporters said they do not understand why the tweet generated so much media coverage.
"It was just a star, and not necessarily a Star of David. I mean, like he said, it could have been a sheriff's star," said Josh Center, 23, a machinist from Franklin, Ohio, who likes that Trump is an alpha male who doesn't get pushed around by anyone. "I've seen a lot of people who end their statuses on Facebook and Twitter with stars, for whatever reason. And wasn't it like posted on like July Fourth or something like that? So, I mean, it could have even been like patriotic."
"I completely thought that was blown out of proportion — I did not see that at all," said Allison Kuhlman, 43, a job cost manager for a mold-making company who lives in Cincinnati. "Yes, it does resemble that, but I don't think in his mind he thought that at all. I thought that, like what he said, it was a badge. I don't think that he would do that purposely."
Trump also accused the media of twisting comments he made about Saddam Hussein at a rally in North Carolina the night before. For months, Trump has repeatedly said that the Middle East would be more stable if Hussein — Iraq's longtime dictator whose regime killed thousands of its own people — were still in power. On Tuesday night, Trump praised Hussein for being "so good" at killing terrorists.
"I wake up, I turn on the television: 'Donald Trump loves Saddam Hussein. He loves Saddam Hussein,'" Trump said, dramatically raising his voice in a caricature of a television news anchor. "That's not what I said. So, that's the narrative."
Trump then clarified for those who might not understand where he stands on dictators. During a lull, several men in the audience shouted: "We love you, Donald!"
"What I did say is that he was good at one thing: He was really good at killing terrorists," Trump said. "He didn't wait around. Do you think they gave the terrorists trials that lasted 18 years?"
Trump continued his clarification.
"I said: Bad guy, really bad guy, but he was good at one thing. He killed terrorists," Trump said. "I don't love Saddam Hussein. I hate Saddam Hussein. But he was damn good at killing terrorists."
In speaking for more than an hour, Trump also defended his recent trip to Scotland to promote his golf courses, saying that Newt Gingrich — the former speaker of the House and a possible running mate who joined him at the rally — deemed his press conference there "great." He listed off his living relatives and immediate family members, thanking them for helping him run for office. He announced a few of the speakers for the GOP convention, including his grown children and legendary former college basketball coach Bobby Knight. At one point he also swatted at a mosquito, then pretended the bug was Clinton and spoke to it.
The rally started earlier than advertised, and the lineup of warm-up acts included remarks from Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, who warned the crowd that the country is becoming more dangerous.
Jones asked the crowd if they would feel safe walking down a sidewalk in Chicago, Baltimore or Washington. Each time, the crowd bellowed: "No!" Jones called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and said that he wishes he could deport some of the "homegrown criminals" in his county. He praised Trump as someone who is "going to take our country back" and "doesn't have to speak with political speak."
"We've got an opportunity to take our country back," Jones said. "We've got an opportunity to make our streets actually safe."