Such was the situation Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) found himself in Tuesday night on CNN, two full weeks after he retweeted a message — “Europe is waking up” — from a British author who questions the Holocaust, wants to separate the continents by races, blames slavery on Jews, mocks interracial children, wrote a book embracing National Socialism, and once called himself a “Nazi sympathizer.”
King spent nearly five minutes trying to explain to CNN’s Chris Cuomo why he would not delete his retweet or his riff on it — “Europe is waking up . . . Will America . . . in time?” — for reasons that are impossible to summarize without a full account of how it came to this.
First, here is the original June 12 tweet from the Nazi sympathizer, Mark Collett, along with the congressman’s take on Collett’s quip, which King posted two hours later. Collett’s tweet also featured an image of a Breitbart article about anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy.
You will note — as King has subsequently emphasized — that nothing about Collett’s tweet was obviously racist.
You would have to know a little about Collet’s other literature to know that when he writes “wake up,” he might mean “when white people start to wake up,” as he wrote a few months earlier.
But if King was entirely ignorant about the man he retweeted that morning, he was informed within hours by an avalanche of commenters, news reports and eventually the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, who called Collett “a known anti-Semite” on Twitter.
And yet King continued to plead ignorance. “I’m not obligated to do a full background check on anybody,” he argued during the Tuesday CNN interview. But he hardly needed a detective agency to verify what people were telling him about Collett.
Had King scrolled two tweets down from Collett’s “wake up” tweet, he would have found one of several “take them back to Africa” messages that applied to refugees.
And if King had scrolled six tweets up, he would have found a link to one of Collett’s YouTube videos, “Slavery: An Instrument of White Guilt.” Should King have watched that video for even a few seconds, the congressman would have learned it was a follow-up to Collett’s previous show, “The Holocaust: An Instrument of White Guilt.”
It took less than an hour for this reporter to learn that Collett’s monologues quote heavily from his free e-book, in which he complains about the “religious cult” of Holocaust remembrance, the un-“natural” desire of women to be employed and the unfair denigration of National Socialism (also known as Nazism), which, he writes, “in its true and pure form … is a uniting force that could drive the enemies of the West from Western shores and free Western man.”
King wouldn’t even need to look inside the book to see that it is plugged by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
And this is to say nothing of Collett’s tweets reframing slavery as a form of Jewish-Arab-European capitalism, blaming pornography on Jews, pining for apartheid-era white South Africa and deriding interracial children.
Though Collett had never been more than a fringe player in British politics, and was a virtual unknown in the United States, the outlines of his worldview had spread as far as Israel within days of King’s decision to retweet him.
But when a HuffPost reporter challenged King two days after his retweet, the congressman pleaded ignorance, insisting he had merely retweeted “a Breitbart story” as he rushed between appointments. “I’m walking between meetings,” King recalled. “I don’t know the names of who wrote the article or who might have tweeted it. I’ve never heard them, and I still don’t know them.”
When the reporter asked whether King knew that “the tweet had been written by a Nazi sympathizer,” the congressman replied, “I still don’t know that.”
That same day, King sent a near-repeat of his June 12 tweet — this time stripping out Collett as intermediary.
But Collett’s tweet remained in King’s Twitter feed — a fact that was noted on racist and neo-fascist message boards, where anonymous users celebrated what they deemed a U.S. congressman’s endorsement of an overt National Socialist.
As Eli Rosenberg wrote for The Washington Post, King has long had a reputation for embracing far-right extremists and railing against migrants. And, for a while, it looked as if his promotion of an open Nazi sympathizer would provoke no special condemnation. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) did not respond to Rosenberg’s request for comment on it two weeks ago. HuffPost said it contacted more than a dozen House Republicans and found none who criticized King’s tweet.
That changed abruptly Tuesday, the same day Ryan demanded that a prominent Democratic lawmaker apologize for urging public harassment against President Trump’s top aides. Ryan’s office gave the Daily Beast what almost read like a condemnation of the Iowa congressman — two weeks after the fact.
Though Ryan’s statement didn’t name King, it inspired CNN to follow up with the Iowa congressman as he left the House floor Tuesday. “I think it’s really unjust for anyone to assign the beliefs of someone else, because there’s a message there among all of that,” King said, according to the network. “I mean it’s the message, not the messenger.”
Not satisfied, Cuomo put King on the air later that night and repeatedly invited him to disavow Collett — with mixed and confusing results.
“I don’t agree with Collett. I’m not a neo-Nazi,” Cuomo said, as if drafting a statement for King. “That’s all true, right?”
“Well, it’s generally true,” King said. “I don’t know if it’s an exact quote. What I’m trying to say is: Here’s a story that 65 percent of Italians under 35 have had enough with immigration. And I said, ‘When will America wake up on this?’ ”
Cuomo tried again: “But the guy has espoused ugly neo-Nazi-type principles. And you do not agree with those. Is that true, sir?”
“Well, obviously not, but that’s what you all say,” King said. “I have no idea who he is.”
Crosstalk, then Cuomo: “I’m not saying you knew.”
“You know I didn’t, Chris.”
“That’s the part I don’t understand,” Cuomo said. “I don’t believe you recognize his values as your own. But you say you won’t delete the tweet. I don’t get it.”
“It’s pretty simple,” King said. “I tweeted a Breitbart story. I didn’t tweet a message from him.”
King had, in fact, retweeted, quoted and expanded on the Nazi sympathizer’s “wake up” message. Neither his tweet nor Collett’s linked to the Breitbart article.
“I went back a little bit later, when some folks pointed this out,” King told Cuomo. “And I went and got the TinyURL and tweeted the Breitbart story off their website, and I said, ‘This is what I intended to send.’ ”
Cuomo, who appeared to be intermittently gritting his teeth, kept pushing King. “I’m sure your staffers have pointed out to you that on social media, you’ve got a lot of ugly people using your name, waving it as a flag, someone who accepts what they’re about because you retweeted this guy,” the host said.
And that was true. On the Internet forum 4chan’s infamous /pol/ message board, entire threads were devoted to Collett. (“All I know is Steve King retweets him, so he can’t be all that bad,” wrote one.)
But nothing Cuomo said moved King, who accused CNN of keeping Collett’s name in the news while the congressman, who had put it there in the first place, was happy to let the Nazi sympathizer “ride into the rearview mirror.”
“I’m not deleting that,” he said at one point in the interview, “because then you’ll all pile on me and say: ‘King had to apologize! He was wrong. He knew he’s guilty.’ ”
“I’m not,” he said. “I don’t feel guilty one bit. I’m human.”
As it happens, neither does Collett.