Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) had harsh words for President Trump in a brief interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday.
The Fix spoke with Ellison for a few minutes after a town hall event he held in Minneapolis on Tuesday, just hours after Trump's news conference at Trump Tower in New York. The congressman shared his thoughts on Trump's rhetoric, last weekend's clashes in Charlottesville and what Democrats can do to reach out to voters. Here are his comments, lightly edited.
THE FIX: Can you share your thoughts with us about the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend?
ELLISON: Well, honestly I think you have to put it in context. You know, it happens within the context of a president that is knocking down every check and balance on the presidency.
He's attacking the press, which is one of the elements of our democracy that shines a light on government to hold him accountable. He's pushing through members of the judiciary based on them promising to support certain things, and by escaping the normal rules Supreme Court justices have to follow. He is attacking people like Senator Murkowski because she didn't vote his way. And McCain, where, you know, we used to say that members of Congress should vote their district. Well, according to Trump, you better vote his way, or he's going to use his Twitter feed to attack you. And he has used violence at rallies to encourage his rally participants to hit people.
So in the midst of all this you have this, this hate movement that has always been in the United States but has been dormant, getting energized during the campaign. And now they're openly bringing the fight to folks who are standing up for religious and racial healing and tolerance and inclusion.
And they're also led by some pretty scary folks. I mean this fellow Richard Spencer is an intellectual. I listened to him. His thought is that he wants to make one group of people preeminent above others based on race, and he is organizing this movement. He has a long-term view. And you know, Trump is giving comfort and solace to people like David Duke, Richard Spencer, other people who are promoting this hate-oriented movement.
So look, I mean our country fought hard to come to a point where we tolerate each other. I mean, we had a civil war in which we lost — 600,000 people died because one part of our country wanted to own other people, and the other part of the country said, “Well we're not going to allow that.” And yet here we are today, facing a movement that, if it had its way, it would restore the old order. And these people are openly carrying flags that were borne by Nazis. I mean the Allied powers fought the Nazis because they were trying to promote a master race. Now these people are waving flags with swastikas on them. The enemy. And Confederate flags.
And so my point is, this is happening within a certain context. I have to come to a conclusion, based on all of the behavior I've seen out of Donald Trump, that the reason he is reluctant to denounce white supremacy and neo-Nazis and Klan members is because he has some level of sympathy for them. I can't come to any other conclusion based on the facts that I'm seeing and evaluating, that are in front of me. I mean he is quick as a whip to verbally attack anyone he pleases. When people started jumping off his manufacturing council, he attacked them immediately. When Mitch McConnell didn't pass the repeal the Affordable Care Act, he attacked him right away. But somehow it takes him two and a half days to denounce neo-Nazis, including Ku Klux Klan people. You can only come to the conclusion that there's something about them that he tolerates and thinks is acceptable. That's my thought.
FIX: These things keep happening — not too far from here, in Bloomington, Minnesota, at the mosque.
ELLISON: Well no doubt. I mean you cannot ignore the fact that when the mosque bombing took place, the president of the United States has never commented on that. And the only thing we've heard out of the White House is when Sebastian Gorka, his aide, said it was likely or possibly a false flag operation, meaning that somebody on the inside bombed their own mosque, or some liberals did it, which is an absurd idea.
So the thing is, we live in troubling times. When you cannot count on the leader of the free world to denounce hatred, white supremacy, racial superiority, then who can you count on? This man manages the entire government. And the core function of government is to protect its citizens. He said he will not protect some of its citizens unless they meet certain racial religious criteria. That is deeply disturbing.
FIX: White supremacists used to hide behind hoods — now they’re showing their faces and giving interviews. Why do you think they feel so emboldened?
ELLISON: I think the white supremacists are feeling emboldened because they received the signal from the president of the United States that it's all right for them to be active, to be aggressive, to be threatening. They feel greenlighted.
In fact they said after the initial attack that they made, in the killing of Heather Heyer: Hey look, he has not denounced us specifically, he has not specifically criticized us. That's what they put on the Daily Stormer. Now I do read the Daily Stormer. I'm a little disappointed that they've been kicked off Google and other aspects of the Internet, because I like to know what they're up to. But I can tell you this. You know their initial response was that they felt like they were being emboldened.
But I'll tell you this, I mean, this is not the first time they've come out and been very, very aggressive. They have been holding rallies outside of mosques for the last several years. And the federal government, the FBI, Homeland Security, has issued reports saying these people are getting more aggressive and more violent. But Donald Trump doesn't seem to have a problem. In fact, Donald Trump, you know, seems to be encouraging them.
FIX: Charlottesville seems to have brought people together, at least for the moment — how do you keep that sense of unity and common purpose alive in the longer term?
ELLISON: Well let me tell you, I don't think we're going to have any trouble building unity and common purpose, and I just want to say that I am asking every church, every mosque, every synagogue, every temple, every Quaker meeting, every religious gathering, secular people, even if you have no religious affiliation at all, gathered in your neighborhoods, gather in your communities and in your houses of worship, in your clubs and your VFW halls, and talk about what it means to have a tolerant society.
We have fought hard. We went through a civil war, a civil rights movement, a women's rights movement. We have done so much to create a country where we can say “liberty and justice for all.” We believe that these things, this unity we have, this tolerance we have, is hard fought. We cannot let these people drag us back to the bad old days.
The truth is that we need leaders to stand up. And these are not people who will, maybe they won't ever be on national television, but they will be in their local communities gathering neighbors together to say, “You know what? In this church, this mosque, this synagogue, this block, this neighborhood, this VFW hall, we are going to talk about how we as Americans live together. We're going to talk about the contributions of all. We're going to talk about the unity, we're going to talk about how we stay together, how we stick together,” and that is what I'm calling on people to do.
I think it is critical that we retie ourselves to that core value of liberty and justice for all, equal protection under the law for all. This is essential, that we do this right now.
FIX: What do Democrats need to do between now and 2018 to have a chance at taking back the house?
ELLISON: The Democrats have got to go into the streets, go into the neighborhoods, go into the communities. We have got to be visible, palpable and present in the lives of Americans. People have got to know that this is not about winning some election. This is about saving our country. This is about — and anybody who calls himself a Democrat needs to step up and meet their neighbors, engage them and tell them, this is the time to have a community meeting, a town hall meeting, write a letter to the editor. This is a time to vote. This is a time to vote your values, because representative democracy, tolerance and inclusion, constitutional law is on the line at this moment.
You know, we have a president who is greenlighting the worst elements, not just in America but in the world. And so we've got to do something about it. And so we're calling on people's patriotic commitment to step up and get involved. And we definitely have to vote, and more than vote, we have to build a community that is inclusive, that allows everyone to be who they are, be free without fear of violence or exclusion.