At a White House event focused on American manufacturing Monday, President Trump was asked about his tweets over the weekend suggesting that a group of liberal Democrats should “go back” to the countries they came from. The House members to whom he was referring with the historically loaded phrase appeared to be four women, none of them white and three of whom were born in the United States.
“If you’re not happy here, then you can leave,” Trump said by way of explanation. “As far as I’m concerned, if you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave. And that’s what I say all the time.”
“That’s what I said in a tweet, which I guess some people think is controversial — a lot of people love it, by the way,” he continued. “A lot of people love it. But if you’re not happy in the U.S., if you’re complaining all the time, very simply, you can leave. You can leave right now. Come back if you want. Don’t come back. That’s okay, too. But if you’re not happy, you can leave.”
He went on to make false claims about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), including that she had been sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
Trump's contentment with the appreciation some had shown for his tweets was extended a bit later in the event.
"Does it concern you,” a reporter asked, “that many people saw that tweet as racist and that white nationalist groups are finding common cause with you on that point?"
“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump replied. “And all I’m saying — they want to leave, they can leave!”
"Now, it doesn't say leave forever,” he later continued. “It says leave, if you want. John, what that says is, if they're not happy with the United States, if they're doing nothing but criticizing us all the time, you see these people walking down criticizing the United States."
Why was such criticism unwarranted?
"We just hit the highest stock market in history!” he said. “All of these incredible manufacturers that are in — these are great business people, they employ many people.” He continued on to praise those in attendance and the strength of the economy.
The whole exchange is remarkable for a number of reasons, but few more than Trump blithely waving away concerns about echoing white nationalist rhetoric. White nationalists agreeing with Trump’s “go back” comments don’t concern him. Democrats criticizing him despite stock market highs means they should leave the country.
You’ll remember the criticism Trump faced after the Charlottesville protests in August 2017. Trump’s response to violence and the death of a young woman at the hands of a white nationalist was to argue that those marching with the Nazis and Confederacy defenders and those marching in opposition to them were engaged in violence and that there were “fine people” in both groups. He at one point offered a statement condemning the racists in explicit terms — a statement he read from a teleprompter — but, the next day, softened his criticism of those who rallied alongside the explicit racists. (The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward later reported that Trump saw the walk-back as a mistake.)
Charlottesville seemed to many to reveal Trump’s true attitude toward American white nationalists — a group that his 2016 campaign never explicitly embraced but to which Trump’s team occasionally made at least indirect overtures and for which Trump’s more incendiary campaign rhetoric was rarely a problem. Trump’s team decided against weighing in too heavily in opposition to white nationalists and the extreme “alt-right” that they overlap; according to former adviser Stephen K. Bannon, they “polled the race stuff and it doesn’t matter” in terms of winning votes.
Monday’s comment was more explicit than what he offered after Charlottesville. Trump — who we will note waited until the question was nearly complete before responding — waved off concerns about white nationalists agreeing with the sentiment behind his comment because people agreed with it. That it had support was reason not to worry about where the support might be coming from. It’s not a surprising sentiment coming from Trump, given his embrace of anecdotes as rationales for pressing forward with what he wants to do. But for an American president to be presented with a chance to denounce white nationalism and to not respond at all? Unheard of in the modern era.
It’s not as though this subject came from out of the blue. Trump has faced criticism for being racist over the course of his presidency, but especially over the past 24 hours. As The Post’s David Nakamura reported, Trump seemed to come prepared with talking points on his tweets, pulling them out of his pocket after his remarks about American manufacturing had ended. Trump was ready to address the controversy, did so by trying to rationalize his rhetoric — and then stood by it even when it was suggested that racists agreed with what he had to say.
Did they actually agree? On Twitter, white nationalist turned Trump critic Richard Spencer declared that “with a single tweet, Trump was able to win back the sizeable deluded portion of the Alt-Right, eager to take another trip on the merry-go-round.” Spencer, in other words, saw Trump’s tweet as a lure for the broader alt-right. He has consistently said the alt-right found Trump appealing. After Trump won, Spencer said earlier this year, the “alt-right found something in Trump.”
With Trump's shrug at the agreement of white nationalists, we enter an odd, fraught moment. Trump may declare that he misheard the question or that he has already renounced racists once and doesn't need to again. Or he may say nothing — inadvertently or intentionally sending exactly the message identified by Spencer to just that group of people.
How or if Trump addresses it all will tell us something about how he sees his current position. Is Trump the president, demanding that he tamp down on any suggestion he’s sympathetic to racist rhetoric? Or is he running for reelection, again meaning that he keeps the segment of his support that’s rooted in white nationalism at something less than arm’s length?