As institutions across the country, from NASCAR to the state of Mississippi, take steps to remove Confederate imagery and other symbols of racism from the public square, Trump and his White House allies are struggling to mount a defense of increasingly antiquated views. Their latest argument is that Trump — who has expressed views on topics from “Saturday Night Live” to horse racing controversies to the weekend lineup at Fox News — is opinion-less about the Civil War’s most controversial symbol.
Trump made the contrast all the more stark with a Monday morning pro-Confederacy tweet, which became the latest example of his willingness to push to preserve Confederate symbols and the legacy of white domination as part of his reelection pitch.
The president said on Twitter that NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace should apologize to those who stood beside him after his racing team discovered a noose in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway on June 21; Trump described the incident as a “hoax.”
He went on to write that the incident, along with NASCAR’s ban on the Confederate flag, has harmed the sport’s ratings.
“That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!” Trump wrote.
A Fox Sports executive later tweeted that NASCAR ratings are up on the network.
McEnany, who joined the White House from Trump’s campaign in April, has found herself repeatedly defending the president’s racially offensive outbursts.
She has vacillated between trying to recraft or obfuscate Trump’s statements and arguing that they mean something completely different from how they are widely interpreted. In her short term as press secretary, she has spoken in favor of Confederate monuments, military bases named after Confederate generals and Trump supporters in a video in which one man twice shouts “white power.”
On Monday, facing a barrage of questions about Trump’s flag tweet, McEnany’s thick briefing book offered little of substance to defend the president’s latest foray into America’s racial divide.
“I spoke to him this morning on this, and he said that he was not making a judgment on this one way or the other,” she replied when asked why Trump was appearing to support the Confederate flag.
As reporters came back to the topic — and pressed McEnany on her claim that the president was taking a position of neutrality on the flag — she tried a few different approaches.
Asked if Trump thought it was a mistake for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag, McEnany reiterated that he had not taken a position and criticized a journalist for “focusing on one word at the very bottom of a tweet.”
She later attempted, multiple times, to contextualize the tweet by saying that “in aggregate” it was an attempt to defend NASCAR fans from “knee-jerk” claims that they are racist.
“The president was noting the fact that in aggregate this notion that NASCAR men and women who have gone and who are being demeaned and called racist and being accused in some venues of committing a hate crime against an individual — those allegations are just dead wrong,” she said, without explaining whom she was accusing of making such a broad attack on NASCAR fans.
She made a few other attempts to explain the tweet, each time sidestepping the central issue of whether the president supports the Confederate flag.
“The whole point of the tweet is to note the incident, the alleged hate crime that in fact was not a hate crime,” she said. “At the very end, the ban on the flag was mentioned in the broader context of the fact that he rejects this notion that somehow NASCAR men and women who go to these events are racist.”
McEnany’s tortured defense of Trump’s tweet stood out Monday in part because she was one of the few voices attempting to support the president’s views on the Confederate flag — even as she claimed he didn’t have any.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, said Monday that Wallace had no reason to apologize and that NASCAR had made the right business decision.
“I’ve lived in South Carolina all my life, and if you’re in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business,” he said on Fox News Radio.
McEnany also was unable to explain what Trump wanted Wallace to apologize for. Wallace never saw the noose, and it was a member of his team who reported it to NASCAR officials.
After investigating, the FBI announced June 23 that no hate crime had been committed against the black driver because the rope, which had been tied into a noose and used as a garage door pull, had been in that particular garage since October, when NASCAR previously raced at Talladega.
Asked what Wallace should apologize for, McEnany said: “Well, look, the FBI, as I noted, concluded that this is not a hate crime, and he believes it would go a long way if Bubba came out and acknowledged that as well. This was not a hate crime, as noted by the FBI.”
Wallace said in a Twitter statement Monday that he was choosing “love over hate” and added a direct reference to Trump.
“Always deal with the hate being thrown at you with LOVE! Love over hate every day,” he wrote. “Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it’s HATE from the POTUS.”
NASCAR also released a statement Monday, expressing its support for Wallace and its opposition to racism.
The turn of events further highlighted Trump’s increasingly isolated stance as he leans into the politics of racial grievance and defense of the Confederacy.
McEnany has emerged as one of the president’s most avid defenders as he has gone further.
After Trump retweeted the video of one of his supporters shouting “white power” in an overwhelmingly white Florida retirement community last week, McEnany said Trump didn’t hear the phrase. After he deleted the video but did not condemn the language used, McEnany pointed to the deletion while also defending the Trump supporters in the video.
“His point in tweeting out that video was to stand with his supporters, who are oftentimes demonized,” McEnany said on Fox News last week.
She has defended Trump’s threat to veto any bill renaming bases honoring Confederate generals by saying it would be an insult to U.S. troops who trained at these facilities before heading out to war — even though the generals in question fought against the United States.
McEnany ended her briefing Monday by focusing on black victims of crime, lambasting reporters for asking about Trump’s Confederate flag tweets rather than about incidents of violence in several cities over the weekend.
As she walked away, reporters shouted that the president’s Twitter feed — and her lack of direct answers about his views on the Confederate flag — was part of the reason the issue dominated the briefing.
Minutes later, Trump tweeted his opinion about sports teams that are considering changing mascots viewed as offensive. Again, he took a position that McEnany may find herself trying to defend with little support.
“They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct,” Trump wrote. “Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now!”
Matt Bonesteel and John Wagner contributed to this report.