Again and again, President Trump heard the calls for condemnation — after bomb threats were called into Jewish community centers, after tombstones were overturned and swastikas were spray-painted at Jewish cemeteries, and after some of his supporters cheered his election with Hitler salutes and cries of “Hail Trump!”
Trump sometimes ducked and dodged, seemingly allergic to saying anything that hinted at political correctness. When he did condemn anti-Semitism, he did so without the gusto that many listeners wanted to hear.
But on Tuesday, his 96th day in office, Trump answered these calls forcefully and unambiguously.
“This is my pledge to you: We will confront anti-Semitism,” Trump vowed. “We will stamp out prejudice, we will condemn hatred, we will bear witness and we will act.”
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Days of Remembrance event — held under the U.S. Capitol’s historic dome, which stands as testament to America’s democratic principles — Trump confronted the scourge of anti-Semitism more directly than at any other time in his political life.
In a 15-minute speech before several hundred people, Trump paid tribute to Holocaust victims and survivors, and he vowed to protect Israel from terrorists or others seeking the Jewish state’s destruction. Using words including “evil,” “slaughter” and “genocide,” he promised to never forget the horrors of Nazi Germany, which he called “history’s darkest hour.”
“Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil, and we’ll never be silent; we just won’t,” Trump said. “We will never, ever be silent in the face of evil again.”
These were not Trump’s first formal remarks about anti-Semitism. He opened his February speech to a joint session of Congress with one sentence “condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”
But it was the first time Trump devoted a set of remarks to anti-Semitism, which has existed in the United States for generations but seems to have found new strength in the alt-right movement that mobilized behind Trump’s candidacy — and, on social media, a powerful new voice. The alt-right seeks a whites-only state. Its adherents are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.
Trump’s campaign stumbled time and again over how to address, or even whether to condemn, anti-Semitism around the country, including by some of his supporters. Those struggles followed Trump into the White House, where aides have been criticized for minimizing the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people before and during World War II.
This month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to suggest that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had committed more egregious attacks on his people than did Adolf Hitler, who oversaw the extermination of more than 6 million Jews in Europe. Spicer quickly and repeatedly apologized for his comments.
In addition, one of Trump’s national security aides, Sebastian Gorka, has been dogged by his alleged connections to anti-Semitic, Nazi-affiliated groups in Hungary, where he once lived.
Peter Wehner, an adviser and speechwriter in George W. Bush’s White House, commended Trump for speaking out Tuesday about anti-Semitism but lamented that it was such a long time coming.
“During the campaign he didn’t seem willing or inclined to distance himself from the ugliness of his supporters. Today he did, and that’s a good thing,” said Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
He added: “That’s what you need a president to do — to speak not just for the whole country, but to give voice to moral truths and to stand up for decency. It wasn’t clear whether he would do it, but he did it.”
White House officials said that Trump decided himself that he wanted to speak at Tuesday’s Days of Remembrance event, and he took personal ownership of the drafting of his remarks.
On all matters pertaining to Israel, Trump is influenced by senior adviser Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, who helped him write a well-regarded speech on Israel during the primary campaign and has been the administration’s chief liaison to the Jewish community.
Several other senior aides, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, are Jewish and accompanied Trump to Tuesday’s event at the Capitol.
Trump has sought to align his presidency with the interests of Israel and has cultivated a warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his Tuesday remarks, Trump said, “As president of the United States, I will always stand with the Jewish people, and I will always stand with our great friend and partner, the state of Israel.”
Trump’s posture won praise from Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who celebrated the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airfield, which Trump authorized in retaliation for Assad’s chemical weapons attack in that country’s civil war.
“That decision was a defiance of indifference,” Dermer said. “And if evil triumphs when good men do nothing, we should all seek to live in a world that defies indifference.”
A number of Holocaust survivors were in the audience and lit candles on stage.
“You witnessed evil,” Trump told them. “Many of you lost your entire family, everything and everyone you loved gone. You saw mothers and children led to mass slaughter. You saw the starvation and the torture. You saw the organized attempt at the extermination of an entire people — and great people, I must add. You survived the ghettos, the concentration camps and the death camps, and you persevered to tell your stories.”
Trump spoke at length about the legacy of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and political activist who died last summer, saying that he had the “gentle spirit of an angel who lived through hell and whose courage still lights the path from darkness.”
Trump’s remarks drew praise from some Jewish leaders who criticized him for his silence or timidity at earlier junctures.
“It deeply matters that President Trump used the power of his office to stand against anti-Semitism and hate and to honor the memory of the six million Jews and millions of others murdered in Europe,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “But this spirit should not be restricted to Holocaust Remembrance Day. We very much hope the president will continue to use his bully pulpit to speak out against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hatred in all forms.”
After the election, Greenblatt vocally opposed Trump’s selection of Stephen K. Bannon as his chief strategist in the White House because Bannon once led Breitbart, a conservative news organization that the ADL considers “the premier website of the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.”
Trump previously faced accusations of anti-Semitism, including last year when as a candidate he tweeted a graphic attacking his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, that had been circulating online in anti-Semitic circles. It featured Clinton’s face next to a Star of David on top of piles of money.
Within two hours, the tweet was deleted, and the image was posted again with a circle instead of the star. But for days, Trump sparred with reporters and critics over the tweet, which he defended by insisting that the image was a “sheriff’s star” rather than a Jewish symbol.
The president who addressed Holocaust survivors on Tuesday seemed to be a different man than the candidate who refused to apologize for retweeting an anti-Semitic image.
“We must never, ever shrink away from telling the truth about evil in our time,” Trump said. “Evil is always seeking to wage war about the innocent and to destroy all that is good and beautiful about our common humanity, but evil can only thrive in darkness.”