Senior staffers quickly conferred over the phone and then began trying to reach the president to convey their concerns about the tweet. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, son-in-law Jared Kushner and other senior advisers spoke with president, said several people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations.
Roughly three hours later, the president gave the go-ahead to delete his incendiary tweet — moved, in large part, by the public calls from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only black Republican, to do just that, aides said.
White House spokespeople said Trump didn’t hear his supporter twice shout “white power.” But neither the president nor his team publicly condemned the racist phrase, setting off another controversial news cycle for a president already struggling to unite the country amid accusations that he traffics in racist and racially inflammatory language.
Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and a Trump critic who wrote a book titled “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies To Us,” said the president’s unwillingness to disavow the “white power” comment was damning and more important than the belated deletion of the tweet that initially amplified the video.
“What President Trump and every member of his campaign and the White House need to do is come out and say, ‘We do not want votes from people who shout “white power” or hold up white supremacist ideology, in any way, shape or form,’ ’’ Carpenter said. “Until they do that, they’re stoking this.”
As protests over police brutality and racial injustice have erupted across the country in recent weeks, Trump has dialed up his inflammatory rhetoric, repeatedly turning to racist tropes.
Trump has also defended statues of Confederate generals as “beautiful” and pledged to block bipartisan efforts to rename military bases named after military leaders who fought in defense of slavery during the Civil War. Despite multiple opportunities to condemn the Confederacy or make broader appeals to racial unity, the president has declined, often taking the opposite approach.
He has decried some protesters as “THUGS” and “terrorists” and threatened to unleash massive force against them, including with “vicious dogs,” recalling the brutality employed against black civil rights activists in the 1960s.
Trump has tweeted several videos of black men attacking white people in recent weeks as he has attempted to discredit the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
The president’s recent inflammatory remarks build upon a long history that includes promoting the racist conspiracy theory that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States, deriding Mexican immigrants as criminals and pushing for a ban on Muslim immigration into the United States.
The steady stream of racist and offensive language from Trump has convinced many Americans that the president is a racist, according to recent polling.
And Trump has injected his derisive rhetoric into his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, twice referring to the respiratory disease that originated in China as the “kung flu.”
Lily Adams, a senior adviser to a super PAC supporting former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said “the fact that Donald Trump and the White House won’t even clear the bar of condemning white supremacy just shows how devoid of any morals things really have become.”
Speaking on “Fox & Friends” Monday morning, McEnany said Trump hadn’t heard the “white power” shout but never condemned the language, saying, “His point in tweeting out that video was to stand with his supporters, who are oftentimes demonized.”
She was more explicit during a news conference later in the day, saying that while Trump did listen to the video before sharing it on Twitter, “he did not hear that particular phrase.”
As McEnany left the White House briefing room, reporters shouted after her, asking why the president and his advisers had declined to condemn the phrase “white power” — but the question was never posed during the news conference, nor did McEnany bring it up. A senior White House official said that had McEnany been asked, she was prepared to say that of course the president condemns white power, white nationalism and racism in any form.
McEnany also entered the briefing room with a set of bullet points alleging problematic statements and stances of Democrats on the issue of race, including Biden and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
Trump’s tweet was just the latest racial controversy that prompted Republicans to try to defend or explain away the actions of a president who once declared there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
Paris Dennard, the senior communications adviser for black media affairs at the Republican National Committee, argued that people should focus not on Trump’s original tweet, but on the fact that he eventually took it down.
“Deleting the tweet was a clear sign that President Trump did not agree with the comment, deleting the tweet was the condemnation and it was the correct and responsible action,” Dennard said. “President Trump has always denounced and condemned racism, bigotry and violence as a private citizen, candidate and President of the United States. I am more concerned at the fact that the media is not asking Team Joe Biden to condemn his long history of very bigoted, offensive and racist comments all over social media.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), when asked about Trump’s decision to share the video, said he believed the White House explanation that the president didn’t realize what he was promoting.
“I think that — how I have observed and sometimes do things without listening to every word — that that’s not impossible, and I think he showed his sincerity by withdrawing,” Grassley said.
The Villages Republican Club said in a tweet that it was “appalled” by the turn of events.
“In the video a man was yelling ‘White Power,’ ” the group wrote. “This is NOT what we stand for and is NOT a reflection of Village residents. We must unite as a Country!”
A spokesman for the club, John Calandro, said in an interview that there was “no justification” for the comment and that it was “disappointing” that it had been amplified to Trump’s 82 million followers.
“When you have a community like ours, you don’t like to have anybody cast it in a light that’s not favorable,” he said, adding that Trump continues to enjoy strong support among residents.
The Villages, where 97 percent of the population is white and less than 1 percent is black, is the kind of place where Trump’s “Make America Great Again” pitch has a specific racial appeal, said Andrew Blechman, who wrote “Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children,” a book about the sprawling retirement community.
“The entire place is a pantomime of a make-believe sepia-toned fantasy of ‘the way America used to be and should be’ — where white people dominate, blacks are either nonexistent or nonthreatening domestics / low-wagers, and teens go to sock hops and jerk soda,” he said in an email, adding that he was not surprised by the views expressed in the video.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.