WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced racism and anti-Semitic violence after weeks of struggling to offer clear statements of solidarity and support for racial and religious minorities.
During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump read carefully from prepared remarks decrying bigotry and specifically condemning a wave of recent threats against Jewish centers across the country.
“This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms,” Trump said. “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
Scanning the piece of paper with his finger as he read, Trump praised the museum on the Mall for its popularity and said the exhibitions had left their mark on his wife, Melania, who had visited the museum a week earlier.
For a president who prides himself on a freewheeling approach to leadership, Trump’s demeanor on Monday was notably somber and disciplined. The appearance stood in stark contrast to the flashes of irritation he showed at a news conference last week at the White House, when he dismissed questions from reporters about his outreach to African American political leaders in Washington and his lack of response to a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country.
The differing responses come as calls have been growing for Trump to respond to a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish community centers in multiple states on Monday, the fourth in a series of such threats this year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. More than 170 Jewish gravestones were found toppled at a cemetery in suburban St. Louis, over the weekend.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called Trump’s statement “as welcome as it is overdue.”
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“President Trump has been inexcusably silent as this trend of anti-Semitism has continued and arguably accelerated,” Pesner said. “The president of the United States must always be a voice against hate and for the values of religious freedom and inclusion that are the nation’s highest ideals.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the idea that Trump has been slow to address anti-Semitism and racism.
“I think it’s ironic that no matter how many times he talks about this, that it’s never good enough,” Spicer said.
While presidents are often asked to set the tone for the country on sensitive issues of race and religion, Trump has rarely seized the moment. In the past week, Trump seemed to bat aside opportunities to address anti-Semitism. And when asked by a reporter whether he would meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Trump asked the reporter, who is African American, whether she would arrange the meeting with the lawmakers, implying that they were her “friends.”
After a campaign in which Trump was criticized for appealing primarily to white Christians while strongly criticizing Mexican immigrants, Muslims and urban African American communities, the president has said little to assuage concerns that he would govern in a similar fashion, his critics say.
“I think it was a good symbolic gesture, but we need something of substance,” civil rights leader Jessie Jackson said of Trump’s museum visit, naming issues such as voting rights, unemployment and urban renewal. “There’s been no communication on things that matter to us.”
Trump has pursued policies broadening the scope of enforcement actions against people illegally in the country and sought to bar entry to the United States by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries who the administration said pose a significant danger to U.S. national security. Both actions have raised tensions with the country’s Hispanic and Muslim communities.
Some of Trump efforts Tuesday seemed aimed at smoothing over past rifts with minority communities. Spicer pointed out that during his visit to the African American history museum, Trump had viewed an exhibition featuring the speeches of civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., with whom Trump feuded last month over Lewis’s refusal to attend his inauguration.
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Still, the moves are seen as insufficient to critics who want Trump to directly address what they consider to be his missteps.
“I get that Trump never expected to be president, but now that he is president, he has to act like he’s president for all of us,” said Benjamin Jealous, a former president of the NAACP. “If he wants to be seen as a healer, he’s going to have to atone for his own sins, starting with his race-baiting on President Obama.”
Trump has been particularly sensitive to any suggestion that his administration is anti-Jewish. During the presidential campaign, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon was accused of having used the conservative news site Breitbart, when he ran it, as a platform for the “alternative right.” The alt-right, as it is commonly called, is a far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state and whose adherents are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.
Asked during a news conference last Wednesday to respond to a wave of anti-Semitic incidents across the country, Trump first launched into a defense of his electoral college victory instead of addressing the issue. The next day, Trump was given a second opportunity to address the problem at another news conference but seemed to take the question as a personal affront, declaring that the journalist who posed the question - who worked for a Jewish publication - was not being “fair” to him.
“This is frustrating to Trump. He thinks he’s being treated unfairly,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who called Trump “the most pro-Israel president ever.”
Trump has already been caught up in a number of controversies involving the Jewish community since taking office a month ago. The White House released a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention the Jewish people or anti-Semitism. Instead of acknowledging any error, the White House defended the wording, prompting criticism from several Republican-leaning Jewish groups and the ADL.
Klein was among the Jewish leaders who criticized the administration’s omission, but he said it was a minor slip for an overwhelmingly pro-Jewish president.
“I look for the policies much more than the words,” Klein said. “Small mistakes here and there - they’re just not consequential.”
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Yet Trump’s critics point to a larger pattern, including his hesitation at denouncing former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who has repeatedly pledged his support to Trump since Trump began his campaign in June 2015. Trump’s comments Tuesday on anti-Semitism also came only after his daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted a broad condemnation of the recent attacks and threats Monday evening.
Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in November, tweeted early Tuesday in reference to the anti-Semitic incidents: “Everyone must speak out, starting with @POTUS.”
Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, said that “when President Trump responds to anti-Semitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that’s when we’ll be able to say this president has turned a corner. This is not that moment.”
Trump’s supporters say that as a political outsider, the president’s response to racial and religious divisions may not be typical for politicians because he is focused more on actions and less on talk.
“Tone matters, but tone is just empty talk if there’s no movement in the right direction of those indicators of quality of life,” said Ken Blackwell, a former secretary of state of Ohio and a former domestic policy adviser for the Trump presidential transition. Blackwell, who is African American, said he expects the administration to roll out new policies aimed at addressing the specific concerns of the black community in the coming weeks.
“Just as you’ve had stops and starts on the immigration executive order, he will get his footing to address this as well,” Blackwell said. “He’s going to speak to these issues. But he is also uniquely Donald Trump, and he speaks in his own voice and in his own way.”