President Trump listens as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson speaks during an event to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the White House Friday.
Evan Vucci, AP
WASHINGTON — As he prepared to leave Washington for a three-day holiday weekend Friday, President Trump was supposed to have just two pieces of business to finish: Go to the doctor for an annual physical, and sign a proclamation to commemorate the Martin Luther King Day holiday.
But then he found himself engulfed in a controversy that at once undermined his MLK day message and raised questions about his temperament and attitudes towards race, having to address accusations that he called African nations, in so many words, “shithole countries.”
This turbulent day provided the most striking juxtaposition to date between two visions of the Trump presidency. In one, Trump is a transformative president whose vow to make America great again extends to Americans of all classes and races. In the other, his not-so-thinly-veiled appeals to white supremacy have divided the country and reversed a half-century of progress on race relations.
Both were on display Friday.
“Today, we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truths Americans hold so dear: that no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are created equal by God,” Trump said, signing a proclamation for the King holiday in a room of African-American officials, pastors, and political leaders.
Moments later, Trump ignored questions from reporters who asked, “Mr. President, are you a racist?”
The day before, Trump had told a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the White House that he’d rather have more immigrants from Norway and fewer from “shithole counties” in Africa and reportedly asked, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
Trump denied using that exact language, but one senator in the room, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., confirmed he said it. “He used those words, and he used them repeatedly,” Durbin said. Republicans who were there either didn’t deny it or said they couldn’t remember it — but distanced themselves from Trump’s statement.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the president’s remarks were “not helpful” in reaching a compromise on an immigration bill.
Domestic critics questioned Trump’s fitness for office and accused him of promoting notions of white supremacy.
It wasn’t the first time Trump derailed his own agenda with his incendiary brand of 140-character rhetoric. Not was it the first time those comments have drawn him into the precarious debate over some of the less noble chapters of American history.
Indeed, Trump’s very candidacy was born in birtherism, the debunked conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was an illegitimate president because he was born in Kenya.
He has referred to Mexicans as rapists. He has attacked African-American athletes protesting police violence by kneeling during the national anthem. And he appeared to assign equal blame to white nationalist marchers and counter-protesters after clashes in Charlottesville left one woman dead.
Michele Lamont, a Harvard professor who studies sociology, Africa and African-American studies, examined Trump’s appeals to the working class in 73 campaign speeches. She said Trump’s racial rhetoric has gotten even more explicit since his inauguration. But the target audience — older, white, working class voters — is the same.
“The fact of naming these countries as ‘shitholes’ is a way to assert the dominance of the U.S. over the world,” she said. “It’s not only about the content of what he’s saying, it’s the way he’s saying it. To use this vulgar language that they hear as unfiltered and uncensored, plays into the sense of authenticity among the white working class that he’s one of them.”
But even as these comments spark controversy, Trump has also tried to portray himself as a civil rights candidate and president. Last February, he signed an executive order to move HBCU policy — dealing with historically black colleges and universities — into the White House.
He signed a bill this week to expand King’s birthplace in Atlanta into a national historical park, and another one Friday to expand the national historic site at Little Rock Central High School, the ground zero of desegregated schools.
And he boasted that the African American unemployment rate was at an all-time low under his administration. “Dems did nothing for you but get your vote! #NeverForget,” he tweeted.
This time, the comment was in a private Oval Office meeting to discuss immigration. But it was explosive in part because it came during sensitive negotiations over an immigration bill that could decide which countries the United States will accept immigrants from and which will have the door closed.
After being invited into the White House to celebrate the proclamation signing, a gaggle of African-American Trump loyalists spoke to reporters outside.
“We often times forget that the president is the president of all the people, of all Americans, Republicans, Democrats, big states, small states, of the forgotten people who put him into office,” said Paris Dennard of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, after leaving the MLK proclamation ceremony. “It’s also important that we give the president that credit he deserves.”
One after another, they vouched for the president’s character, ignoring questions about the racial overtones of Trump’s immigration language.
“God bless you. Thank you. No questions,” said Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor, turning and walking back into the White House.
Contributing: Eliza Collins and David Jackson in Washington and Kim Hjelmgaard in London.
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