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The Memo: Trump remark ignites racism accusations

President TrumpDonald TrumpProsecutors focus Trump Organization probe on company's financial officer: report WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year Romney released from hospital after fall over the weekend MORE’s use of the word “shithole” to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African nations has once again moved race to the top of the political agenda.

In the wake of the remarks, the president’s critics are ever more willing to explicitly call him racist.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton: Allegations against Cuomo 'raise serious questions,' deserve probe Clinton, Pelosi holding online Women's Day fundraiser with Chrissy Teigen, Amanda Gorman Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden MORE, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the 2016 election, castigated his “ignorant, racist views” in a Friday tweet. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Senators push for changes as chamber nears vote on .9T relief bill | Warren offers bill to create wealth tax Sanders vows to force vote on minimum wage No. 2 Senate Democrat shoots down overruling parliamentarian on minimum wage MORE (I-Vt.) accused Trump of “racist ramblings.” 

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) told MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Thursday evening that Trump “could lead the Ku Klux Klan in America.” Rep. John LewisJohn LewisDOJ faces swift turnaround to meet Biden voting rights pledge Harris holds first meeting in ceremonial office with CBC members Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy MORE (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, on Friday told Katy Tur, also of MSNBC, that racism “must be in his DNA.”

The criticism also came from the media, albeit mostly in outlets that have fractious relationships with the president. 

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“The president of the United States is racist. A lot of us already knew that,” CNN anchor Don Lemon declared at the beginning of his show on Thursday.

When Trump appeared in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Friday morning to sign a proclamation to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he left to the sound of reporter April Ryan asking, “Mr. President, are you a racist?”

Trump’s contentious remarks were made during a White House meeting intended to discuss a way forward on an immigration deal. Senators from both parties were present.

Trump has long denied charges of racism, and his allies also do so vehemently. 

“There is not a racist bone in his body,” Pastor Robert Jeffress, an evangelical adviser to the president, told the Christian Broadcasting Network last summer.

During a February 2017 news conference at the White House, Trump — who at the time was facing questions about an upsurge in threats against Jewish organizations — said “Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism — the least racist person.”  

Trump on Friday denied making the “shithole” remark, writing on Twitter, “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.”

But Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottThis week: Senate takes up coronavirus relief after minimum wage setback Lobbying world Powell pushes back on GOP inflation fears MORE (R-S.C.), who was not at the meeting, said the basic accuracy of the reporting on what Trump said had been confirmed to him by Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamJuan Williams: Hypocrisy runs riot in GOP Portman on Trump's dominance of GOP: Republican Party's policies are 'even more popular' Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission MORE (R-S.C.), who was present. Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFormer GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' Grassley to vote against Tanden nomination Klain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' MORE (R-Ariz.) said he heard about the remarks before they were publicly reported.  

Sens. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonScarborough tears into 'Ivy League brats' Cruz, Hawley for attacking 'elites' Judiciary Committee greenlights Garland's AG nomination Juan Williams: Hypocrisy runs riot in GOP MORE (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) said in a joint statement that they “do not recall the President making these comments specifically.” But Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinFBI director set for combative hearing on mob attack No. 2 Senate Democrat shoots down overruling parliamentarian on minimum wage Senate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill MORE (D-Ill.), another attendee, was adamant that Trump had done so.

For Republicans, the political difficulties caused by the controversy are considerable. 

In the short term, they complicate the search for a deal on immigration in general, and the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in particular. Democrats will be under pressure from their base to make no concessions to the president. 

Beyond that, Republicans are grappling with a political landscape in which their president faces serious charges of racism and is mired in historically low approval ratings.

Some GOP House members who face challenging reelection races, such as Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloFormer GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' House GOP lawmaker unexpectedly shakes up Senate trial The Memo: Historic vote leaves Trump more isolated than ever MORE of Florida, were to the fore in criticizing the president for his remarks.  

GOP strategists fear Trump is playing havoc with the party’s brand. That brand is now “not just contaminated, it is infected,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee and a frequent Trump critic. 

Heye said the Trump administration’s propensity to produce a constant stream of controversies leaves GOP lawmakers exposed.

“This administration presents a constant ‘What now?’ problem,” he said. “At multiple times in any given week, a member is going to be asking ‘What now?’ ” 

Observers on all sides agree that the controversy will not necessarily lower Trump’s approval ratings any further. 

Indeed, the president has spent years firing up a certain cohort of the population with controversial rhetoric.

Before he ever sought office, he traded in the false theory that his predecessor, President Obama, was not born in the United States. In his speech announcing his presidential candidacy in June 2015, he said that Mexico was “not sending their best” as immigrants, and that those who were arriving in the United States included “rapists.”

Last August, after one protester was killed amid clashes over a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Trump claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” — a remark that caused outrage, as it suggested moral equivalence between Nazis and those campaigning against them. 

For all the supposed resilience of Trump’s base, there has been some erosion in recent polls. A report in The Atlantic cited cumulative data from SurveyMonkey polls during 2017 to note that his approval rating among whites without a four-year college degree had fallen 10 points below his showing with the same group in 2016 election exit polls.  

On Friday, a new poll in Georgia gave the president an approval rating of about 37 percent and a disapproval number of about 59 percent. Trump won the state by approximately 5 points in the 2016 election. 

Trump loyalists note that polls have often underestimated his support. But other, more moderate figures insist that the president’s ability to maintain his base is hardly cause for great optimism. The base is a clear minority of voters, they note. 

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for Republicans to reach out to people who are not already in the party base. That is especially true for millennials and nonwhites,” lamented Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist who has often advocated for a more inclusive approach.

The fear, among Ayres and others, is that Trump is deepening the party’s problem with every new controversy — and that a steep price will be paid at the polls come November. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.