The Memo: Trump remark ignites racism accusations

President TrumpDonald TrumpNew Capitol Police chief to take over Friday Overnight Health Care: Biden officials says no change to masking guidance right now | Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of Medicaid expansion | Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade Michael Wolff and the art of monetizing gossip 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 ClintonJill Biden takes starring role at difficult Olympics Club for Growth goes after Cheney in ad, compares her to Clinton Sanders to campaign for Turner in Ohio MORE, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the 2016 election, castigated his “ignorant, racist views” in a Friday tweet. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersProtect women's right to choose how and when they work Senate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Schumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal 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 Lewis10 books that take readers inside the lives of American leaders Biden says he doesn't want voting rights 'wrapped up' in filibuster debate CBC honors Black women advocates amid voting rights battle 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 ScottBiden: Republicans who say Democrats want to defund the police are lying The Hill's Morning Report - Surging COVID-19 infections loom over US, Olympics Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections 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 GrahamSenate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform MORE (R-S.C.), who was present. Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.) said he heard about the remarks before they were publicly reported.  

Sens. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonEx-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Republicans raise concerns about Olympians using digital yuan during Beijing Games 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 DurbinSchumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform 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 CurbeloDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women 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.