The Memo: Democrats don't buy Trump condemnation of white supremacy

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE sought to put clear distance between himself and white supremacy on Monday — but his critics aren’t buying it.

Trump made his strongest condemnation yet of white nationalism after a horrific weekend in which at least 31 people were killed in two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” he said in remarks from the White House. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But Democratic presidential candidates, among others, argued that his comments did not absolve him of a prior record that includes verbal attacks on Mexican immigrants; equivocations over racial violence in Charlottesville, Va.; a smear of “shithole countries”; and a more recent suggestion that four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen — all American citizens — should “go back” to where they came from.

“Of course he’s racist,” former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who represented El Paso in Congress, said Monday on MSNBC. “He’s been racist from day one.”

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi set to unveil drug price plan | Abortion rate in US hits lowest level since Roe v. Wade | Dems threaten to subpoena Juul MORE (I-Vt.), both of whom are, like O'Rourke, competing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, blasted Trump too. Warren said he was “amplifying” white supremacy, while Sanders contended that he “coddles Nazis and Klansmen.”

Former President Obama also released a forceful statement that, while not mentioning Trump, urged Americans to “soundly reject” leaders who feed “a climate of fear and hatred.”

The suspect in the shooting in El Paso, in which 22 people were killed, is believed to have published an online essay shortly before his shooting spree began. In it, he railed against “race-mixing” and also what he termed an “invasion” of Texas by Hispanic immigrants.

Trump has also referred to illegal immigration with terms like “invasion.” At the weekend, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity CNN announces details for LGBTQ town hall MORE (D-N.J.) flatly accused Trump of being “responsible for this.”

Outside groups have made similar suggestions. Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, released a statement in the wake of the El Paso mass killing in which she asserted: “By describing immigrants in derogatory terms, President Trump is pushing anti-immigrant hate into the mainstream.” 

She added that Trump’s “rhetoric and tweets are normalizing anti-immigrant sentiments and fueling white supremacist conspiracy theories that engender violence.” 

Such a connection is adamantly denied by the president and his supporters. One such supporter, George W. Bush administration veteran Brad Blakeman, told The Hill that there was not a “scintilla” of evidence to link Trump to the tragic events in Texas or Ohio.

Trump backers often rail against the media, which they contend judges the president by a harsh yardstick on matters pertaining to race and rhetoric.

Beyond the debate about direct and indirect culpability for deadly violence, there is the question of whether Trump’s inflammatory style has finally become a political liability. 

For all the media coverage devoted to his tendency to cater to his base, there are real signs that the public at large could be wearying of his style.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month found an absolute majority, 51 percent, of voters believed Trump to be racist — an extraordinary statistic for any president of the United States.

An ABC News–Washington Post poll conducted in late June and early July asked a broader question about whether Trump had behaved in an unpresidential fashion or in a way befitting his office. 

By a huge majority — 65 percent to 28 percent — respondents said that he had behaved unpresidentially.

Earlier in the year, a Pew Research Center poll found that 56 percent of Americans believed Trump had made race relations worse, while a mere 15 percent believed he had improved them.

Those kinds of figures suggest that disapproval of Trump’s tone and approach stretches well beyond committed Democrats. And that, in turn, gives even some Republicans concern about the potential electoral consequences.

Asked about Trump’s rhetoric, Republican strategist Doug Heye said simply, “It never helps.” 

He also expressed worry about how the lack of political action to curb gun violence could fuse with disquiet over Trump’s rhetoric to harm the GOP with suburban voters next year. 

“That’s where the pressure point is going to be,” Heye said.

That may be one reason why Trump was so direct in his condemnation of white supremacy in his remarks on Monday morning from the White House. 

Defenders of the president, such as Blakeman, argued the president was clear-cut and unequivocal. Democrats should be careful not to overreach in a way that would make it look as if they were trying to gain politically from the mass killings, he added.

“Any time you seek to politicize a tragedy for your own gain, you do it at your peril,” he warned.

But Democrats argued that it was Trump who should be on the defensive and that one statement did not clear away the debris piled up from his past record.

“The president clearly deserves a huge amount of blame for inciting extreme behavior and extremists themselves,” said Simon Rosenberg, of the center-left New Democrat Network.

“I think what’s going to matter is his deeds, not his words. Does anything change?”

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