Seizing the moment during his first visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, formally inaugurated just six months ago by his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump called for an end to “hatred in all of its very ugly forms.
He pushed a message of unity, saying he would work to “bring this country together” as he reacted to the dozens of bomb hoaxes phoned in to Jewish centers in recent weeks — which are now under investigation by the FBI.
“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,” Trump said.
At the weekend, more than 100 headstones were damaged at a Jewish cemetery in St Louis, Missouri, the facility’s director said.
Nearly a dozen Jewish community centers received bomb threats that prompted evacuations on Monday. All of the threats turned out to be hoaxes. Dozens of similar incidents have been reported since the start of the year.
While Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism in 2009, denounced the threats over the weekend, saying on Twitter that “we must protect our houses of worship & religious centers,” the president had not commented despite repeated direct questions about the issue.
America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) February 20, 2017
When asked specifically about the threats at a press conference last week, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, the Republican offered a curious answer, promising Americans they would be seeing “a lot of love.”
He also mentioned his close family ties to Judaism: “so many friends, a daughter who happens to be here right now, a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren.” His son-in-law Jared Kushner is now a top White House advisor.
The next day, when an Orthodox Jewish reporter asked Trump at a White House news conference about a post-election surge in anti-Semitic incidents in America, Trump reacted defensively, telling his questioner to “sit down.”
Trump also said he was “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
Dozens of threats
Since the start of the year, the Jewish Community Center Association of North America has recorded 69 bomb threat incidents at dozens of centers in 27 US states and one Canadian province.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Trump’s statement was “as welcome as it is overdue.”
“President Trump has been inexcusably silent as this trend of anti-Semitism has continued and arguably accelerated,” Pesner said.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said he was dismayed by the fact that “no matter how many times he talks about this… it’s never good enough.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, an impressive building on the National Mall near the Washington Monument, brings together thousands of artifacts retelling the history of blacks in America.
Following his visit, Trump also pledged “to do everything I can to continue that promise of freedom for African-Americans and for every American,” and pledged to soon visit the nearby US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Accompanied by Ben Carson, the African American retired neurosurgeon he tapped to head the department of Housing and Urban Development, Trump praised the museum’s work honoring “African American men and women who built our national heritage.”
But it also was clearly intended to assuage concerns raised over Trump’s embrace by white supremacist groups and an “alt-right” movement given a platform on Breitbart, the online news outlet once headed by Trump’s chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.
The White House raised eyebrows on International Holocaust Remembrance Day late last month by issuing a statement that made no mention of the six million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide.
As he toured the museum, he was asked by an MSNBC reporter Tuesday whether he would clear up the confusion by denouncing anti-Semitism, Trump said, “I do all the time.”
“I think it’s terrible or horrible, whether it’s anti-Semitism or racism or anything you can think about having to do with the divide,” he said.
“You don’t know where it’s coming from but I certainly hope they catch the people,” he said.