“Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Richard Spencer, the leader of the National Policy Institute, declared before a crowd of more than 200 people that descended on Washington D.C. for the white nationalist think tank’s annual conference this past Saturday. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer, who is credited with coining the term “alt-right” declared before the energetic audience, as dozens extended their hands in Nazi salutes. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
More than two days passed before Donald Trump released a statement Monday night responding to the chilling scene, videos of which circulated on social media over the weekend. “President-elect Trump has continued to denounce racism of any kind and he was elected because he will be a leader for every American,” Bryan Lanza, a spokesperson for the incoming Trump administration, wrote, failing to specifically condemn either Spencer, the National Policy Institute, or the white supremacist movement that embraced his candidacy and is now celebrating his presidency. “To think otherwise is a complete misrepresentation of the movement that united Americans of all backgrounds.”
The backlash to the tepid denunciation was swift, with many arguing that the Trump transition team’s response to Spencer’s vile rhetoric wasn’t strong enough. “Mr. Trump puts out a namby-pamby statement? Give me a break,” CNN’s David Gergen said Monday night, arguing that “silence is acquiescence” and that the president-elect should publicly speak out against Spencer’s racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote, “There is room for cooperation on much of Trump’s agenda. But cooperation is difficult, if not impossible, when a president gives sanction to bigotry.” And MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin asked on Twitter, “Set aside politics or norms. If a bunch of racists are playacting Nazism in your name isn’t the natural response to be personally furious?”
Again, this didn't happen. Trump did not do this. His statement doesn't mention them at all. pic.twitter.com/SkiEcJiNqs
— Mazel Tov Cocktail (@AdamSerwer) November 22, 2016
In the wake of Trump’s victory, there has been an uptick in reports of hate crimes and race-fueled attacks. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there were more than 700 “hateful incidents of harassment around the country” between Nov. 9 and Nov. 16. And last Monday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey launched a hotline for people to “report bias-motivated threats, harassment, and violence,” which received more than 400 calls within the first week, WBUR news reports. The response from the Trump team to reports of such incidents has been minimal, however. During an interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes, days after the election, Trump offered his strongest condemnation of the incidents, but not without pointing a finger at the press first. “I think it’s horrible if that’s happening,” he said, before adding. “I think it’s built up by the press because, frankly, they’ll take every single little incident that they can find in this country, which could’ve been there before. If I weren’t even around doing this, and they’ll make into an event because that’s the way the press is.” When Stahl pressed him on the issue, he finally addressed the bad actors directly. “Don’t do it, that’s terrible, ‘cause I’m gonna bring this country together.” Turning to the camera, he added, “I will say this, and I will say it right to the cameras: Stop it.”
Since then, the Trump transition team has done little to address reports of hate speech and harassment being conducted in the president-elect’s name. On Monday, Kellyanne Conway brushed off the reports and suggested that Trump has already done enough. “He has addressed it many times. Same question, different week,” Conway, a senior adviser on Trump’s transition team, told reporters outside of Trump Tower, Politico reports. “He’s told people to cut it out. He said that on 60 Minutes in front of 32 million people. And he has said that he’ll be the president of all Americans. But, honestly and respectfully, I think that we can use your help in that,” she added.
Donald Trump has a long history of offering equivocal statements about white nationalists and other hate groups that have supported him. Earlier this year, Trump was notably slow to distance himself from former Klansman David Duke, who had given him his endorsement. Trump eventually disavowed him, only to feign ignorance of Duke days later. “I don’t know anything about David Duke, O.K.?” the then-presidential hopeful said during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
Meanwhile, Trump has begun assembling a White House team that has been perceived by many as aligned with, if not sympathetic to, white nationalist goals. Among his first appointments was naming Stephen Bannon, the erstwhile executive editor of the alt-right organ Breitbart News, as his senior strategist. Several days later, he picked Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Senator who was turned down for a federal judgeship in 1986 because of his alleged past racist comments, to serve as attorney general. Other top advisers include Mike Flynn, a notorious Islamophobe, who he named National Security Adviser, and Kris Kobach, an immigration hardliner who has outlined plans to register Muslims, block the immigration of all Syrian refugees, and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
But while Trump builds an administration that appears ready to carry out his most controversial campaign promises, the president-elect is working to present a friendlier, more unifying face to the public. On Monday, Trump released a YouTube video outlining a plan for his first 100 days in office that mentioned only proposals to bring back jobs, reduce regulations, and impose bans on lobbying. There was no reference to his past promises to ban Muslims from entering the country, build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, or increase deportations. Still, Trump sent a message of sorts with what he didn’t say, both in his YouTube video and in his response to Saturday’s neo-Nazi gathering—making it hard to take his promise to “Make America Great Again for everyone, and I mean everyone,” at face value.
Update: Later, during an on-the-record meeting with the New York Times on Tuesday, the president-elect offered additional, muted criticism of the alt-right. “It’s not a group that I want to energize. And if they are energized I want to find out why,” he said, when asked about their support. Breitbart, he said, was “just a publication”. And when asked about Bannon, who previously bragged to Mother Jones, “We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Trump played dumb. “If I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of the things, the terms we could use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”