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What President Trump's Comments Say About His Views On Race

Originally published on January 12, 2018 3:17 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We start this hour with a vulgar comment and the reaction to it in Washington and around the world. The comment made by President Trump during a bipartisan meeting on immigration yesterday was first reported by The Washington Post. The president denies making it. We think it's important for listeners to know what he said. So here it is. The president called African countries shithole countries.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Then criticism came from Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, who was in the meeting...

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DICK DURBIN: It was vile. It was hateful. It was racist.

SHAPIRO: ...And on cable news, where correspondents and hosts explicitly used the word racist to describe the president.

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JIM ACOSTA: There just seems to be a pattern here for this president. And it's a disturbing pattern because it seems to come back to one truth here, and that is that this president deep down may just be a racist.

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DON LEMON: The president of the United States is racist.

SHAPIRO: That was Jim Acosta and Don Lemon of CNN.

MCEVERS: Criticism also came from the spokesperson for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Rupert Colville.

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RUPERT COLVILLE: These are shocking and shameful comments from the president of the United States. I'm sorry, but there's no other word one can use but racist.

MCEVERS: And this isn't the first time the president has been accused of racism. Even before he ran for president, he pushed the false idea that President Obama wasn't born in the United States.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just don't think he has a birth certificate. And everybody has a birth certificate. When you're born in a hospital, you have a birth certificate. There's something fishy.

MCEVERS: So are the president's comments a departure from what we've seen before? For one take on that, I talked to Jason Johnson. He's a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University and the politics editor at The Root.

JASON JOHNSON: Every single time the president of the United States reveals himself to be exactly the same man that he has been for the last 45 years, we sort of go through this cycle of first people being shocked, then some of his supporters attempting to sort of parse and piece together what he said. But I think in the context of what he said yesterday and the policy questions that are on the table now with DACA and El Salvador and all sorts of other negotiations, I think we're having more of a policy discussion now about his bigotry. And I think that's helpful in this country.

MCEVERS: I think what maybe has changed this time is the coverage of it. Do you think the coverage is appropriate?

JOHNSON: Well, I think the coverage is appropriate because above and beyond having discussions about whether or not you can use excrement-hole on a regular basis, I do think the coverage has been valuable in this respect rather than just talking about Donald Trump being a racist. And I've always maintained I don't care if Donald Trump is a racist. Being a racist does not disqualify you from serving in public office. Being a racist is not illegal.

The problem is when your private and personal racism in your home manifests itself in policies, then you're violating the Constitution. This wasn't isolated. This wasn't just him saying Pocahontas. This wasn't anything like that. He said something racist in the context of a policy discussion. So I think the news coverage has actually been focusing on, well, what does it mean to have a racist president who's supposed to be negotiating about immigration and DACA with mostly brown and black people?

MCEVERS: So you say you're not surprised. So sort of walk us through some of the instances from before that show us this side of Trump's character as it relates to policy.

JOHNSON: The entire history of the Trump campaign, let alone his public life, has been driven by an anger towards non-white people in America. You know, people want to talk about the famous time where he says, well, you know, Mexico sends over their rapists. They send over bad hombres.

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TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists, and some I assume are good people.

JOHNSON: And that was bad rhetorically. But you know, that's not the only thing that Trump has said. There's also - he talked to April Ryan and said, hey, can you just connect the black people with me?

MCEVERS: We should say April Ryan of course is a White House correspondent. She's a CNN political analyst.

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. And he says, the blacks love me. He speaks to a group of police officers and makes jokes about abusing people when you're putting them into a police car.

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TRUMP: I said, please don't be too nice.

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TRUMP: Like, when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over - like, don't hit their head. And they've just killed somebody. Don't hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK?

JOHNSON: He talks about primarily African-American athletes who are protesting against police brutality and calls them SOBs. You know, the most classic example of this could be seen when the president referred to there being good people on both sides in Charlottesville.

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TRUMP: I think there's blame on both sides.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).

TRUMP: You look at both sides. I think there's blame on both sides.

MCEVERS: That was of course the - where a recent white nationalist rally was held. A woman was killed when she was hit by a car.

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. There is a long, consistent line of racist - not dog whistles but actual screaming loud bells. But it goes beyond just his rhetoric. He has hired people who share similar hostile beliefs towards people who are not white and people who are not Christian. And then those people have been responsible for passing policy. It goes from rhetoric to hiring to policy, and that's what we've seen from Donald Trump all throughout his campaign, all throughout this first year of his presidency. And that's why it's dangerous to the sovereignty and the safety of the United States of America.

MCEVERS: President's defenders say things like, you know, look; he's always been outspoken. This is who he is. This is who people voted for. His focus is to help American workers, preserve American jobs. Tens of millions of people voted for him for that reason. What do you say to those people?

JOHNSON: Oh, I say nothing because look; at this point, defenders of Donald Trump - it's a religion, you know? You don't argue with your family about religion. You let people believe (laughter) what they want to believe. You know, someone who this recent instance is saying, oh, my gosh, I think now he's a bigot - I would say, you're late to the party.

MCEVERS: Is this a definitive moment for you? I mean, we just heard mainstream news reporters saying outright the president is racist. You know, you have a member of Senate leadership explicitly calling the president's remarks racist. Is this a moment for you?

JOHNSON: I don't think this is a seminal moment as far as our understanding of him. I think this is a seminal moment as far as connecting his behavior to actual policy. And I think this is a seminal moment for perhaps some Democrats because given what Trump has said about immigration, given what Trump has done with people in El Salvador, how much are Democrats willing to negotiate with this person - the answer is you shouldn't - and what levels of resistance they're willing to demonstrate rather than some of the lip service that they've done thus far.

MCEVERS: Jason Johnson, professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University and politics editor at The Root, thank you very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you for your time.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language. It is "absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told." ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.