Donald Trump initially refused to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke. Only under mounting political pressure did he finally disavow them. This suggests that he panders to white supremacists.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED:
From 1991 until election day in November 2016, Donald Trump repudiated and disavowed David Duke or the KKK no less than 55 times in 15 public occasions. Seven of those occasions happened before a CNN interview in which he insisted “I know nothing about” David Duke or white supremacists. The media made a monstrous meme out of this one instance when he only said “I know nothing about” instead of “I disavow,” to make it seem as if Trump wanted the support of the KKK. But really, he had already disavowed David Duke publicly two days before and three days before.
Historically, the Ku Klux Klan claimed the supremacy of the white race and was infamous for acts of violence against African Americans, including murders. More recently, the KKK advocates for voluntary racial segregation. In 1967, David Duke joined a non-violent chapter of the KKK. In 1974, he founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKKK). In 1979, He incorporated the National Association for the Advancement of White People. In 1988, Duke ran for President of the United States as a Democrat, unsuccessfully. In late 1988, Duke left the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party. In 1989, he won an election to member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. He also served another 4-year term as the Chairman of the largest Republican district in Louisiana.
In 1991, on CNN, Larry King interviewed Donald Trump and asked him: “Did the David Duke thing bother you? Fifty-five percent of the whites in Louisiana voted for him. Four hundred New Yorkers contributed.”
Trump replied: “I hate — I hate seeing what it represents, but I guess it just shows there’s a lot of hostility in this country. There’s a tremendous amount of hostility in the United States.”
Larry King: “Anger?”
Trump: “It’s anger. I mean, that’s an anger vote. People are angry about what’s happened. People are angry about the jobs. If you look at Louisiana, they’re really in deep trouble.”
Later, Trump commented that President “George [H. W.] Bush was very, very strong against David Duke. I think if he had it to do again, he might not have gotten involved in that campaign because I think David Duke now, if he runs, takes away almost exclusively Bush votes… ” Then King said: “But Bush morally had to come out against him.” And Trump agreed: “I think Bush had to come out against him.”
In November, George H. W. Bush had had said David Duke had “an ugly record of racism and bigotry,” and was a charlatan who had endorsed Nazism and denied the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, one person had started two rumors about Trump and Hitler.
It was his ex-wife, Ivana Trump. In 1990, Ivana learned that Donald was cheating with a young, blond beauty queen from Georgia, Marla Maples. Ivana Trump confronted them that Christmas, on the ski slopes in Aspen, Colorado. Then in February 1991, Donald and Ivana announced their plans to divorce.
Trump paid Ivana $10 million for their divorce, plus $350,000-a-year alimony payments and a $50,000 annual housing allowance. In March of 1991, they ratified a post-marital agreement that would prevent Ivana from publishing any story about Trump without his permission. But yet, she gave a television interview to Barbara Walters, so Trump stopped the alimony payments in May.
Ivana could not legally spread stories about Trump, but still, maybe her acquaintances could. By September, Vanity Fair had interviewed Ivana and some of her friends.
One of her friends (anonymously) told the writer from Vanity Fair that Ivana had said that when one of Donald’s employees, his cousin John Walter, visited Donald in his office, Walter “clicks his heels and says, ‘Heil Hitler,’ possibly as a family joke.”
Twenty-five years later, during the 2016 political campaign, this bit of hearsay was often circulated without attributing it to Ivana’s anonymous friend, but was presented as a direct and serious quotation from John Walter himself. Most writers or bloggers did not mention that Walter was Trump’s cousin and the Trump family historian, nor the words “possibly as a family joke.”
Similarly, Ivana’s lawyer told Vanity Fair that “from time to time” Donald Trump read a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, which he kept “in a cabinet by his bed.”
The writer for Vanity Fair asked Trump who gave him the book of speeches? Trump replied: “Actually, it was my friend Marty Davis from Paramount who gave me a copy of Mein Kampf, and he’s a Jew.” Sort of. Martin Davis confirmed half of the story: “I did give him a book about Hitler. But it was My New Order, Hitler’s speeches, not Mein Kampf. I thought he would find it interesting. I am his friend, but I’m not Jewish.”
In one obituary, Davis was described as “the tough, crusty New Yorker who headed Paramount.” During Davis’s tenure as the head of Paramount, the company produced a couple of fictional action movies that involved the Nazis: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Davis was once described as one of the “Ten Toughest Bosses in America.”
Anyhow, Trump defended himself from the insinuation. He told the Vanity Fair writer: “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them.” Trump’s suspicious critics could now conjecture that this all proves that Trump had TWO of Hitler’s books. But Trump’s fans, instead, could suspect that he only had one, but having not read it, he mistook it for Mein Kampf.
In any case, apparently the disgruntled Ivana successfully created the rumor that Trump read Hitler’s speeches. During their litigious divorce proceedings she also claimed that Donald had raped her. But later she denied it. She said that the alleged rape was not meant in “a literal or criminal sense.” Donald too repudiated her allegation as false.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s, Trump generously supported Jesse Jackson’s affirmative action efforts to advance the hiring and promotion of black people and other minorities in Wall Street and in big corporations.
Later, in 1999, Donald Trump was forming an exploratory committee to consider running in the Reform Party for the nomination of President of the United States. Their previous candidate for President had been the wealthy businessman Ross Perot, in 1992 and 1996. Perot had earned a significant number of votes, making the party viable.
So, in another CNN interview with Larry King, in 1999, Trump explained: “I’m a registered Republican, I’m a pretty conservative guy, I’m somewhat liberal on social issues, especially health care.” Yet he was now considering joining the Reform Party, in order to compete for the nomination.
But Trump had heard that Pat Buchanan too was considering running for the nomination. So Trump ridiculed him: “I think Buchanan just blew himself out with the book and his love affair with Adolf Hitler, I mean, how he said this is beyond belief.”
That year, Pat Buchanan had just published a book titled A Republic, Not an Empire, which argued, among other things, that in World War II Adolf Hitler posed no threat to the United States and that Hitler had no plan to attack Great Britain at all, until Britain declared war on Germany. Trump disagreed.
Larry King asked Trump what would he do if he had to compete for the nomination against Pat Buchanan, “what would be the primary issues for the Reform Party voter?”
Trump instantly said: “Well for one thing, I’m not in love with Adolf Hitler, OK? That’s a pretty big difference right there. I think you could probably run your campaign on that. I mean I’ve watched— No, I didn’t like him [Buchanan] and what I’m saying is that this guy is obviously enamored with him [Hitler], and it’s ridiculous! I mean what he’s saying: ‘Hitler would’ve never attacked us. Hitler would’ve gone a different direction. He would’ve…’ I think it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. I don’t get it.”
Larry King asked: “It would be an issue?” Trump replied: “Well I think Hitler has to be an issue —certainly has got to be an issue for some people. I mean, I can tell you one thing, he’s [Buchanan] not gonna raise a lot of money from Jewish folks in New York City.” Trump then added: “He’s not gonna win anything. Now, if the Reform Party wants to nominate somebody that’s gonna get five or six percent of the wacko vote, they can do that!”
Larry King also asked Trump who would be his choice for Vice President. Trump smiled and replied: “Oprah, I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice.” He added: “she’s really a great woman, she is a terrific woman, she’s somebody that’s very special.” And he insisted: “If she’d do it, she’d be fantastic, I mean she’s popular, she’s brilliant, she’s a wonderful woman.”
King seemed incredulous that that Trump would choose Oprah. Yet Trump insisted, and repeatedly praised her. Trump’s proposal that an African American woman would be his top choice for Vice President does not match the caricature his critics invented fifteen years later: that he sympathizes with David Duke and the KKK.
Then in February 2000, the Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura announced he would leave the Reform Party because Pat Buchanan was being considered for presidential nominee and was supported by David Duke, who had recently joined the Party. Right then, Trump abruptly ended his consideration of participating in the Reform Party, a decision that was “final and unequivocal.”
In an interview with NBC, Trump said that the Reform Party was “self-destructing.” Trump complained: “David Duke just joined — a bigot, a racist, a problem. I mean, this is not exactly the people you want in your party. Buchanan’s a disaster as we’ve, you know, covered. Jesse’s a terrific guy who just left the party. And he, you know, it’s unfortunate, but he just left the party.”
Trump also issued a statement in the New York Times: “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. Fulani,” he said in his statement. “This is not company I wish to keep.”
Thus, Trump spoke against racism, David Duke, Pat Buchanan, Hitler, and the KKK. And, as we saw in the previous chapter, Trump cultivated friendships with many prominent African Americans. He welcomed Jews and African Americans in his social club. He sued Palm Beach for excluding African Americans and Jews in other social clubs. He supported Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to pressure corporations to promote blacks and minorities. He praised minorities in his construction projects. He made campaign contributions to several political candidates who are African Americans and minorities.
None of this shows that Trump was a top advocate for African Americans. But it does not match at all the notion that Trump was a friend of the Ku Klux Klan.
But then, Trump ran for President.
On February 24, 2015, speaking on his own radio show, David Duke said that Donald Trump was “the best of the lot” of the “horrible” Republican candidates in the presidential campaign. Duke referred specifically to Trump’s willingness to enforce immigration laws and to deport immigrants who entered the country illegally. Still, Duke also said that he does not trust Trump, and that Trump’s position on having American troops in Iraq was “insane.”
As usual, David Duke said that he himself (David Duke) is not a white supremacist. He said that during his life he has met only a tiny few white supremacists. Instead, he said that he had just met some whites like himself who “simply want to preserve their own culture, their own heritage, their own rights.”
Within hours, some news outlets and blogs on the internet yelled out that David Duke supported or endorsed Donald Trump. The Wrap said that Duke was an “outspoken white supremacist.”
Yahoo News said that Duke was “perhaps the country’s most prominent white supremacist,” and that he unofficially endorsed Trump.
So, on February 25, David Duke complained that suddenly more than 500 media articles had attacked him. He explained that he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan only forty years ago, and that it was “a non-violent Klan organization.” He clarified: “I am not in the Klan.”
Duke complained that aside from the New York Daily News, “not one media called me to interview me.” He gave examples to showcase the media’s “hypocrisy.” He noted that President Harry Truman had been in the KKK, yet 99% of articles don’t mention it. He said President William McKinley was in the KKK too. And most especially, longtime Senator Robert Byrd had been in the KKK, and yet Hillary Clinton and President Obama honored, embraced, and celebrated Byrd as “a great American.”
Duke complained: “Was Obama condemned for praising a former Klansman Sen. Byrd and for Robert Byrd’s support of him, the way the media has condemned Trump simply because I said that I agreed with some of Trump’s platform? Can you see the incredible hypocrisy?”
Duke insisted: “they constantly lie about me calling me a white supremacist when in fact every day of my life I ardently condemn any sort of supremacism.” He noted: “Although I have not formally endorsed Trump, because I can’t endorse everything he says or all that he supports, I will tell you why I will vote for him and think you should too.”
On August 26, 2015, Bloomberg News interviewed Trump and asked him about many topics, including David Duke’s quasi-endorsement. Trump replied: “I don’t need his endorsement, I certainly wouldn’t want his endorsement, I don’t need anybody’s endorsement…” The interviewer asked him whether Trump would repudiate David Duke’s endorsement. Trump replied: “Sure, if that would make you feel better, I would certainly repudiate. I don’t know anything about him.” The interviewer asked Trump whether he felt troubled by the fact that some white supremacists liked him. Trump replied that many people like him, “across the board”: evangelicals, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, “everybody.” The interviewer insisted whether there might be something in Trump’s message “that strikes a chord with the wrong kind of people?” Trump replied: “Well, I hope there’s not, I hope there’s not.”
The next day, David Duke wrote again: “I woke up this morning with Google News alerts showing hundreds of articles” stating the “lie” that he endorsed Donald Trump. Duke blamed the “Zionist” media.
Duke was glad that at least CNN had correctly reported that “I was not willing to make an endorsement of the Trump candidacy because of his stated absolute subservience to the state of Israel.” CNN said that “Duke did not endorse Trump and said he remains untrustworthy for his [Trump’s] ‘deep Jewish connections’ and support for Israel.”
Furthermore, Duke complained that “Most of the headlines screamed Ku Klux Klan in one way or the other even though it’s been decades since I was in a nonviolent Klan organization.” Duke emphasized that for years he had repeatedly “condemned any sort of racism or supremacism.” Duke reiterated that “Both Robert Byrd and President Truman had left the Klan many years older than I was when I left it and they were never headlined in this way.”
In November 2015, Trump appointed Katrina Pierson as National Spokesperson of his Presidential Campaign. Pierson is the biracial daughter of a white mother and a black father. She grew up with her mother, in poverty. One of her political idols was Malcolm X, the African-American Muslim minister and civil rights activist. Pierson voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Campaign.
On November 30, 2015, Herman Cain vigorously introduced Trump at a campaign rally in Georgia. Herman Cain is an African American businessman who formerly ran for President as a Republican.
The next day, Cain wrote that he respects Trump “immensely” and that he presented Trump “not only because I do believe he would be an excellent president, but also because I’m happy to stand with him in the face of the ridiculous media attacks on the man.”
On December 9, 2015. Bill O’Reilly interviewed Trump on Fox News. O’Reilley said that some people had compared Trump to Hitler and asked Trump what he thought about it. Trump replied: “Certainly I don’t like it, I think it’s disgraceful…” (at 10:24 here)
Also on December 29, Trump was on an airplane answering reporters’ questions. The press gaggle was broadcast live on MSNBC. Trump was explaining that “mine is really a message of hope, not a message of fear.”
Right then (at 3:47) one reporter asked: “But then, there’s Kathleen Parker wrote this week about: you’re kind of the white knight for the white guy, the ‘White Man’s last stand.’ That there’s sort of: you’ve pushed Muslims away, you’ve pushed Hispanic people away. David Duke is now saying [at 13:00] that you are more radical than him. How are people supposed to take away your message, when Republicans are pushing away from you and your message? How are they supposed to suggest that you are not that white knight for the white man?”
Trump replied: “Well, I’ll tell you what: I’m somebody that’s extremely inclusive. I want people to get along. We have a President that’s dividing our country—terribly dividing our country—and I’m going to bring people together, and you’re going to see some wonderful things happening with our country.”
Reporter: “So is David Duke wrong?”
Trump: “Well David Duke certainly would be wrong about that, yes.”
February 25, 2016. Following the Republican debate, NBC reporter Katy Tur asked Trump about David Duke’s apparent endorsement. Trump replied: “I disavow it, but I didn’t know that.”
On February 26, 2016, at a major news conference, a reporter yelled out a question about David Duke’s endorsement. Trump curtly but loudly replied: “I didn’t even know he endorsed me. David Duke endorsed me? OK, all right, I disavow! OK?” The reporter replied: “OK.”
To disavow is to deny any responsibility or support for someone, to deny, disclaim, repudiate, reject, and renounce. But Trump’s statement was not enough to satisfy the media. What follows was the most dramatic, overblown, and explosive moment of the Trump/KKK story.
On Sunday morning February 28, on CNN, Jake Tapper asked Trump about David Duke. Trump was not in a CNN studio with Tapper. Instead Trump was far away in Florida, using a microphone and wearing a small earpiece that had been provided by CNN.
Tapper said: “Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?”
Trump replied: “Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know—did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists, and so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.”
Tapper said: “But, I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is: even if you don’t know about their endorsements, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you, would you just say, unequivocally: you condemn them and you don’t want their support?
Trump replied: “Well I have to look at the group, I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups I will do research on them, and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong. But you may have groups [and at the same time as Trump said these last six words and was still speaking, Tapper lightly said: “the – Ku Klux Klan”] that are totally fine, and it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups and I’ll let you know.” [In a misleading way, writers later misquoted this as if Tapper’s interjection had been voiced by itself; as if Trump’s words “totally fine” happened in response to Tapper’s mention of the KKK.]
Tapper softly added: “OK, I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here but?”
Then Trump: “I don’t know any, honestly, I don’t know David Duke; I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him, and I just don’t know anything about him.”
Tapper lightly replied: “Alright.”
On the same morning program, Tapper also led a discussion panel. In it, the “Republican strategist” S. E. Cupp exclaimed: “This is a man who is running for President! If he doesn’t know about the Ku Klux Klan, if he doesn’t know about white supremacists and David Duke, if he doesn’t know every aspect of the Constitution — Ding! Ding! Ding! That should be kind of a red flag!” The bell rang, the boxing match was over, Donald Trump could not be President.
CNN posted the video of the panel discussion on YouTube. They chose a provocative title for it: “Trump refuses to disavow white supremacist David Duke.” Never mind that Duke repeatedly denied being a white supremacist. Never mind that Trump had in fact disavowed Duke. Never mind that the discussion only briefly addressed Trump’s comments.
Immediately, many stories began appearing online, stating that Trump had “refused to condemn” Duke and the KKK.
Now the Washington Post said that Trump was “remarkably dangerous.” Others said he was unfit for the presidency. The New York Daily News said that Trump “plays dumb” when asked about Duke and the KKK, describing Trump as the “Newly knighted KKK darling.” Allegedly Trump “repeatedly refused to disavow…”
On Twitter, the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders said: “America’s first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK.” Then many thousands of people retweeted the message.
Trump then realized that something was wrong.
That afternoon, February 28, on Twitter, Trump posted a clip of the video of himself at the press conference from February 26, in which he had loudly said: “David Duke endorsed me? OK, all right, I disavow! OK?” Beneath the Tweet, he wrote an additional statement: “At the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke— I disavow.”
Trump repudiated Duke on Facebook too. Trump shared the video: “David Duke endorsed me? OK, all right, I disavow! OK?” Beneath it, he again added: “At the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke— I disavow.”
Later that day, on CNN, news anchor Fredericka Whitfield recognized that Trump had disavowed Duke on Friday, but that now on Sunday “he didn’t seem to want to go as far as saying that.” While saying this, she was disregarding the large and utterly contradictory words placed on the screen by CNN staff at that very moment: “TRUMP TWEETS: I DISAVOW FORMER KKK LEADER’S ENDORSEMENT.” Whitfield interviewed Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League. He said Trump should clarify: “Does he support him, or not?” He too disregarded the statement on CNN’s screen. Whitfield then asked: “What do you suppose is behind the initial reticence and then admission that he did disavow on Friday?” But she inverted the sequence. In fact, Trump had instantly and clearly disavowed Duke initially, and two days later he did not directly answer Tapper’s questions.
That same day, Dr. David Duke chimed in again. In his YouTube channel, Duke issued a 17-minute unscripted response to CNN’s interview of Trump. Duke emphasized a main point from the start:
“I agree with Donald Trump in that the media in this country is absolutely disgusting, it is biased through and through. There are some exceptions, but it’s extremely biased, and I’ll go into those biases in a minute. I can begin by the inaccurate reporting of the media: that I have endorsed Donald Trump. Specifically, I have said clearly, in every time I’ve talked about his candidacy, that I am not endorsing Donald Trump…” He soon added: “I have not endorsed him, but I do think that we should vote for him, and I will vote for him, as a strategic means to promote the illegal issue, or the illegal immigration issue…” Duke also reiterated that he is not in the KKK and that “I haven’t been in the KKK now almost 40 years.” Duke insisted that he is not a white supremacist, and that he consistently condemns “all supremacisms.” He further complained that the biased, hypocritical media did not complain about the fact that in 2010 President Obama had endorsed Senator Byrd to lead the U.S. Senate. Duke explained that Senator Byrd had been a “former KKK leader, in fact, he was an Exalted Cyclops,” and yet became “the most powerful senator in the United States of America,” third in succession for the U.S. Presidency.
That night, on CBS News, reported on “a NEW CONTROVERSY surrounding Trump today.” CBS’s Major Garret exaggerated: “Trump’s remarks today are 180 degrees from his stance Friday.” But no, 180 degrees would have been: “I gladly accept Duke’s endorsement.” CBS showed footage of candidate John Kasich condemning Trump at a campaign event: “Trump refused to disassociate himself and condemn white supremacist… and that’s just horrific.” Likewise, candidate Marco Rubio declared: “We cannot be a party that nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan!” CBS News posted their report on YouTube, and titled it: “Donald Trump declines to Denounce David Duke and the KKK.”
That same night, on HBO, comedian John Oliver ridiculed Trump’s answer to Jake Tapper about David Duke: “with an answer like that, you are either racist, or you are pretending to be. And at some point there is no difference there! And sure, he disavowed David Duke later in the day, but the scary thing is…” Oliver made no mention that Trump had already disavowed David Duke twice two days before the interview with Tapper, and had repudiated him in August 2015.
John Oliver also failed to mention a plausible explanation other than being a racist or pretending to be racist: maybe Trump hadn’t heard the questions clearly. After all, Trump had disavowed, repudiated, and ridiculed David Duke for years.
Tapper’s interview promptly led a horde of news outlets to say nearly the same thing: they said that Trump “declined to disavow” David Duke or the KKK. For example, writers said this in the New York Times, Politico, ABC News, CNN (of course), CBS News, The Daily Mail, Market Watch, The Fiscal Times, Raw Story, Mother Jones, BuzzFeed News, the Seattle Times, the Kansas City Star, The Week Magazine, Cleaveland.com, KTLA, the Alaska Public Radio Network, etc.
Other news writers said that Trump “repeatedly declined to disavow” Duke or the KKK. For example, in the Washington Post, CNN, the Press Herald, Fox8.com, OregonLive.com, and the Salt Lake Tribune.
Other writers said that Trump “initially declined to disavow” Duke or the KKK. For example, in the New York Daily News, Fox News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Daily Herald, the International Business Times, Media Matters for America, TampaBay.com, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the New Hamburg Independent.
The media frenzy over Trump’s alleged unwillingness to repudiate David Duke depended the news commentators’ unwillingness to seek or review Trump’s past statements.
He had already repudiated David Duke multiple times, across twenty-five years: on February 28, 2016, February 26, February 25, on December 29, 2015, in August 2015, in 2000, and also in 1991.
To be fair, what writers should have written could be:
“Donald Trump has repudiated David Duke and the KKK multiple times since as early as 1991. Most recently, he disavowed David Duke on February 25 and 26. Trump initially and repeatedly disavowed him. Yet CNN’s Jake Tapper on February 28 asked Trump yet again about Duke and the KKK, and Trump insisted that he doesn’t know anything about Duke or white supremacists. Hours later, he disavowed Duke’s apparent support yet again, on Twitter and Facebook.”
Still, news outlets began to realize, to find out that Trump had previously disdained Duke.
Right then, they could have conjectured that maybe Trump didn’t hear Tapper clearly. Or, they could at least praise Trump for having previously and repeatedly criticized Duke. But no. Instead, the new commentators opted for a critical and terrible interpretation: that Donald Trump was lying! He had said “I don’t know anything about David Duke.” This would mean, in the most literal interpretation, that Trump had never even heard of David Duke; it would mean that Trump knew nothing at all about him. But he had and he did!
So, New York Magazine opined: “Trump, of course, is lying when he claims to be unaware of David Duke.” USA Today did a critical fact-check on Trump’s “amnesia.” Dozens of writers denounced Trump for pretending he had never heard of David Duke or the KKK.
It is at this point that the story becomes stunningly ridiculous.
News commentators were willing to imagine that Donald Trump had decided to lie: in order to hopefully secure the votes of roughly 5,000 members of the KKK nationwide, he was willing to alienate the potential votes of 50 MILLION other people who hate the KKK!!! In just two days, many states would vote in the Republican primary election. Allegedly Trump wanted to ensure that he would not lose the much-coveted white supremacist vote!!
Rather than entertaining this stunningly absurd explanation, there is another way to try to understand what Trump casually said. Did he literally mean that he knew absolutely nothing about David Duke? Or was it an expression he had used previously to mean something else?
When interviewed by Bloomberg, back in August 2015, Trump had already said, verbatim: “I don’t know anything about him.” Back then, these words caused no media frenzy. Nobody denounced Trump for having lied. In that interview, he showed that he did know who Duke was. Trump said that he didn’t want Duke’s endorsement and that he would certainly repudiate it. Yet he said: “I don’t know anything about him.” If only news commentators cultivated the common sense ability to understand that not everything is meant in the most impossibly literal way, then they would easily realize that, in 2015 and in 2016, Trump simply meant that he did not read about Duke, follow Duke, personally know Duke, etc.
If indeed it’s possible for a person to use the phrase: “I don’t know anything about him,” while at the same time, not implying that one has never ever heard of the person, then there should be other instances that clearly show this.
Indeed there are. For example, on July 27, 2016, at a news conference Trump spoke about Vladimir Putin: “I have nothing to do with Putin, I don’t know anything about him other than he will respect me.” Obviously, Donald Trump did know and does know that Putin is the President of Russia. No matter how utterly and brutally dumb many people imagine Trump to be, it’s quite clear that for many years he has known who Vladimir Putin is. Similarly, Trump used the same casual expression to refer to David Duke, in 2015 and 2016. Yet reporters, news commentators, political pundits, and bloggers were delighted to yell: Trump is lying! He really does know who Duke is! We have evidence!
An easy search on Google shows that many people, other than Donald Trump, do sometimes use the phrase “I don’t know anything about him” to mean something other than: “I have never ever even heard of that man’s name.”
They’re not all liars, it’s just a common expression, really.
For example, the New York Times quoted Jamie Neal who spoke about being criticized by ESPN sports commentator Curt Schilling; she said: “you can call me a clown and tell me that I should or shouldn’t be offended. But he doesn’t know my struggles, and I don’t know anything about him.”
The Associated Press quoted Melanie Casas commenting about Elvis Presley: “‘I know of him but I don’t know anything about him,’ Casas said, shrugging.”
The Washington Post quoted Glenn Beck talking about the owner of the Redskins football team, Daniel Snyder: “‘I love the guy,’ Beck said. ‘I don’t know anything about him. Somebody give me some research on him so I know about him, because I’m certainly not going to be able to talk to him about [football].’”
The Washington Post quoted former PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer talking about Alexander Graham Bell: “Lehrer said: ‘Well, I don’t know anything about him except that I think he invented the telephone.’”
In 2003, the Washington Post quoted Diane Peterson commenting about presidential candidate John Edwards: “Diane Peterson said she knew people who ‘were ecstatic about’ him but added, ‘I don’t know anything about him.’”
In 2000, the Washington Post quoted Carmen Waters talking about Vice President Al Gore’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination for President: “He needed to introduce himself to voters like her. ‘I don’t know anything about him,’ she said.”
It’s easy to find hundreds of examples like these. “I don’t know anything about him” is just a common expression that doesn’t always mean “I’ve never even heard of that person.”
I dare say that its meaning can even be similar to the meaning of the word ‘disavow’: “I disclaim any responsibility or support for him: I don’t know anything about him.” Yet somehow, many pundits seemed unable to even mildly consider this. For them, it was much easier, much more plausible, to imagine that the Republican candidate for president was a deranged and blatantly inconsistent liar. Remember the media rule: always interpret your enemy’s words in the most awful and ridiculous way.
Monday February 29. The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Joe Scarborough saying that Donald Trump “feigned ignorance about the KKK.”
Scarborough asked: “Why would the same man who claims to have ‘the world’s greatest memory’ say ‘I don’t know anything about David Duke’ just two days after he condemned the former Klansman in a nationally televised press conference?” He ended the op-ed as follows: “The harsher reality is that the next GOP nominee will be a man who refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and one of its most infamous grand wizards when telling the ugly truth wouldn’t have cost him a single vote. So is this how the party of Abraham Lincoln dies?”
That morning, in Scarborough’s television show at MSNBC, his co-host Mika Brzezinski began the discussion by asking whether “Is this how the party of Abe Lincoln dies?” Scarborough replied: “It sure looks that way.” He said it had been an “astounding” weekend, an “extraordinarily depressing weekend.” After playing an excerpt of Tapper’s interview with Trump, Scarborough spoke with his panel of guests: “that’s disqualifying right there. It’s breathtaking, that is disqualifying right there: to say that you don’t know about the Ku Klux Klan? You don’t know about David Duke? And the most stunning thing, Willie Geist, is: this isn’t buying him a single vote. I mean, is he really so stupid that he thinks southerners aren’t offended by the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke?” Scarborough emphasized that Duke is a disgusting and repugnant human being, and that Trump’s strategy combined ignorance with condescension in order to try to win southern votes. Scarborough said that Trump needs to clean up this mess.
Later in the show, Scarborough interviewed former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who said that Trump had disavowed Duke and the KKK, and remarked that he had never seen evidence that Trump is a racist. Accordingly, Scarborough commented: “I don’t think Donald Trump’s a racist. I’ve known the guy for ten years. I do think, though, he may be playing to some people’s base instincts. I also think he’s misjudging people from our region of the country. Fair?” Huckabee replied that maybe Trump was unaware of just how deplorable David Duke is in the south.
That same morning, Monday, February 29, on the Today Show, on NBC, Savannah Guthrie asked Trump why he had said “I don’t know who David Duke is, and you refused to disavow or distance yourself from him.” (Note that Trump had not really said “I don’t know who David Duke is.” Note also that Trump had actually “distanced” himself by saying that he didn’t know anything about Duke. Note also that Trump had disavowed Duke several times.)
So now Trump replied: “No, no, well, I know who he is, but I never met David Duke.” Then Trump further clarified: “I disavowed David Duke a day before in a major press conference, and I’m saying to myself: How many times do I have to continue to disavow people, and the question was asked about David Duke and various groups, and I don’t know who the groups are…”
Guthrie said that Tapper was just talking about Duke and the KKK.
Then Trump tried to explain what happened: “I’m [I was] sitting in a house in Florida with a very bad earpiece that they [CNN] gave me, and you could hardly hear what he [Tapper] was saying. But what I heard was ‘various groups,’ and I don’t mind disavowing anybody, and I disavowed David Duke, and I disavowed him the day before at a major news conference, which is surprising because he [Tapper] was at the major news conference, CNN was at the major news conference, and they heard me very easily disavow David Duke. Now I go, and I sit down again, I have a lousy earpiece that was provided by them [CNN], and frankly, he talked about groups, he also talked about groups …. But I disavowed David Duke. Now, if you look on Facebook, right after that, I also disavowed David Duke, when we looked at it, and looked at the question, so I disavowed David Duke all weekend long, on Facebook, on Twitter, and obviously it’s never enough.”
Indeed, NBC reporter Katy Tur confirmed that Trump had already disavowed David Duke on Thursday. But most commentators didn’t notice or care.
Also on Monday February 29, Mitt Romney again joined the chorus of indignation. He too denounced Donald Trump. Romney said that Trump was disqualified for “coddling of repugnant bigotry” of the KKK:
A disqualifying & disgusting response by @realDonaldTrump to the KKK. His coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 29, 2016
On March 1, 2016, Donald Trump was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America. Stephanopoulos said that the CNN interview “continues to make waves” and he quoted Romney’s criticism.
Trump: “First of all, Mitt Romney is a failed candidate, should’ve won the race and he failed miserably. He was a terrible candidate for the Republicans. Secondly, David Duke and all were disavowed. I disavowed him on Friday. I disavowed them right after that because I thought if there was any question and you take a look at Twitter, almost immediately after, on Twitter and Facebook, they were disavowed again. I disavowed him every time I speak to somebody virtually and, you know, they just keep it going, they keep it going and they said, ‘oh we never looked at your Twitter account, we never looked at Facebook.’ I said: Take a look at Facebook. It was totally disavowed.
Stephanopoulos: “Are you prepared right now to make a clear and unequivocal statement renouncing the support of all white supremacists?”
TRUMP: “Of course I am, of course I am. I mean there’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have. You take a look at Palm Beach, Florida. I built the Mar-a-Lago club: totally open to everybody. A club that frankly set a new standard: a new standard in clubs, and a new standard in Palm Beach, and I’ve gotten great credit for it. That is totally open to everybody. So, of course, I am.
As usual, Trump made an overblown exaggeration about himself: “there’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.” Very false. But he was right that when he opened Mar-a-Lago he famously welcomed the membership of African-Americans, whereas the other social clubs in Palm Beach did not. He had also made various other positive contributions to African Americans that he did not even mention to Stephanopoulos.
Very few commentators sided with Trump. One example, at least, were the editors of the Washington Times. On March 1, they published an editorial complaining about how many people, including Paul Ryan, were taking “fusillades of cheap shots” at Donald Trump. And they argued: “But the cheapest shot of all — so far — is the canard that he’s a racist for not having ‘disavowed’ the endorsement of David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan and assorted similar groups. The felony of racism has become a mere misdemeanor through careless use, and this accusation against the Donald is particularly outrageous because David Duke, a Louisiana politician who boasts of his affiliation with the Klan, never endorsed Donald Trump and Mr. Trump ‘disavowed’ it, anyway…”
Why did the media focus so much on the KKK in late February 2016?
I think the best answer to this question was given by former Congressman Ron Paul. Basically, on March 1st, 2016, eleven states would vote in the Republican Primaries. And Donald Trump was leading in the polls.
On Super Tuesday, March 1st—on live television—CNN’s Carol Costello interviewed Ron Paul. She asked him for “your thoughts about this hullaballoo over David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan?”
Ron Paul laughed: “It’s pretty amazing, and a campaign has a lot of involvement; it’s interesting that the media is able to create the issue: the Ku Klux Klan! You know, I don’t even know if there’s a hundred people in the country that even know about it. Of course it has to be condemned, but why are these people able to bring this up? No politician would want it to be brought up, so it has to be, you know, a plant by the media—to instigate it, and try to make accusations…”
CNN’s Carol Costello asked: “So you don’t blame Donald Trump? You blame the media for bringing this up?”
Ron Paul replied: “Let’s blame it on the media for, you know, tracking him; but the whole thing is: Why did it come up? Sure we can blame Donald Trump! I blame him for everything else! So blame him!! But how did this become the issue, the first question you ask on Super Tuesday [laughing] is the KU KLUX KLAN? That’s unbelievable to me! This has been condemned, they have been marginalized, nobody cares about them, they’re evil, they’re monsters, and yet NOW, it’s going to be the issue of the day! That to me should be the issue: How in the world do these things occur? Why aren’t we talking about the military-industrial complex, the Federal Reserve, the deficits, the intrusions of our privacy, and all the intrusions of our liberties which are never touched! The protectionism that’s going on, and presented, the socialism versus national populism, those are the issues! But today it’s the Ku Klux Klan! [laughing]
As I write these words, a basic search on Google shows that from February 28 until March 1st, 2016 (Super Tuesday voting day), about 100 webpages told versions of the new story about Trump, Duke, and the KKK.
But incredibly, Trump won more states than any Republican candidate on Super Tuesday.
Yet the media onslaught about you-know-what still did not stop.
On March 3, on MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski asked Trump: “How would you characterize, in more words than one, David Duke?”
Trump replied: “David Duke is a bad person who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years. And the one question that was asked of me, I guess on CNN, he’s [Jake Tapper] having a great time: he [Tapper] talked about ‘groups of people,’ and I don’t like to disavow groups if I don’t know who they are. I mean, you could have Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in groups, I don’t know who the groups are, he’s talking about this or that groups, that’s what I was referring to. But I disavowed him! I disavowed him, I disavowed the KKK. I just did the Today Show, and it was the same thing. And I said: How many times do I have to disavow? Do you want me to do it again for the twelfth time? So I disavow. — Mika, just to put it clear. I disavowed him in the past, and I disavow him now. And it was very clear that I disavowed. But the press doesn’t want to go with it. They just love the story. And by the way, if you look at my Twitter, which took place just about the same time as that show, you’ll see I disavowed…”
That night, March 3, Fox News hosted a debate of the Republican presidential candidates, in Detroit, Michigan. Chris Wallace asked Trump about, well, you know what. Trump replied: “I totally disavow the Ku Klux Klan. I totally disavow David Duke. I’ve been doing it now for two weeks; this is, you’re probably about the eighteenth person that’s asked me the question. It was very clear. That question was also talked about in the form of ‘groups, groups.’ I want to know which groups are you talking about? You have to tell me which groups? Ultimately he got to the Ku Klux Klan, which obviously, I’m going to disavow. And by the way if you look at my Twitter account, almost immediately after the program, they were disavowed again. You know, it’s amazing: when I do something on Twitter everybody picks it up, goes all over the place. But when I did this one nobody ever picks it up.”
On March 6, on Face the Nation, John Dickerson of CBS quoted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to ask Trump about accusations about him not rejecting “any group or cause that is built on bigotry.”
Trump replied: “But I’ve rejected. How many times do I have to reject? I reject David Duke, rejected David Duke. I’ve rejected the KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, from the time I’m five years old I rejected them. I put it on Twitter last week. How many times? You know it’s an amazing thing with Twitter: I have 6 million, more than six million [followers], and I have another 6 million with Facebook, I have like 13 or almost 14 million [followers] with Instagram. When I put out a minor message everybody picks it up: ‘Donald Trump just Tweeted something very unimportant.’ And let me just explain. When I put out that I reject the KKK, and David Duke: nobody [in the media] picks it up! You know why they don’t? Because they don’t wanna pick it up. They pick it up [the accusation], you pick it up, everyone else picks it up, you saw. Simultaneously, practically at the same time. They don’t wanna pick it up [Trump’s denial]. Now, I have been asked this question so many times. I’ve rejected it so many times, in fact.
Dickerson asked him about what Paul Ryan had said.
Trump: “Well, don’t forget, he’s getting a lot of his information from you guys [the media]. So when I Tweet, about a rejection, almost right after that [CNN] show ended, because maybe I wasn’t clear or something, I mean, how many times do I have to say it? Don’t forget: I told CNN, when Chris Christie endorsed me, a very good endorsement, and one of the questions, that question was asked and I rejected it there. That news conference was like a day before. So I say to myself how many times do I have to reject or disavow?
Dickerson: “David Duke is saying to his supporters or followers: ‘Vote for Donald Trump.’ White supremacists are saying vote— Do you want those votes?”
Trump: “No, I don’t want them, and I don’t want him to say it! I can’t help if he says it, if he says it. But I don’t want it and I don’t, if he says it— John, if he says it, he says it. Do I want it? NO.”
Dickerson: “And yet you want the supporters?”
Trump: “NO, I don’t want anything! How many times?”
Dickerson: “What do you think of white supremacists, by the way?”
Trump: “I don’t want like any group of hate. Hate groups are not for me. But I’ve said this before. The press hates me to say it, they just don’t want to pick it up. And that’s ok, that’s the way it goes ”
Dickerson: “I’ve talked to politicians who heard your answer, and they thought: ‘Well, he’s being kind of vague because he wants the votes…”
Trump: “No, no, but they were asking: when he [Tapper] asked me the original question, because I looked at it, he was talking about groups or something. In other words, ‘various groups,’ [so] I said: Who are the groups?
Dickerson: “Well, he did say the KKK.”
Trump: “No, no, excuse me, but he talked about various groups. Now within those groups, you know, you talk about discrimination and all, there could be some very, there could be the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, I don’t know; what groups is he talking about? So I said, can you give me a list of the groups or something to that effect? But I have been so strong in disavowing, and I just keep getting the question. And now even you are asking the question, again— and I say to myself: How many times am I going to be answering this question?”
On March 8, 2016, Trump was interviewed on Good Morning America again. George Stephanopoulos asked him about several topics, including the “number of prominent people comparing you to Adolf Hitler.” Trump replied: “I don’t know about the Hitler comparison, I hadn’t heard that. But it’s a terrible comparison. I’m not happy about that, certainly. I don’t want that comparison.”
Soon after Super Tuesday, the only African American running for President, Dr. Ben Carson dropped out of the race. There were still four Republicans left in the race, including two senators and the Governor of Ohio. Then soon, on March 11, Ben Carson endorsed Trump — the only alleged super racist.
In mid-June 2016, Herman Cain again introduced Donald Trump at a campaign rally. This time it was in Atlanta, Georgia. Cain defended Trump against the media: “there are a lot of lies out there. Allow me to set the record straight — about one of the biggest lies out there about Donald Trump, and I hope the liberals and the liberal media’s listening. Donald Trump is not a racist.” The crowd cheered, roared, applauded. “I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I know what a racist looks like when I see one. And Donald Trump is not a racist.” Cain ended his speech by announcing that he and his family would vote for Trump on November 8th.
In July, an interviewer at MSNBC asked Ben Carson whether Trump had an obligation to beware more of white supremacist groups. Carson replied: “I know Donald Trump, and I know he’s not a racist by any stretch of the imagination.” He said that, frankly, Trump would be criticized “severely” no matter what he does (basically because he’s a Republican or conservative).
July 23, 2016. The New York Times published an op-ed titled: “Is Donald Trump a Racist?” As if the title were not enough, the writer Nicholas Kristof began by asking: “Has the party of Lincoln just nominated a racist to be president?” In order to portray Trump as a racist, Kristof misrepresented Trump in various ways.
On September 2016, CBS News interviewed Trump’s National Spokesperson, Katrina Pierson to ask her about David Duke’s support for Trump. Pierson replied: “Mr. Trump has denounced David Duke since the first day that the media, actually, brought this to light. And to be quite honest with you, David Duke only gets airtime because of the media. Donald Trump has already said that he did not want the support of someone like David Duke or any of those followers, but yet here we are again, talking about David Duke.” She also complained that the media chooses not to discuss Will Quigg, Grand Dragon of the KKK in California, who endorsed Hillary Clinton.
In late October 2016, the little-known The Crusader newspaper featured a front page article praising Trump’s message of “Make America Great Again.” It was almost an endorsement. The Crusader describes itself as “the premier voice of the white resistance,” and allegedly it’s affiliated with the KKK.
Promptly on Tuesday November 1, the Trump campaign repudiated that newspaper:
“Mr. Trump and the campaign denounces hate in any form. This publication is repulsive and their views do not represent the tens of millions of Americans who are uniting behind our campaign.”
November 2, 2016. Politico reported that David Duke said that his supporters planned to monitor election polling places in “some of the more inner-city areas.”
The next day, in a radio interview, Trump’s son, Eric Trump said that David Duke “does deserve a bullet.” Eric Trump further said that “I mean, these aren’t good people. These are horrible people. In fact, I commend my father. My father’s the first Republican who’s gone out and said, ‘Listen, what’s happened to the African-American community is horrible and I’m going to take care of it.”
On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump won the Presidential election.
On November 11, The New York Post reported that the KKK chapter of North Carolina was planning a parade to celebrate Trump’s victory in the presidential election. That morning, Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, condemned the group’s plans:
“Mr. Trump and his team continue to disavow these groups and individuals and strongly condemn their message of hate.”
On December 3, during a victory rally in Cincinnati, Trump again denounced hate groups: “We condemn bigotry and prejudice in all of its forms. We denounce all of the hatred and we forcefully reject the language of exclusion and separation.”
From August 2015 until election day in November 2016, I’ve counted that Donald Trump repudiated or disavowed David Duke or the KKK no less than 55 times in 15 separate venues. (And I expect that there were other instances too.) Four of those denials happened before the now infamous interview with Jake Tapper. Plus, Trump had publicly criticized Duke and the Klan at least since 1991. But none of this mattered to the critics. Rather than paying close attention to his track record, they preferred to make a monstrous cartoon out of the one instance when he didn’t instantly say: I disavow.
They created a meme: Trump didn’t disavow the KKK!
Since most reporters and commentators were so awful at summarizing the evidence, they succeeded in terrorizing the public. Hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, who had never associated Trump with the KKK before the elections, now came to really believe that he was a friend of the infamous Klan. This false terror then helped to create a sense of despair, which continues to the present day, that the new President was not merely a rich real estate developer and a TV personality, he was a white supremacist.
Alberto A. Martinez is a professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
Next, Chapter 22: The Mexican Judge