A top Democrat condemned Donald Trump as a “racist” hours after the president retweeted a series of anti-Muslim videos on Wednesday that were posted by the deputy leader of a British far-right group.
“The president is racist. There’s no doubt about that in my mind,” Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee and a Muslim member of Congress, told the Guardian.
“This is Trump. He is a politician who is cynically trying to divide people along racial and religious lines,” he added. “Somehow people who call him out on his racism have to worry about defending themselves against [people saying], ‘How dare you call the president a racist?’”
Trump has repeatedly denied being a racist in the past.
He prompted the latest controversy after he shared the incendiary videos – which drew a swift and rare rebuke from Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, through an official spokesperson – to his 43.6m Twitter followers despite serious questions about their authenticity. They marked the latest inflammatory action against Muslims from Trump, who as a candidate campaigned on banning all Muslims from entering the US and as president has sought to limit Muslim immigration through executive order.
The videos purported to show Muslims committing violent acts, such as pushing a boy off a roof and destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary. Another claimed to show a Muslim immigrant beating a Dutch boy on crutches, even though the Dutch police and media never suggested the attacker was Muslim.
They were originally posted to the Twitter feed of Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, who was charged last year with religiously aggravated harassment for verbally assaulting a Muslim woman wearing a hijab in January 2016.
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, said it was “particularly unhelpful” for Trump to have shared the videos. “One, it legitimizes these websites, this group in England,” Graham told the Guardian, while adding of Fransen: “She’s being prosecuted for religious harassment.”
“You don’t want to take a fringe group and elevate their content,” he said. “I think it also is not the message we need to be sending right now when we need Muslim allies.”
Arizona senator Jeff Flake, one of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics, dubbed the president’s tweets as “highly inappropriate”.
Despite the backlash, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on Trump’s tweets even as she appeared to acknowledge their authenticity could not be confirmed. “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” she said. “The threat needs to be addressed and the threat has to be talked about and that’s what the president is doing in bringing that up.”
Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary, later framed the matter as one of national security while addressing reporters aboard Air Force One. “The president has been talking about these security issues for years, from the campaign trail to the White House,” Shah said.
Asked if Trump felt Muslims posed a threat to the US, Shah held up the president’s proposed travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries as reflecting his views on the subject. “No, look, the president has addressed these issues with the travel order [he] issued earlier this year,” he said.
“There are plenty of Muslim-majority nations whose citizens can come to the United States without travel restrictions. Those that pose public safety or terrorism threats … is why there were certain travel restrictions put in place.”
A spokesperson for May said it was “wrong” for Trump to have retweeted the videos. “Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions. They cause anxiety to law-abiding people,” the spokesperson said.
“British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right which is the antithesis of the values this country represents, decency, tolerance and respect.”
Asked to respond to the statement from Downing Street, Shah simply said Trump “has the greatest respect for the British people and for Prime Minister May”. Shah declined to comment on how Fransen’s original tweets came to Trump’s attention.
Reaction on Capitol Hill was nonetheless muted, with attention fixated on Republican efforts to pass an overhaul of the US tax code.
Jim Inhofe, a senator from Oklahoma, told PBS he hadn’t seen the anti-Muslim tweets but was critical more broadly of Trump’s social media habits. “I would like to see someone kind of look at the language before they go out,” he said.
David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, celebrated Trump’s tweets. “He’s condemned for showing us what the fake news media WON’T.” Duke wrote on his own Twitter account. “Thank God for Trump! That’s why we love him!”
As a candidate, Trump routinely fanned the flames of Islamophobia by making a number of inflammatory statements about Muslims.
In March of 2016, he told CNN: “I think Islam hates us.”
Since assuming office, Trump has shown no signs of shifting his tone — often seizing upon terrorist attacks as evidence that his travel ban is necessary.
Ellison, who in 2007 became the first Muslim member of Congress, said Trump’s latest outburst was “in line with what he always does”
“Yesterday he was calling a US senator Pocahontas at an event designed to commemorate the contributions of Navajo war veterans,” Ellison told the Guardian, referring to a racial taunt Trump directed at Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday.
“Today, he’s pushing out hate propaganda against Muslims … He made an equivalency between the Klan and the neo-Nazis and the people who were protesting them this summer.”
Ellison said there was “no question” Trump’s actions could incite violence across the country.
“What was it but violence that resulted in the woman getting hit by the car this summer?” Ellison said of the August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of counter-protestors, leaving one dead and several injured.
Ellison also cited the bombing of a mosque in his home state of Minnesota in August as the consequence of hate speech.
“My point is simply this: We’ve got to stand for solidarity among all people of all colors and all backgrounds,” he said.
“We believe an American is an American is an American… We believe we need all colors, all cultures and all faiths.”
“He’s the one who says we don’t,” Ellison added of Trump. “He’s the one who says you’ve got to be the right religion, the right pigment … to be fully American. He does this time and time and time again.”
“The point is not whether or not he’s racist anymore – he clearly is. The question is what are Americans going to do about it.”
This article was written by Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th November 2017 21.27 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010