Monday: Bomb threats at Jewish community centers.
Our week began with a fresh wave of threats against Jewish community centers across the United States. Monday – President’s Day – brought bomb threats and evacuations to at least 10 community centers.
These were just the latest bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers. In early February, dozens of community centers received threats, leading the FBI to launch a hate crime investigation. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, two organizations that closely monitor hate crimes, have both reported a sharp increase in threats and crimes since the Nov. 8 election of President Donald Trump.
On Monday, the ADL directly called on Trump to denounce the threats and asked what the administration planned to do about them:
Deeply dsturbed by new wave of #bombthreats ag JCCs. @FBI on it but hoping 4 ldrshp + plan of action frm @whitehouse https://t.co/O7n062h47a
— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) February 20, 2017
In late January, Trump failed to refer to Jews in his brief statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. On Monday, following the threats, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, called for religious tolerance:
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
Tuesday: Trump responds directly for the first time.
Trump eventually did address the issue of anti-Semitism in response to weekend vandalism at a Missouri cemetery, where more than 100 Jewish graves were desecrated.
While on a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Trump said anti-Semitism was “horrible” and “painful,” and he pledged to attack hatred “in all of its very ugly forms.”
Trump’s statement was praised by some Jewish groups as welcome and overdue. But several commentators, such as The Guardian’s Lucia Graves, thought it was weak:
By any reasonable standard it was a rote remark – antisemitism is “horrible” – the sort of throwaway line that, uttered by another president, or more likely, some reasonably articulate eigth-grader mid-speech and debate tournament, might seem unremarkable. But coming from Trump it drew praise as a “strong rebuke.”
This is how low we set the bar for Trump.
His maddening insistence on Tuesday that really, he denounces antisemitism “whenever I get a chance,” simply isn’t reflected in his actual record.
Remember when, during an appearance with the Israeli prime minister last week, Trump was asked if his rhetoric contributed to a rise in antisemitism? He responded, inexplicably, with a self-congratulatory riff on his electoral college victory. A day later, when a Jewish reporter asked about that very issue, he sniffed that it was “very insulting.” He then told that reporter to “sit down.” The reporter did – but the rest of us shouldn’t.
By Wednesday, a crowdfunding effort led by Muslim activists had raised more than $55,000 to help repair and clean up the damage at the cemetery. And in a surprise visit to the cemetery, Vice President Mike Pence spent time working to clear up some of the damage.
By that time, the Trump administration was rolling back legal protections for transgender students at schools. The Justice Department and Department of Education issued a joint letter Wednesday announcing the move, which included reversing the government’s opinion that trans children should be allowed to choose which bathroom they use. As this excellent explainer in The Atlantic details, however, this isn’t as simple as President Barack Obama supporting trans students while Trump doesn’t.
Wednesday: ‘Get out of my country.’ Then, gunshots.
One man is dead and two more hospitalized in what authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime at a bar called Austins in Olathe, Kansas.
Here’s the scene from the Kansas City Star:
Adam Purinton, who lives nearby Austins and has frequented the bar in the past, was inside the patio when witnesses say he started spouting racial slurs. Some told The Star that during a rant the man talked about recently being diagnosed with a serious illness.
“From what I understand when he was throwing racial slurs at the two gentlemen.”
A bartender at a restaurant where Purinton was later captured said he overheard the suspect say he had killed two Middle Eastern men. In reality, they were both Indian engineers working for a U.S. company.
Purinton killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injured Alok Madasani, as well as another bar patron, Ian Grillot.
Madasani’s father blamed Trump for creating an anti-immigrant environment.
“I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the U.S. in the present circumstances,” he said.
Johnson County, Kansas, was already host to an infamous hate incident in 2014. Frazier Glenn Miller opened fire at two Jewish organizations, killing three people, all of them Christians. During his trial, Miller expressed regret, saying he thought the victims were “Jews, not people.”
Thursday: The most eye-opening article of the week.
The Atlantic published a fascinating story by Rumana Ahmed, a Muslim American woman, who was hired by the Obama administration to work at the White House.
Long a minority within the establishment (she writes that she was the only staffer to wear a hijab in the West Wing), Ahmed initially intended to serve under Trump, but found her position untenable after just eight days of the new administration.
The article offers a brutally frank view of the White House under Trump. Here’s a snippet:
The days I spent in the Trump White House were strange, appalling and disturbing. As one staffer serving since the Reagan administration said, “This place has been turned upside down. It’s chaos. I’ve never witnessed anything like it.” This was not typical Republican leadership, or even that of a businessman. It was a chaotic attempt at authoritarianism – legally questionable executive orders, accusations of the press being “fake,” peddling countless lies as “alternative facts,” and assertions by White House surrogates that the president’s national security authority would “not be questioned.”
The entire presidential support structure of nonpartisan national security and legal experts within the White House complex and across federal agencies was being undermined. Decision-making authority was now centralized to a few in the West Wing. Frustration and mistrust developed as some staff felt out of the loop on issues within their purview. There was no structure or clear guidance. Hallways were eerily quiet as key positions and offices responsible for national security or engagement with Americans were left unfilled.
Thursday: Conservatives try to distance themselves from white nationalism.
Also on Thursday, white nationalist Richard Spencer, who we interviewed for our podcast the day after the election, showed up at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of 20,000 conservative politicians and activists in Maryland.
Spencer, who was spotted in the lobby of the conference hotel, was promptly removed from the hotel.
“His views are repugnant and have absolutely nothing to do with conservatism or what we do here,” CPAC spokesman Ian Walters told NPR.
While CPAC has been trying to distance itself from the white nationalist movement that calls itself the alt-right, one of its keynote speakers was Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and one of Trump’s closest advisers. Bannon has, himself, claimed that he created a platform where the alt-right thrived. Provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who was invited and then un-invited, is perhaps his most famous protégé.
Friday: Will the FBI’s focus shift away from white supremacists?
The Washington Post details the controversy over the Trump administration’s reported effort to refocus the nation’s anti-terrorism efforts to concentrate almost solely on Islamic extremism. The story details the experience of a Memphis police chief whose son was shot and killed by radical right-wing extremists.
Earlier this month, citing unnamed sources, Reuters reported that the Trump administration planned to rename the “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, program introduced by Obama to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”
A dozen Democratic senators expressed shock at the move in a letter to Trump.
Singling out a specific religion as the focus of CVE efforts rather than violent extremism more broadly – while ignoring threats from white supremacist groups – would severely damage our credibility with foreign allies and partners as an honest broker in the fight against violent extremism, and prove divisive in communities across our country.
A 2015 study of 382 law enforcement agencies from around the country found that violence by radical radical right-wing extremists was considered a more significant threat than violence by Islamic terrorists. Here’s the key finding from the study:
Of these 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction; 39 percent listed extremism connected with al Qaeda or like-minded terrorist organizations.
The Trump administration has kept silent on the matter, and it’s unclear exactly what its plans are.
But the Memphis police chief wants Trump to remember that “America makes extremists, too.”
On the same day, investigators determined a Tampa, Florida-area mosque had been the victim of arson.
“Whoever did this maybe intended to discourage us not to be part of this community,” one of the mosques leaders said Friday morning.
Will Carless can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @willcarless.