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Soft-toned Trump reaches out to religious and other minorities

President Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress, on Feb. 28, 2017. Courtesy of Reuters/Jim Lo Scalzo

WASHINGTON (RNS) President Trump, long chided for failing to address a surge in hate crimes, began his first address to Congress by invoking Black History Month and condemning recent threats against Jewish institutions and the shooting of Indian men in Kansas City.

His uncharacteristically soft-toned speech, which included several religious references, at points emphasized the commonalities among religious groups and toward the end declared that “we are all made by the same God.”

And, heralding “a new chapter of American greatness,” the president acknowledged “our Muslim allies” fighting the militant group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS.

He called it “a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women and children of all faiths and beliefs.”

But his other remarks Tuesday night (Feb. 28) would no doubt confirm for many critics that he still scapegoats Muslims and other minorities. He defended his Jan. 27 executive order, stayed by a federal appeals court, that temporarily bans nationals of seven Muslim-majority nations from visiting the U.S.

And he promised to fight terrorism, slowly enunciating “radical Islamic terrorism,” to make the point that he would use the phrase, despite even his own national security adviser’s stated belief that it helps extremists to paint the U.S. as anti-Muslim.

He also reiterated his intention to build “a great, great wall along our southern border.”

Trump invoked Scripture when he praised a Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who died in a controversial raid in Yemen that the president approved.

“Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” said Trump, invoking John 15:13.

And he championed school choice, saying families “should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

But perhaps what most surprised his audience was the speech’s opening, a seeming attempt to bridge the divides among Americans that so many have accused Trump of widening.

“Tonight as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains to be done,” he said to applause and cheers.

Hate crimes have been a growing concern so far this presidency. In less than two months, bomb threats have targeted about 100 Jewish community centers, schools and offices of the Anti-Defamation League. Vandals have desecrated hundreds of graves at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia.

And last week in Kansas City, two Indian men were shot, one fatally, in what is widely assumed to be a hate crime.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,” the president told the lawmakers.

Trump has dismayed Jewish and other groups for failing, until last week, to denounce rising anti-Semitic hate crimes in the nation. And he has offered no specific condemnation of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes, which have surged in the past several years.


READ: Trump condemned anti-Semitism. What about Islamophobia?


Trump’s remarks Tuesday night were unlikely to mollify Jewish leaders upset with his record on addressing hatred toward Jews.

Just hours before the speech they called on him to address reports that he had, in a meeting with state attorneys general, suggested that threats against Jewish community centers might be coming from “the reverse” to “make others look bad.”

It was not clear what Trump meant, but some Jewish leaders expressed concern that he was implying that the threats could be attempts to frame his supporters, rather than threaten Jews, and called on him to clarify his statement.

Jewish leaders were also worried about new reports that the Trump administration is considering scrapping a State Department post created to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

20 Comments

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  • Trump’s tone may have softened a bit on 2/28, but make no mistake, this “president” is no friend of religious liberty, women’s rights of conscience and health, public education, our American heritage of church-state separation, or simply facts. — Edd Doerr

  • His tone may have softened during his address, but he is now claiming that he JCC bomb threats were fake. He is parroting White Supremacist groups that blamed Jews for faking attacks. The State Deparment has deleted all information from their web site on chronicling and monitoring anti-Semitism. So he doesn’t care about anti-Semitism in the rest of the world. Trump and Tillerson are protecting Putin and all the oil buddies.

  • I acknowledge that there is anti-Semitism on the left too, but that doesn’t change facts. Liberals don’t want a war. We just want our constitutional rights and for the president to condemn antisemtism and other forms of racism and prejudce. I don’t thnk that is too much to ask from our president.

  • Over a year as candidate, three months as president-elect, and five weeks as president – what makes you think that he spoke truth last night any more than he has over the past year or two? He has no creditability left – he squandered it all.

  • Intolerance and even hate crimes against all minorities are up considerably since the election of Donald Trump. One speech is just lip service if the hate, prejudice and social injustice all continue.

  • Yes credit is due if his administration’s actions reflect those words. You can’t take the words of a political to the bank.

  • I would say that the uber Left is more guilty of anti-Zionism – political, not religious. Of course for some folks the two “isms” are the same.

  • It’s interesting that the president is being praised by his allies for using a teleprompter and sounding presidential. Yet President Obama and Secretary Clinton were roundly criticized by the right for teleprompter use. The hypocrisy is thick.

    The president and his supporters have no ground to stand on when it comes to complaining about his lack of credibility. His entire campaign organization and administration have created an “unpresidented” level of lying. Only fools or abused people believe that somehow, magically, a habitual liar is suddenly being truthful. Wise people watch actions, rather than betting on mere words.

  • Hope in this administration will continue to spring eternal as long as journalists and editorialists are willing to polish every semi-gloss turd sculpted by its functionaries.

  • War, war, war — some libbies just gotta have that war, it seems. Don’t want no stinkin’ detente.

    Fortunately, some others are at least willing to see what happens from here (AND try to sound sincere about it, like Van Jones.)

  • I don’t think he really meant any of it seriously. The State Department has taken down all information on anti-Semitism from their website. They have taken down the pages that monitor and chronicle anti-Semitism in countries around the world. Then there’s the fact that Trump is now blaming Jews and believes it’s all fake.

  • The left’s anti-Zionist rhetoric often includes classic anti-Semitic tropes. Anti-Zionists don’t have to be anti-Semitic, but most of them are. It is the Jew as uniquely evil and the Jew as pariah, even using blood libel. Judaism is not just a religion. It is possible to be a Jewish atheist. However, anti-Judaism has permeated Christianity since he at least the Middle Ages and goes back to the Gospels themselves. even atheists are not immune from it, although they don’t realize where it comes from.

  • The credit must surely go to the President’s speech writer(s) for avoiding specifics, glossing over inherent contradictions; excellent teleprompter reading; and being able to fake sincerity. The standing and clapping of the Congress was worthy of a sitting of a Chinese Communist Party Congress.

  • Not War .. Actions that back up words… Just saying it is not enough…

    Trump has shown no desire to support individual or even constitutional rights. He even rejects the balance of powers.

    Has he changed??? Show us.

  • Floyd, you’ll have to help me out. What does my comment have to do with war?

    Why should I believe that habitual liar is telling the truth? If his actions do match his words, I will give him more credibility. The president earned his reputation as a liar. If that changes because he begins consistently telling the truth, he will have earned that.

  • I forgot to say that one of Trump’s aides, Sebastion Gorka has formed key alliances with antisemitic Hungarian groups. Jeff Sessions has said that he has supported the 1924 law that was used to keep out Jews during the Holocaust.

  • But now you’re asking for blind trust that YOU will “give him more credibility if his actions do match his words” instead of just constantly trying to attack and undermine him without stopping. How do I know you are telling the truth?

    And while you certainly seem okay enough at times, there’s no way I can trust WaPo, NYTimes, CNN, NBC, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party, to do that same promise you gave.

    They are most certainly at war, and they clearly like it that way. They have become fanatical and “ends-justify-the-means-ish”.

  • I’m not “WaPo, NYTimes, CNN, NBC, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party” and I’m not responsible for them or their behavior. Your comment addressed me, not them.

    We all build or destroy our credibility the same way, so does the president. It’s likely that I will continue to dislike his policies, but as for him personally, that’s all up to him based on his actions.

    While we disagree on most things Floyd, that doesn’t reflect on how I feel about you as an individual. I try to give people an opportunity to establish their credibility and most, like you, have responded well, regardless of differing political or religious positions. That’s how it works.

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