Donald Trump’s campaign spent the weekend fending off criticism of a pair of presidential speeches panned as racially divisive and inflammatory.
On Monday, the president undercut his own team’s efforts at damage control with a pair of tweets. The first criticized NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its races and demanded that the sport’s top Black driver apologize for an episode that, by all accounts, was not his fault. The second chastised sports franchises considering ditching offensive team names.
“Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?” Trump wrote on Twitter. “That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”
The tweet left the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, struggling to explain the president’s position, though she said he had informed her that he had no intention of taking a position either way on the Confederate flag ban and was merely criticizing what McEnany described as a “rush to judgment” about the situation.
Hours later Trump followed up with another tweet criticizing the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, both of which announced they would review a potential name change after years of pressure from Native American groups.
“They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct,” he wrote, before disparaging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for promoting the results of a DNA test that showed she had a small percentage of Native American blood.
Trump claimed that “Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now,” though indigenous groups have led the charge to rename teams like the Redskins and Indians that disparaged or appropriated their culture.
Last month, shortly after unveiling Black Lives Matter signage on his car, members of Wallace’s team reported finding a noose in the team’s garage at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, prompting a swift investigation by NASCAR as well as the FBI.
The FBI determined that Wallace had not been the target of a hate crime and that the noose had been in the garage, which was assigned to Wallace on short notice, since 2019.
The incident took place amid national upheaval over the police killings of Black Americans, spurred by the death of George Floyd in police custody on Memorial Day.
NASCAR has defended its decision to push for an investigation of the episode, with the racing association’s president asserting that “given the facts presented to us, we would have pursued this with the same sense of urgency and purpose” while arguing that the noose was legitimate and that the sport was acting “to protect our driver.”
Wallace, who never saw the noose personally and who was flooded with support, tweeted after the FBI completed its investigation: “I think we’ll gladly take a little embarrassment over what the alternatives could have been.”
On Monday afternoon, Wallace tweeted out a message to “the next generation and little ones following my foot steps,” saying that “your words and actions will always be held to a higher standard.“
“You will always have people testing you. Seeing if they can knock you off your pedestal,“ Wallace said. He urged fans to “always deal with the hate being thrown at you with LOVE … Even when it‘s HATE from the POTUS.“
The initial coverage was panned by some on the right, who compared the episode to the Black actor Jussie Smollet’s fabricated assault. McEnany made the same link as she defended Trump’s tweet in a press briefing on Monday during which she was pelted with questions about it.
The Confederate flag, she argued, was a throwaway mention “in the broader context of the fact that he rejects this notion that somehow NASCAR men and women who go to the sporting events are racist when in fact, as it turns out, what we saw with the FBI report and the alleged incident of hate crime, it was a complete indictment of the media‘s rush to judgment once again.”
She leaned on NASCAR‘s and the FBI’s statements about the episode, both of which referred to the pull rope in question as a noose, while insisting that the “intent” of Trump’s tweet “was to stand up for the men and women of NASCAR, the fans and those who have gone” to its races.
Asked why the president believed Wallace should apologize for something he was not personally involved in, McEnany said Trump felt it “would go a long way” if Wallace would acknowledge the results of the investigation — something the driver did two weeks ago when the investigation concluded.
Contrary to Trump’s assertion, NASCAR — one of the first major sports to resume amid the coronavirus pandemic — saw its ratings increase immediately after banning the Confederate flag from its events. A Fox Sports executive said in a tweet that overnight ratings for the race that took place hours after NASCAR’s ban was announced were up “+104% over the comparable race last season.” The Talladega race, which was postponed a day because of rain, was the most-watched Monday race since 2014.
The network has seen an 8 percent bump in NASCAR viewership since resuming races in mid-May, said Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president and head of strategy.
The White House doubled down on Trump’s accusation — its official Twitter account retweeted @RealDonaldTrump’s attack on Wallace — but at least one key ally broke with the president.
“I don’t think Bubba Wallace has anything to apologize for,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview on Fox News Radio, noting that “even though it was a noose created to hold the door open, in the times in which we live there’s a lot of anxiety.”
The notion that Wallace “was upset by somebody finding a noose in the garage made perfect sense to me,” Graham added.
The senator also cheered NASCAR’s decision to prohibit the Confederate flag from its events, explaining, “They’re trying to grow the sport.”
“You take images that divide us and ask that they not be brought into the venue and that makes sense to me,” he said.
Graham also argued that the show of support Wallace received from other drivers was “the best” of the sport.
“So I would be looking to celebrate that kind of attitude more than being worried about it being a hoax,” he said.
The president’s tweet comes as Trump has embraced culture wars in an effort to revive his reelection prospects after polling has shown him consistently trailing former Vice President Joe Biden.
A new Gallup poll on Monday found that Trump’s job approval had dipped to 38 percent, just 3 points above his all-time low. The survey also registered its largest partisan gap in approval ratings — 89 points — in Gallup history.
As the White House has fended off criticism over Trump’s response to coronavirus and the racial unrest after Floyd’s death, the president has come out staunchly against renaming military bases named for Confederate generals and has repeatedly proclaimed his support for preserving monuments to famous colonial and Confederate-era figures that protesters have sought to topple.
The president has also been vocal about his opposition to the National Football League’s culture wars, including kneeling during the national anthem. In 2013 Trump tweeted that then-President Barack Obama, who had asked the Redskins to change their name, should not use his presidential free time to boss football franchises around.
“Our country has far bigger problems!” Trump wrote. “FOCUS on them, not nonsense.”
Together with NASCAR, both sports handed him a culture-war loss in the same week in June.
Such issues were the focus of a pair of speeches Trump delivered over the weekend to mark Independence Day.
On July 4, Trump pledged to defend American monuments and the country’s “rich heritage” while he vowed: “We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children or trample on our freedoms.”
The previous evening, during a speech in front of Mount Rushmore, Trump lambasted a supposed “left-wing cultural revolution” that he claimed is “designed to overthrow the American revolution,” adopting divisive rhetoric on a weekend typically reserved for more unifying language.
His campaign has pushed back on critical coverage of the speeches, with communications director Tim Murtaugh declaring it “one of the worst cases of media bias in recent history.”
“It’s like they decided what to write about the president’s speech before he even delivered it,” he wrote in a tweet.
Murtaugh highlighted portions of a Wall Street Journal editorial about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech that called it “one of the best” of his presidency and claimed there was “not a hint of racial division in his words except for those who want to distort their meaning.”
“The fact that the media thinks it’s controversial for the president of the United States to say he’s proud of our country tells you all you need to know about how right he is,” he said in another tweet.
Trump’s campaign used the weekend to paint a contrast between the president and his likely rival for the November election, former Vice President Joe Biden, who said, “American history isn’t a fairytale.”
“Our nation was founded on a simple idea: We’re all created equal. We’ve never lived up to it — but we’ve never stopped trying. This Independence Day, let’s not just celebrate those words, let’s commit to finally fulfill them,” Biden wrote in a tweet.
In an op-ed for NBC News, Biden called the holiday a “courageous, extraordinary day,” but focused on civil rights achievements made since then and on his plans to oversee a return to “America’s foundation.”
The Trump campaign seized on the differing messages, sending out a press email Monday morning demanding that Biden explain why he “refuse[d] to express pride in America” during his July 4 message.
When Biden promised in a tweet, “We’re going to beat Donald Trump” and “transform” the nation, Trump’s rapid response team reposted the message along with pictures of fallen statues, asking: “Like this?”
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