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.
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.