Trump's dinner with antisemites? Some Republicans attempt to change the topic

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump announces on Nov. 15 that he will seek the presidency in 2024. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In the wake of former President Donald Trump's dinner with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and notorious Holocaust denier and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, some Republican lawmakers have engaged in “whataboutism,” the practice of responding to one allegation with a counter-accusation on a different issue.

But those attempts to shift the conversation largely miss some important context.

Notably, Trump has not apologized for the meeting or criticized the antisemitic views of the guests he dined with at Mar-a-Lago. West’s recent antisemitic statements have cost him millions of dollars in endorsements and other business deals. Fuentes, a fan of Adolf Hitler, has compared Jews killed in World War II in concentration camp ovens to cookies.

On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, responded to the White House condemnation of Trump's meeting by pivoting to President Biden's eulogy for Sen. Robert Byrd. Cruz pointed out that the late West Virginia senator had once been an organizer and member of the Ku Klux Klan.

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What Cruz’s exercise in whataboutism leaves out is the fact that Byrd left the KKK in the 1940s, went on to disavow the racist group, and as a senator voted in favor of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (after filibustering the 1964 version) and later going on to receive a 100% approval rating from the NAACP.

“It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation,” Byrd wrote in his autobiography.

In contrast, West and Fuentes have never backed off their offensive statements and actions. Indeed, the two have doubled down on their views, including after meeting with Trump. They both also said Trump showered praise on Fuentes during the Mar-a-Lago dinner.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., responding to anti-Muslim comments made by Rep. Lauren Boebert in 2021. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

In a Monday interview with CNN, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., criticized Trump’s judgment for meeting with West and Fuentes, but he then sought to blame the media. He equated the antisemitic views of Fuentes with those of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

“And I can shed some light on why Republicans don’t immediately respond to many in the media every time they’re offended by something Trump does, is because a lot of Republicans believe there’s a double standard in the media,” Comer said. “We have seen things that Ilhan Omar has said. We don’t get asked if we condemn that by the mainstream media.”

Omar, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, found herself the target of criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike over her comments about Israel and her use of antisemitic tropes in a series of since-deleted tweets. Taking aim at the AIPAC lobby's support of the Republican Party, Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” leading some to accuse her of propagating negative stereotypes about Jews.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats were routinely peppered with media questions about Omar’s remarks, and in 2019 Pelosi, with Democratic House leaders Steny Hoyer, James Clyburn, Ben Ray Luján, Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark, released a joint letter condemning Omar over her remarks.

“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share,” the statement read. “But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments.”

Omar issued an apology and said Jewish colleagues in the House had helped educate her on “the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”

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Louis Farrakhan
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speaking in Detroit in 2017. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Trump out for breaking bread with West and Fuentes, but accused the media of hypocrisy.

“No, the meeting was bad. He shouldn’t have done it,” Graham said. “But again, you know, there’s a double standard about this kind of stuff. And I don’t think it’ll matter in terms of his political future, but I do believe we need to watch who we meet with. We shouldn’t give oxygen to people who think this way.”

Graham likened Trump's meeting with Fuentes to instances in which some Democratic lawmakers met with former Nation of Islam leader and unrepentant antisemite Louis Farrakhan.

“You know, when Democrats hang out with Farrakhan, y’all don’t ask these questions,” Graham said.

In 2018, the Republican Jewish Coalition, a lobbying group, called for the resignation of seven Democratic representatives who had met with Farrakhan while in Congress: Keith Ellison, Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Danny Davis, André Carson, Gregory Meeks and Al Green.

But it is notable that while those lawmakers either met with Farrakhan or attended events where he spoke earlier in their careers, many have criticized his antisemitic views in the wake of an especially offensive speech he gave in 2018.

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Lee, Meeks, Carson and Davis all went on to issue their own unequivocal rebukes of Farrakhan’s “hateful comments.”

Of the seven lawmakers called out by the Republican Jewish Coalition, only Waters declined to issue a statement rebuking Farrakhan.

Among the others who tried to distance themselves from Farrakhan, Ellison, who has since left Congress and now serves as attorney general of Minnesota, seemed to have the most difficulty issuing a straightforward condemnation that did not resort to whataboutism.

“I don’t have any support for what the individual you just mentioned stands for, nor do I agree with Trump’s bigotry either,” he told CNN. “But then again, anytime somebody tries to say that something is unfair and bigoted, if you’re going to say, ‘Well, one time you sort of said something or somebody said you said something.'”