President Trump spent weeks conspicuously staying quiet about a wave of anti-Semitic incidents across the US before finally describing them last week as “horrible and painful.”
He should have stopped there. Instead, he is now hinting the attacks might be a “false flag” operation carried out by his political opponents to make the White House look bad.
In a conversation between the president and state attorneys general Tuesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro asked the president about the wave of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism across the country, which have included bomb threats at 90 Jewish community centers and the desecrations of cemeteries outside St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Shapiro later told journalists that Trump called the bomb threats and desecrations “reprehensible,” but then seemed to indicate the threats might not be exactly what they seemed. Trump continued his comments by noting that the threats and vandalism might instead be an attempt to “make others look bad.” The interaction was first reported by BuzzFeed and in a series of tweets by Billy Penn blogger Anna Orso.
"He just said, 'Sometimes it's the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad,’” Shapiro told BuzzFeed. “And he used the word 'reverse' I would say two to three times in his comments. He did correctly say at the top that it was reprehensible."
Early Tuesday, Anthony Scaramucci, an adviser to the president who may be in the running for a top White House post, tweeted out a similar idea:
It's not yet clear who the #JCC offenders are. Don't forget @TheDemocrats effort to incite violence at Trump rallies https://t.co/uTBFGhI0Kh— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) February 28, 2017
The president’s statements come after a second, particularly virulent wave of threats that caused alarm throughout the nation’s Jewish community earlier this week.
On Monday, over the course of the day, 21 bomb threats were called in to 13 Jewish community centers (JCCs) and eight Jewish day schools in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Those calls bring the number of threats to 90 since the beginning of January. The Anti-Defamation League’s San Francisco office was also evacuated for a similar threat on Monday. A Philadelphia-area Jewish cemetery was also targeted over the weekend, bringing the number of cemetery desecrations to three.
In a statement distributed to the press, Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said the president’s comments were “outrageous and irresponsible.”
Moline maintained that the president’s comments and Scaramucci’s tweet together “represent an utter failure to comprehend the recent surge in violent rhetoric and attacks directed at Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities.”
Trump has floated this idea before
The idea of “making others look bad” or implying that the attacks were staged by political opponents out to make the president appear anti-Semitic or racist is something called a “false flag.” It is an idea that has been percolating around fringe right-wing websites for some time. There are those who believe the anti-Semitic threats are coming from Hillary Clinton herself, a holdover of bad blood from the election. And there are those — including David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan “imperial wizard” — who have advanced the idea that the attacks are staged by Jews themselves.
This is not the first time Trump has borrowed the idea that the recent wave of anti-Semitic threats are somehow false, or staged.
During his rambling 77-minute press conference on February 16, much press attention was paid to his dismissal of an ultra-Orthodox journalist who tried to push the White House to make a statement on the bomb threats sweeping the country.
Later in that same press conference, SiriusXM’s Jared Rizzi tried again to ask the president about anti-Semitism. “Some of it is written by our opponents,” the president said by way of response, implying attacks had been faked in order to undermine the president.
“[T]his has to do with racism and horrible things that are put up. You do know that? Do you understand that? You don’t think anybody would do a thing like that?” He went on:
Some of the signs you’ll see are not put up by the people that love or like Donald Trump, they’re put up by the other side, and you think it’s like playing it straight?
No. But you have some of those signs and some of that anger is caused by the other side. They’ll do signs, and they’ll do drawings that are inappropriate. It won’t be my people. It will be the people on the other side to anger people like you.
As Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote at Ha’aretz after the press conference, “Trump’s words echoed the theory that the threats to Jewish community centers and other anti-Semitic incidents have been contrived to support the premise that Trump’s presidency is ushering in greater racism.” She pointed out that Duke had put out that idea on Twitter earlier in the month.
On Twitter just this week, Duke tweeted out another query in that vein. “New bomb threats hit at least 10 US Jewish centers today. Why can't the government trace where these threats are coming from - Tel Aviv?” he wrote. In another series of tweets, he said there was no “proof” that Jews weren’t behind the threats.
“For millennia, Jews have not only endured unthinkable violence, but the subsequent denial of that violence,” Eric Walker, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, told the New York Times. “For the president of the United States to insinuate that threats to Jewish community centers are illegitimate is truly beyond the pale.”