(CNN) — The White House press secretary refused to denounce the Confederate flag during a press briefing Monday after President Donald Trump bemoaned NASCAR’s recent decision to ban it from all races and events.
The White House attempted to cast his message as one of support for the racing sport’s fans. But Trump’s declaration bore little resemblance to the White House’s explanations for it. And his spokeswoman’s refusal to voice an official stance on flying the Confederate flag was itself an indication of Trump’s continued attempts to use racist symbols as an appeal to some white voters as he attempts to resuscitate his reelection bid.
Kayleigh McEnany said Monday the President was not “making a judgment call” about the flag in his tweet.
“He has not given an opinion one way or the other on that,” she said. “I just spoke to him this morning.”
Earlier Monday, Trump had tweeted: “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? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”
Pressed during a contentious 22-minute briefing about the tweet, McEnany insisted Trump was voicing support for NASCAR fans.
“The President’s intent was to say no, most American people are good, hardworking people, and we should not have this rush to judgment knee-jerk reaction before the facts come out,” McEnany said, without explaining — despite repeated questions — why Trump was demanding Wallace apologize.
NASCAR launched an investigation last month after a crew member discovered a noose a garage stall assigned to Wallace, the league’s only full-time black driver, at the Talladega Superspeedway. The FBI found that the noose had been in the garage since last year and Wallace was therefore not a victim of a hate crime. NASCAR, mentioning the FBI report, described the item as a “garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose.”
“It was a noose,” Wallace told CNN after the investigation. “Whether tied in 2019 or whatever, it was a noose. So, it wasn’t directed at me but somebody tied a noose. That’s what I’m saying.”
In a response posted to his own Twitter on Monday, Wallace wrote a message directed toward “the next generation and little ones following my foot steps.”
“Always deal with the hate being thrown at you with LOVE!” he wrote. “Love over hate every day. Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate.”
“Even when it’s HATE from the POTUS,” he wrote. “Love wins.”
As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the country, Trump has largely moved on, seeking instead to place focus on his “law and order” message through a series of inflammatory speeches, tweets, and statements defending racist monuments and digging in his opposition to renaming Army bases named for Confederate leaders.
The “Flag decision” in Trump’s tweet appears to link NASCAR’s decision to remove Confederate flag imagery from all races and events with lower ratings. Last month, amid nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers NASCAR banned the flag, a racist symbol.
NASCAR has said that the presence of the Confederate flag “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.”
Trump ally and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina pushed back on Trump’s tweet during a Fox News radio interview on Monday.
“They’re trying to grow the sport,” Graham said, referring to the decision to ban flags from NASCAR events. “And I’ve lived in South Carolina all my life and if you’re in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business.”
Earlier in the day, McEnany appeared on Fox News and reiterated Trump’s message, comparing the noose incident to an alleged assault on actor Jussie Smollett and attacks on the character of students from Covington High School after a viral video gained national attention that initially lacked important additional context.
“What the President is making is a broader point that this rush to judgment on the facts before the facts are out is not acceptable. And we saw it with the Covington kids and we saw with Jussie Smollett, and now we saw it in the case before the FBI came to that conclusion,” she said.
“The President’s merely pointing out that we’ve gotta let facts come out before we rush to judgment,” she added.
Smollett, who is gay and black, said he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack near his Chicago apartment on January 29, 2019. Chicago police investigated the case as a hate crime but later said the actor orchestrated the incident. Smollett has repeatedly denied making up or orchestrating the attack.
Monday’s tweet builds on Trump’s weekend culture war rhetoric.
Speaking at the base of Mount Rushmore Friday evening, he railed against what he called a “merciless campaign” by his political foes to erase history by removing monuments — even though the sculptures memorialize parts of America’s racist past.
“As we meet here tonight there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for,” Trump said. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”
And back at the White House on Saturday, he compared his efforts to defeat “the radical left” to the efforts by the United States to eradicate the Nazis.
Last week, he went after attempts to strip the names of racists from buildings, attacked a federal housing rule meant to combat racial segregation, and called the words “black lives matter” a “symbol of hate.”
Some of the President’s political advisers worry Trump is both distracted from the actual health and economic crises facing the country and alienating moderate swing voters whose views on race have evolved past viewing Confederate monuments as “history.”
But Trump has insisted the issue is a winning one for him and has refused to change course.
Graham also told Fox News radio that he would encourage Trump to distinguish between protesters and violent looters, saying “there are voices out in the country that are pushing for racial justice.”
CNN’s Steve Almasy, Manu Raju, Haley Byrd and Ali Main contributed to this report.
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