WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump is hunkered down at his Mar-a-Lago Club for one of the most racially charged Martin Luther King Jr. holidays in recent memory, with hatred mostly directed at the president himself.
He couldn’t even get through a signing ceremony for a MLK Day proclamation at the start of the holiday weekend without a reporter shouting, “Are you a racist?”
Mr. Trump took an opportunity Sunday night to rebut the claim directly.
“I’m not a racist. I’m the least racist person you will ever interview,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he met House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy for dinner at his golf club.
The furor grew out of an immigration discussion at the White House on Thursday, during which Mr. Trump is alleged by Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, to have made the vulgar comment. The president said he didn’t use that language, and some other GOP lawmakers who attended the meeting have said they didn’t hear him make such remarks.
Nevertheless, race relations have hit a new low.
“This is probably one of the more racially tense times since 1968,” said Emory University professor Andra Gillespie, referring to the year King was assassinated by a lone gunman at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, setting off race riots in cities across the U.S. “There have been other flash point moments, but what distinguishes this period from previous periods is the length of the sustained tension.”
Ms. Gillespie, a scholar of race and politics in the U.S., was highly critical of Mr. Trump for reportedly saying the U.S. doesn’t need more immigrants from “sh—thole” countries.
A Washington Post report that he made the comment in a private Oval Office meeting spurred the latest onslaught of racism charges.
“People up until [then] were somewhat loath to directly call the president racist,” said Ms. Gillespie. “Those comments were appalling.”
Members of Miami’s Haitian community staged a demonstration Saturday with placards that read: “President Trump is a racist.”
Mr. Shah insisted that the president’s policies benefit all Americans.
“His economic policies have ushered in a tide of growth and job creation that has lifted all boats, creating the lowest unemployment rates among African-Americans and Hispanics ever recorded,” he said.
He pointed to $20 billion budgeted to promote school choice that helps “children trapped in failing schools,” and efforts to fight crime and illegal drugs to “allow children all backgrounds to have a brighter future.”
“He’s not a racist,” said Bruce Levell, an Atlanta businessman who runs the National Diversity Coalition for Trump that spearheads minority outreach. “I’ve been around him. I just don’t see that.”
Mr. Trump is focused on race, he said.
“He’s a savvy businessman and he’s about the numbers. He’s about low unemployment. Look at black unemployment. It is at the lowest level in the history of the United States,” said Mr. Levell.
Ms. Gillespie said the vulgar language that the president allegedly used only capped a heightened level of racial strife that started with the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“This period has been longer and it appears to be more intense then when it started,” she said, blaming Mr. Trump’s racially tinged comments with extending the phenomena.
Mr. Trump has weathered allegations of racism since he entered the 2016 presidential race, whether for singling out Muslims in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism or blaming Mexicans for crime, drugs and illegal immigration.
He denied using the vulgar expression about Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries but admitted to using “strong language” at an Oval Office meeting on immigration.
Democrats are trying to use the uproar as leverage in negotiations to keep the current levels of legal immigration and dole out special visas to various groups.
Mr. Durbin was at the closed-door meeting and pushed the racism story.
After Mr. Trump denied it, Mr. Durbin said the president used the offensive term and “said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist.”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said that leveling charges of racism against Republicans “is one of the oldest gimmicks in the Democratic campaign playbook.”
“And while they often overplay their hand on this front, coastal liberal elites and the mainstream media fall for it on many occasions,” he said. “Unfortunately for President Trump, he too often walks into this trap because of his frank manner of speech and eagerness to speak up on current events as they unfold in real-time.”