Analysis

A New Donald Trump? Moving Holocaust Speech Wins Praise From Jews, Derision From Alt-right

Trump appears to take a significant step toward healing the wounds of the past year, and his remarks seem to confirm the growing influence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner at Steve Bannon's expense

U.S. President Donald Trump watches a memorial candle being lit in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington on April 25, 2017.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. President Donald Trump’s stirring address at the U.S. Capitol ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day Tuesday may not have erased the deep-seated discomfort and distrust most of the American Jewish community has felt about him and his inner circle over the course of his campaign and his first 100 days in the White House.

It did, however, appear to take a significant step toward healing the wounds of the past year.

Even Trump’s harshest critics in the Jewish community were hard-pressed to deny Trump praise for a speech in which he offered a ringing condemnation not only of anti-Semitism, but of Holocaust denial, saying that “those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil” and declaring, "This is my pledge to you: we will confront anti-Semitism."

Almost immediately following the speech, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying that “it deeply matters that Donald Trump used the power of his office to stand against anti-Semitism and hate and to honor the memory of the six million Jews and millions of others murdered in Europe.”

It felt like a far cry from the Donald Trump of just a few months earlier, when condemnations of anti-Semitism had to be dragged out of him at press conferences and when members of his administration repeatedly defended their decision to omit any reference to Jews or anti-Semitism from the White House statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.

Trump’s speech, which began with a remembrance of Elie Wiesel and ended with an anecdote about survivor Gerda Klein who married the U.S. soldier who liberated her from a Nazi death camp, was so strong it seemed like a direct retort to the previous day’s New York Times headline, “Some Jewish Groups Bristle at Thought of Trump at Capitol Holocaust Ceremony.” It said that some of the board members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which sponsored the event, were not attending in protest of Trump’s “violation of the norms of tolerance.”

There were points in his remarks where Trump almost sounded like those pledged to resist his presidency, as when he declared that "as long as we refuse to close our eyes or to silence our voices ... justice will ultimately prevail."

Taken together, the Tuesday speech and a similar address Trump made Monday night at the World Jewish Congress pointed to a clear attempt to reset the relationship between the president and the Jewish community, sticking closely to the written text, which stuck closely (some felt too closely) to the words used to describe the atrocities of the Holocaust on the national museum’s website.

The nature and tone of Trump’s speech seemed to confirm what has been widely reported regarding the White House's “palace intrigue.” According to these reports, the influence of Trump adviser and former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, which had set much of the disturbing tone in his administration’s early days , was – for the moment – overshadowed by the influence of his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors.

After the speech, there was widespread speculation in the media as to how influential his Jewish family members had been in the crafting of the text – Kushner famously penned his 2016 address to the AIPAC conference.

Still, Bannon remains in place, as does Sebastian Gorka, who has come under fire for his association with the Vitézi Rend, a far-right Hungarian group, as well as White House spokesman Sean Spicer who shockingly compared Hitler favorably to Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

In recognition of this reality, the ADL statement accompanied its praise for Trump’s words on Tuesday with a reminder that the expression of such sentiments “should not be restricted to Holocaust Remembrance Day. We very much hope the president will continue to use his bully pulpit to speak out against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hatred in all forms.”

Not all Trump critics on social media were quick to fall for the newly sensitive Trump on display, remaining skeptical of the sincerity of his sentiments.

Meanwhile, in alt-right media and white supremacist circles, as might be expected, reaction to the speech rang of disappointment and disdain. The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer bemoaned the fact that “our President is being held hostage by vicious Jews.”

One commented on an alt-right Twitter account that “Sheldon Adelson just made Trump his new caddy. Follow the money.” Some called Trump a “cuck” – the slang word for emasculated conservative – for his softened tone.

Notably, despite the fact that coverage of the speech was widespread across the mainstream U.S. media, there was one major outlet that made no mention of it. Though the popular right-wing pro-Trump site normally reports nearly every move the president makes, more than three hours after he strongly condemned anti-Semitism on Bannon’s Breitbart.com it was as if the speech never happened.

Later, a report on the speech did appear on Breitbart, though it was focused not on Trump's words but on media coverage, with the headline "Fake News: CNN Recycles False Claims in Bashing Trump's Holocaust Speech." It charges that the past "missteps" described in the cable news outlet's report regarding the president's relationship with Jews and anti-Semitism were "innocent mistakes" and some were "demonstrable lies"