WASHINGTON - After exiting a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro found himself at the center of a national controversy. Shapiro reported that in response to a question he had asked Trump about anti-Semitism, the president had said that perhaps recent anti-Semitic events across the United States were “the reverse” of what they seemed.
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Many pundits, and some political opponents of Trump, interpreted this quote – which Shapiro stands by, two days after first disclosing it – as Trump hinting that perhaps Jews were inventing the attacks, or were even somehow responsible for them.
The quote created an angry backlash across the country, one that dissipated only slightly when Trump strongly denounced anti-Semitism during his first appearance before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.
Talking to Haaretz 24 hours later, Shapiro – a Democrat who recently began his first term in office – explained how it all started, and what exactly the president said during the conversation.
“I arrived at the White House with more than 40 of my colleagues for a meeting with the president,” recalled Shapiro. “Some of my Democratic colleagues didn’t show up, but for me it was obvious once I got the invitation that I’m going. I have great respect for the office of the president,” he said, adding that he saw it as his duty to ask Trump about issues of importance to the residents of his home state.
During the meeting, a number of AGs from different states presented questions to Trump, who encouraged them to do so after making brief remarks about his law-enforcement priorities. Shapiro was one of the very last to present a question: He chose to ask the president what he thought the federal and state governments could do to better tackle the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents taking place throughout the country, as well as incidents in which other minority groups were attacked.
The meeting, and Shapiro’s question, came just days after hundreds of headstones were vandalized at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, the largest city in the AG’s home state.
“I presented the question in the most respectful manner,” explained Shapiro. “The president said three things in response to my question. The first was that these acts were reprehensible. The second was that he planned to talk about it in his speech later that night, which he eventually did – and I’m glad he did. The third was that in these cases, sometimes ‘the reverse may be true’ and these attacks can be different than what they look like.”
Shapiro said the president repeated the word “reverse” two or three times. It was this choice of words that created the outrage – not just in the media and the Jewish community, but also among some of the AGs present.
Shapiro recalled that as the attendants exited the meeting, “a number of my colleagues – both Democrats and Republicans – came to me and asked, ‘What did he mean by saying that?’ They were all surprised. One used the word ‘Shocked.’”
Trump’s comments left many people confused. Later that night at his Congress address, Trump opened his speech by denouncing anti-Semitism and also mentioning, for the first time, a racist shooting attack that left one Indian-American dead and another wounded in Olathe, Kansas, last week.
Shapiro said Trump’s words in the speech were important, but that his awkward statement in the earlier meeting with the AGs was no less so. “I think leaders have a responsibility to speak carefully about such issues,” he said, “but also to be very clear and unapologetic when denouncing violence, racism and hate speech.”
Shapiro said that in the 48 hours since the first reports on Trump’s comments were published, he has not heard anything from the White House – not a clarification, a retraction of the quote, or an attempt to deny it. “There was no follow up,” he noted.
When Haaretz asked Shapiro why it was taking law-enforcement authorities so long to figure out who is behind the bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the United States, he said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. He added that it was necessary to strengthen cooperation between local and federal authorities to tackle such incidents.
In the coming days – perhaps even as early as Thursday – Trump is reportedly planning to present a new executive order limiting immigration to the United States from several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, after an earlier version was swiftly struck down by courts across the country. Shapiro, who spoke out against the previous order, told Haaretz he would have to look at whatever comes out of the White House before commenting on the new version.
“The president has broad authorities on immigration, border protection and national security,” he said. “No one doubts that. But at the same time, no one is above the law and the constitution in our country. My job as attorney general of Pennsylvania is to uphold the rule of law. If the president puts out an order that is within the law, I will stand shoulder to shoulder with him on it. If the order goes against the law, I will oppose it.
“The previous executive action failed a fundamental test of balancing between our security and our liberties, eventually hurting both. I will wait and see before making any assessments on the upcoming one.”