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Jelani Cobb: ‘It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Donald Trump is racist’

President Trump's recent reported use of vulgar language to describe some immigrants has prompted backlash from both the right and left. It also raises questions about his own personal history on issues of race, and how his perspective affects the nation. Judy Woodruff gets reaction and analysis from Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been discussing, President Trump reportedly used vulgar language to describe some immigrants to this country, comments prompting backlash from both the right and the left.

    The comments also raise questions about President Trump's own long history with race and how that affects the national conversation happening now.

    Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center here in Washington. And he served in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He was also a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. And Jelani Cobb is a professor at Columbia University School of Journalism. And he's a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, where he covers race, politics and culture.

    And we welcome both of you back to the program.

    Pete Wehner, I'm going to start with you.

    As a lifelong conservative, how are you interpreting what President Trump said? First of all, do you believe he used those words that he's alleged to have used, and what do you take away from it?

  • Peter Wehner:

    Yes, I do believe that he used thse words. I don't think there is much question about it.

    Republicans like Lindsey Graham have confirmed that he used it. And this is all part of a piece with him. This is the latest link in a long, malicious chain for Donald Trump, a chain that's connected by racist sentiments toward Mexicans, toward Muslims and toward African-Americans.

    In terms of what it says about him and how I interpret it as a lifelong Republican, it's extremely painful, it's revealing. And what it says about Donald Trump and about Trump supporters is that they are racist or that they find great appeal in racist sentiments and expressions of racial division.

    You know, Donald Trump is appealing to the worst instincts of America and, unfortunately, his supporters are responding to it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jelani Cobb, on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, how are his words being received, and are we learning something new about him from this?

  • Jelani Cobb:

    Yes, I don't think we're learning anything new. There seems to be a cycle in which we hear something outrageous, something inflammatory, something that is undeniably racist, and we say, at this point, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that Donald Trump is racist.

    And then we move on to another series of outrages, and then maybe a month or two months later, we come back and say, OK, this definitively establishes that Mr. Trump is racist.

    But there are never any consequences to this. What happened in — and what he said regarding Haiti and countries in Africa is not revelatory. We have understood what these sentiments were during Charlottesville. We understood how he viewed the world when he said that Judge Curiel could not execute his duties as a judge because he was Mexican.

    He is actually Mexican-American.

    And we understood this from the comments he made about the Central Park Five. There's a long list. And so we haven't learned anything new in regards to this.

    As it pertains to Dr. King, it's almost tragically ironic. I don't think — there have been a number of people who have raised the question of his fitness for office. And we can debate about that, but one thing that I think is clear is he is not fit to address the legacy of Martin Luther King.

    I think the most respectful thing that he could do at this point would be to say nothing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, in that regard, Pete Wehner, saying nothing or whether he says something, how much damage is being done to the country, to the American people right now?

  • Peter Wehner:

    Oh, he's doing tremendous damage. He's doing it to the political and to the fabric of the country.

    He's really trying to get people to go at each other's throats. And he's also touching on what is the original sin and the besetting sin of America, which is race. We have always had a difficult relationship with race, but we have never had a president who has tried to exacerbate those tensions.

    We have had presidents who have imperfectly tried to heal the breach, but here we have somebody who seems to take great delight and takes great energy in dividing us by race. And that has huge consequences on a country. I think a lot of Trump supporters think in terms of checking policy boxes, but politics is about things much deeper and much more important than that.

    And in that area, Donald Trump is worse than we have ever had.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jelani Cobb, can one person, even if that one person is the president of the United States, literally set back race relations in this country?

  • Jelani Cobb:

    Absolutely. And that's what's happening here, both legislatively and socially and culturally.

    It's one thing — we're talking about Dr. King. In 1961, John F. Kennedy invited Martin Luther King to attend his inauguration, and Dr. King declined. But then, several weeks later, he gave a speech, and in the speech, he talked about what Mr. Kennedy could do to address matters of race.

    And some of them are things that you would expect, the legislative concerns he had about civil rights and so on, but he then, in this letter, took pains to point out the social and moral authority of the office of the presidency. And he said that that could be, you know, difficult to measure, that you couldn't come up with a kind of easily quantified way to determine what that influence would be, but it was absolutely important in terms of moving the goal — moving the country closer to the goal of equality.

    And Mr. Trump has failed tremendously on those scores. As a matter of fact, he's moved the country in the opposite direction. To Peter's point, we have seen divisions stoked, we have seen animosity, we have seen hostility. We have seen the still unfolding crisis in Puerto Rico and the way that he referred to the inhabitants of the island stereotypically, saying that they — quote, unquote — "wanted everything done for them."

    And so I don't know how at this point we can even question the fact that we have had a very retrograde movement coming out of the White House on these issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Peter Wehner, what can individual Americans do? I know some elected Republicans today were quoting — tweeting and quoting Martin Luther King Jr.

    Is tweeting enough, speaking out? I mean, what should people be doing right now?

  • Peter Wehner:

    Well, Republicans do need to speak out, but they need to do more than this episodic criticism. They have to make a comprehensive critique and really a comprehensive assault on Trump and Trumpism and his racism.

    And they just really haven't done it, with a few exceptions. Former President Bush did it. John McCain did it. For the most part, they haven't done it.

    Other Americans, look, they have to speak out for what is right and what is true and what is best about America. And they have to try and rally people and the better angels of our nature.

    Sometimes, viruses create their own antibodies. And my hope is that Donald Trump, because what he is doing is so ugly and so pernicious and so malicious, that people, having seen this, will remember some of the characteristics and virtues that are important to individuals and to a country and recover them. But they have to check him at every point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jelani Cobb, what would you add to that? What is the message, what should the message be today for individual Americans right now?

  • Jelani Cobb:

    I think that Americans are compelled to think what Dr. King was saying, the fact that he was talking about moving the country past the ills that we had seen wreak havoc, wreak havoc in the world during World War II.

    And his words are there. I would encourage us not to go by what our leaders are saying or what the media, even Pete and I are saying today, but to go to Dr. King's words themselves and to see what he has to offer in terms of how we address the issues we have in 2018.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we certainly appreciate both of you speaking to us on this Martin Luther King Day.

    Thank you Jelani Cobb, Pete Wehner.

  • Jelani Cobb:

    Thank you.

  • Peter Wehner:

    Thanks a lot.

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