Rep. Zeldin's awkward defense of Donald Trump

Rep. Lee Zeldin, who ha been publicly supportive of Donald Trump since March, appeared on CNN Tuesday to discuss Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel. The result was an awkward discussion in which Zeldin immediately agreed Trump’s comments met his personal definition of racism but then refused to attribute that to any racism on Trump’s part.

Confronted with Paul Ryan’s comments earlier in the day that Trump’s remarks were the “textbook definition” of a racist comment, Zeldin told CNN, “The way I subjectively define racism I agree as well.” He added, “I think that Mr. Trump made a regrettable mistake with his statement.”

Rep. Zeldin offered that Trump’s comments seemed aimed at winning a legal battle but said there was no evidence he had seen that indicated the judge was “unfit to handle this case because…the fact that he is of Mexican heritage.”

But when asked if he was still comfortable supporting Trump after he had made this racist comment, Zeldin tried to turn the discussion to Democrats.

“Quite frankly, the policies I have seen from the Democratic Party when you’re micro-targeting a community and you are putting blacks together and Hispanics together, you know certain economic messages and positions on issues…quite frankly with the way I define racism I see it a lot in policies and statements that have taken place,” Zeldin said.

Asked directly if he was still supporting Trump, Zeldin replied, “Yes, it’s Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton and it’s a no brainer between the two of them.”

“Are you essentially saying that, ‘yes, he’s a racist but he’s our racist’?” CNN’s host asked. And that’s when the discussion took another turn. “No, I think that Donald Trump, as far as his character goes, he isn’t making that statement because he feels like he is superior…because he is white and the judge is Mexican,” Zeldin replied. He added, “I don’t believe he’s making that statement because internally he feels like he is of a superior race.” Zeldin went on to say that he believed everyone “can do a lot better” dealing with race.

Pressed again on whether Trump was a racist, Zeldin replied, “You can easily argue that the President of the United States is a racist, with his policies and his rhetoric.” Zeldin immediately clarified, “My purpose here isn’t to just go through the list and call everyone a racist. I’m saying that we all with rhetoric and policy because America…we are a nation of immigrants, we are a melting pot…We all can do so much better.”

Here’s what I think Zeldin was trying to say. First, he agrees Trump made a racist comment. Second, he believes the explicit racial appeals made by Democrats (to blacks and Hispanics) are more problematic than Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel. Third, while Trump’s comment was racist Zeldin doesn’t believe it stem from white supremacy. In essence, Trump may have said something racist but may not be a racist.

Zeldin may be on to something with point number two. Democrats, up to an including the president have made explicitly racial appeals to voters in the past. Recall Obama’s black radio ad in 2012 featuring soul singers and a narrator saying it’s time to “move forward and finish what we started together.” Who is we in this case? The title card at the end of that clip says “Unity” which is ironic because this ad is about singling out one demographic. Frankly, it’s no better than Trump’s ridiculous taco tweet. And that’s just one example. There was also Obama’s call, on a popular Univision radio station, for Latinos to punish their enemies. It doesn’t excuse Trump but it does place his racial remarks in some context.

But I’m not sure points one and three work for Rep. Zeldin. If what Trump said was racist then Trump is responsible for that. Saying Trump doesn’t have racism in his heart (which seems to be the gist here) doesn’t matter as much as his words suggesting the opposite. Alternatively, Zeldin could argue the statement wasn’t racist (he does suggest it was about legal strategy) and therefore Trump is not racist either. But, again, Zeldin agreed it was racist right off the bat. So he seems to be trying to have it both ways and the result is a bit of a muddle.

Watch the whole clip and see if you can make sense of it:

Addendum: Ace makes a related point here: It’s pretty much standard operating procedure for the left to assume race impacts judges behavior on the bench. He specifically points to Justice Sotomayor’s comments about a “wise Latina” (something my former co-blogger Morgen first brought to light). Sotomayor’s comments were broadly intended. She was saying very explicitly that while she could not predict how having more Latino and women judges on the courts would change the outcomes of cases, she believed it would. Here’s the key bit of her speech:

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

Newt Gingrich called this racism at the time and said she should withdraw. Obviously it did not prevent her from being confirmed to the Supreme Court, something worth keeping in mind now.