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Is Trump a racist? Sometimes he sounds like one

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Donald Trump saying something racist "isn't exactly news anymore," as "Saturday Night Live's" Michael Che observed. Yet Trump's former wife Ivanna Trump offers a kind word of support: He's not a racist, she says, he just says racist things.

"I don't think Donald is racist at all," the president's first wife told "Good Morning Britain" on Monday. "Sometimes he says these things which are silly, or he doesn't really mean them ... but he's definitely not racist, I'm sure of that."

Instead, she suggested, the president "has so many people telling him left and right what to say and what not to say" that "sometimes maybe it gets confusing," she said.

"Confusing?" That's a good description of the president's latest flip-flop during negotiations on a proposed bipartisan immigration deal. During a Thursday White House meeting, he reportedly claimed with very vulgar language that America needs more immigrants from places like Norway and fewer from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa.

Throwing in Norway like that turned his vulgar plea for a higher-skilled immigration pool into a stark call for white supremacy, straight of a white nationalist playbook, in my view.

And, by the way, immigrants from sub-Sahara Africa actually are better educated that most others, including most Americans, studies show. Of the 1.4 million immigrants from sub-Sahara Africa who are 25 and older, according to the Los Angeles Times, citing research from the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, 41 percent have a bachelor's degree, compared with 30 percent of all immigrants and 32 percent of the U.S.-born population -- and 38 percent of the 19,000 U.S. immigrants from Norway.

But a lot of people find it so easy to stir up fears and rage against immigrants from certain countries that they don't have time to wait for facts.

Now President Trump, who campaigned heavily on immigration fears, has to dance a delicate foxtrot between the demands of his hyper-conservative political base and his need to win enough Democratic votes to pass a bipartisan immigration deal.

Sens. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, thought they had a deal before the White House meeting, according to news reports. But at the meeting Trump's reputation for following the advice of the last person to whom he has spoken showed itself. A fired-up Trump had swung over to the hardline conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican.

Republican leaders found themselves growing mute or amnesiac amid the blowback from Trump's reportedly racist statements.

The president denied making those remarks and most of the Republican lawmakers in the room either said they didn't hear the reported words or didn't remember them. Republican Sen. Cotton and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia denied the reported remarks on Thursday, the day of the meeting, but the next day they shifted to saying they did not recall exactly what the president said. By Sunday, Perdue and Cotton were flatly denying that Trump used the vulgarities.

But Durbin, the only Democrat in the room, stood by the reported quotes word-for-word, and Graham, who had confirmed the reported words to South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, told a South Carolina newspaper on Monday, "My memory hasn't evolved."

Still, if President Trump was upset by the reports of his language, he took his time in responding to it -- enough time to call around to friends see how well the reports of his slurs were playing with his base.

"It's weird that people in the room don't remember Trump using that word when Trump himself was calling friends to brag about it afterwards," conservative columnist Eric Erickson, who has in the past been critical of Trump, said in a tweet. "I spoke to one of those friends. The President thought it would play well with the base."

If so, Trump probably was right about that. He has devoted his presidency, so far, to pandering to his most conservative minority of supporters, while paying a more reasonable-sounding lip service to the rest of us.

This drama would be more entertaining were it not for the 800,000 immigrants whose fate under the protections of President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program hangs in the balance. That's the serious side of politics. It affects real people's lives, regardless of their party or background. The nation's president, of all people, must never be confused about that.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2018 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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