WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday condemned recent threats against Jewish community centers in the U.S. as "painful reminders" of lingering prejudice and evil, his first full-throated comments on the rise of anti-Semitic venom after pressure for him to speak out forcefully.
With his somewhat delayed denunciation, Trump sought to reset his relationship with American Jews, which has been strained by a recent White House statement on the Holocaust, comments by some of his supporters and his own fractious exchange with a reporter for an Orthodox Jewish publication.
Trump's latest remarks, made at the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, marked the first time he directly addressed recent incidents of anti-Semitism. Earlier in the day, the White House put out a statement denouncing "hatred and hate-motivated violence" but not mentioning Jews, the weekend vandalism at a Jewish cemetery or multiple threats to community centers on Monday.
Eleven Jewish community centers across the country received telephoned bomb threats, according to the JCC Association of North America. Like three waves of similar phone calls in January, the new threats proved to be hoaxes, the association said in a statement. In addition, as many as 200 headstones were damaged or tipped over at a Jewish cemetery in suburban St. Louis late Sunday or early Monday.
"The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil," Trump said. He did not outline what that might entail.
His comments Tuesday followed a general White House statement that he "has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable."
Last week at a news conference, Trump tangled with a reporter from an Orthodox Jewish publication, cutting him off as he asked about a rise in bomb threats. The president, who seemed to interpret the query as an attack on him personally, said it was "not a fair question" and went on to say he was the "least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life."
On Monday, Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump wrote on Twitter, "We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers," and used the hashtag #JCC. She converted to Judaism ahead of her 2009 marriage to Jared Kushner. She joined her father at the African American museum tour.
The FBI said it was joining with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to investigate "possible civil rights violations in connection with threats."
Throughout his campaign, Trump was criticized for what some saw as belated and inadequately forceful denunciations of hateful rhetoric by some of his supporters.
Trump's top strategist Stephen Bannon came under fire for stories published by Breitbart News, which he'd led before joining Trump's campaign. One headline called conservative commentator Bill Kristol a "Republican spoiler, renegade Jew." During the campaign, Trump at times appeared to play to stereotypes, including tweeting out an anti-Hillary Clinton image that included what appeared to be a Star of David atop a pile of money
Early Tuesday, former presidential rival Clinton pressured him to clearly denounce recent incidents. "JCC threats, cemetery desecration & online attacks are so troubling & they need to be stopped. Everyone must speak out, starting w/ @POTUS," she said on Twitter.
The White House has also been criticized by Jewish groups after issuing an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement last month that did not mention Jews.
Trump's visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture was with a group that included Ben Carson, his presidential-rival-turned-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
The museum includes an exhibit dedicated to Carson's rise from poverty to prominent pediatric neurosurgeon, which the group stopped to admire and pose for photos in front of.
"Honestly, it's fantastic," Trump said during the tour. "I've learned and I've seen and they've done an incredible job."
Trump's wife Melania Trump visited the museum last week with Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Israeli prime minister.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report from Washington. AP writer Patrick Mairs contributed from Philadelphia.