Bernie Sanders flatly calls Trump 'racist' in fiery address

Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, widely considered a possible 2020 White House contender, flatly asserted that President Trump "is a racist" on Monday, channeling a similar comment by Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier this month.

Speaking in South Carolina to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., Sanders -- one of several left-leaning politicians who delivered forceful, wide-ranging anti-Trump addresses on Monday -- alleged that the White House deliberately was stoking racial tensions.

"I must tell you, today we talk about justice and today we talk about racism, and I must tell you: It gives me no pleasure to tell you that we now have a president of the United States who is a racist," Sanders said, as some in the crowd applauded.

“We have a president of the United States who has done something that no other president in modern history has done," he continued. "What a president is supposed to do is to bring us together. And we have a president intentionally, purposely -- he is trying to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaking at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia on Monday. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaking at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia on Monday. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

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Sanders went on to cite King's "courage" in opposing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam as well as his fighting to end racial inequity.

"Racial equality must be central to combatting economic inequality if we are going to create a government that works for all of us, and not just the 1 percent," Sanders said.

The remarks by the longtime Vermont senator, who frequently traveled and campaigned with Ocasio-Cortez in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections on behalf of progressive and socialist candidates, resembled a recent head-turning comment by the 29-year-old freshman firebrand.

In an interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes" broadcast shortly after she took office less than three weeks ago, Ocasio-Cortez responded simply: "Yeah, yeah, no question," when asked if she thought Trump was a racist.

Sanders lost South Carolina's 2016 Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton by more than 40 percentage points. His events in the state signaled that he may plan to redouble efforts in South Carolina should he launch a second White House run. Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also spoke Monday in the state.

Sanders additionally spoke of King's efforts to help workers organize and "change the national priorities," leaning into what sounded like a campaign message-in-waiting. Among the specific proposals he cited were a federal jobs guarantee; free tuition at public colleges and universities; and universal access to child care.

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However, Sanders avoided answering definitively Monday when asked if he'd formally enter the 2020 race. Sanders, who is one of two independents in the Senate and who caucuses with the Democratic minority, said he was still "assessing" his plans and called several already-declared candidates "friends of mine."

His potential candidacy has been besieged in recent weeks, following a report in The New York Times outlining what one former Sanders delegate called an "entire wave of rotten sexual harassment that seemingly was never dealt with" during his unsuccessful 2016 presidential run.

The paper also included numerous complaints that women on the campaign were paid less than men and frequently were forced into inappropriate and uncomfortable situations.

In an interview broadcast on CNN Jan. 3, Sanders claimed he was too "busy" to know details about the allegations during the campaign, even as he apologized to any women who had not been "treated appropriately."

President Trump, Vice President Pence and Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Monday in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

President Trump, Vice President Pence and Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Monday in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Ocasio-Cortez has not endorsed a potential Sanders candidacy, with her spokesman saying in October that she wanted to survey the field first.

That field could prove to be sizable: Many members of the potential 2020 Democratic presidential field also delivered addresses on Monday, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., used the holiday to launch a presidential campaign that, if successful, would make her the first woman and the second black candidate to become president.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, in his remarks, accepted responsibility for his part in the passage of legislation that toughened sentences for crack cocaine possession decades ago, "a big mistake" because of its damage to the black community.

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In a combative speech in Harlem, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand lashed out at Trump for inspiring "hate and darkness." Billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, assailed gun violence in remarks at a Washington breakfast celebrating King's life. And, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren denounced what she called the systematic suppression of black voters.

New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, for his part, derided Trump as "the Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," in remarks in front of many top Democrats.

Fox News' Alex Pappas, Elizabeth Zwirz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.