Rep. Lee Zeldin on Tuesday defended Donald Trump from charges that he’s racist for criticizing a judge because of his Mexican heritage by asserting that he could also argue that President Barack Obama “is a racist” because of his policies and rhetoric.
Zeldin (R-Shirley) made his comments — which Democrats quickly condemned — as he was being pressed in a CNN interview to explain why he still backs Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate while agreeing that Trump’s remarks on the judge are racist.
Zeldin called Trump’s statement “a regrettable mistake” but asserted it didn’t make Trump a racist. “As far as his character goes, he isn’t making that statement because he feels that he is superior because he is white and the judge is Mexican,” Zeldin said.
Then Zeldin sought to turn the table on Democrats by saying that by his own personal definition of racism many office holders on both the federal and state level could be accused of being racist in their campaigns and lawmaking.
“Quite frankly, the agenda that I see and all the microtargeting to blacks and Hispanics from a policy standpoint, that’s more offensive to me — what I’ve seen through the years — than this one statement,” Zeldin said.
“There is more than just words to define a person. You can easily argue that the president of the United States is a racist with his policy and rhetoric,” Zeldin said.
Later Tuesday, Zeldin issued a statement apologizing, “
to anyone who interpreted my comments as calling the President a racist. I am not calling the President a racist.”
Zeldin did not respond to queries about which specific policies and rhetoric he thinks are racist.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee charged Zeldin “recklessly calls the nation’s first African-American president a racist.”
The two Democrats seeking their party’s nomination in the June 28 primary to run against Zeldin in November attacked the first-year congressman for his remarks.
“It was completely reprehensible,” said venture capitalist David Calone, of Setauket. He called Zeldin “a laughingstock on national TV” because he is “standing up for someone whose values are out of step with the values of Long Island.”
Anna Throne-Holst, a former Southampton Town supervisor, held an afternoon rally outside Zeldin’s district office in Patchogue, demanding an apology and filing a complaint.
“This is taking political rhetoric to a new low: To call a president a racist while admitting that Donald Trump’s statements are in fact racist,” Throne-Holst said.
Both Republicans and Democrats have condemned Trump’s statement that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel is biased against him and has a conflict in the Trump University fraud trial he’s overseeing because he is a “Mexican” and Trump wants to build a Mexican border wall. Curiel was born in Indiana to parents who came from Mexico in the 1920s.
Zeldin appeared on CNN after House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called Trump’s statement on Curiel “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” but said he would support Trump for president anyway.