Republican lawmakers, by and large, did not rush to the president’s side on Sunday either, but neither did they jump forward to denounce him. Deeply uncomfortable as many Republicans are with Mr. Trump’s racially infused politics, they worry about offending the base voters who cheer on the president as a truth-teller taking on the tyranny of political correctness.
Other presidents have played racial politics or indulged in stereotypes. Secret tapes of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon show them routinely making virulently racist statements behind closed doors. Mr. Nixon’s Southern strategy was said to be aimed at disenchanted whites. Ronald Reagan was accused of coded racial appeals for talking so much about “welfare queens.” George Bush and his supporters highlighted the case of a furloughed African-American murderer named Willie Horton. Bill Clinton was accused of a racial play for criticizing a black hip-hop star.
But there were limits, even a generation ago, and most modern presidents preached racial unity over division. Mr. Johnson, of course, pushed through the most sweeping civil rights legislation in American history. Mr. Bush signed a civil-rights bill and denounced David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan leader, when he ran for governor of Louisiana as a Republican. His son, George W. Bush, made a point of visiting a mosque just days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to emphasize that America was not at war with Muslims. Barack Obama invited an African-American Harvard professor and the white police officer who mistakenly arrested him for a “beer summit.”
Mr. Trump’s history on race has been well documented, from his days as a developer settling a Justice Department lawsuit over discrimination in renting apartments to his public agitation during the Central Park Five case in New York. Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, later wrote that Mr. Trump openly disparaged others based on race, complaining, for example, that he did not want black men managing his money.
“Trump has not only always been a racist, but anyone around him who denies it, is lying,” Mr. O’Donnell said on Sunday. “Donald Trump makes racist comments all the time. Once you know him, he speaks his mind about race very openly.”
Mr. Trump, he said, regularly trafficked in racial stereotypes — Jews were good with money, blacks were lazy, Puerto Ricans dressed badly. “White people are Americans to Trump; everyone else is from somewhere else,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “He simply denies the reality of how we all immigrated to the United States.”
Mr. Trump propelled his way to the White House in part by promoting the false “birther” conspiracy theory that Mr. Obama was actually born in Africa, not Hawaii. He opened his presidential bid in 2015 with an attack on Mexican “rapists” coming across the border (although “some, I assume, are good people”) and later called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. He said an American-born judge of Mexican heritage could not be fair to him because of his ethnic background.