Politics

Outrage after Trump calls impeachment probe a 'lynching'

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump called an ongoing impeachment probe into his conduct "a lynching."
  • Lynching historically refers to the extrajudicial, racially motivated killings of thousands of black Americans after the Civil War and into the 1960s.
  • Rep. Bobby Rush, a black Democrat from Chicago, asked Trump on Twitter, "What the hell is wrong with you," but Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "This is a lynching in every sense."
President Donald Trump addresses a joint news conference with Finland's President Sauli Niinisto in the East Room of the White House in Washington, October 2, 2019.
Leah Millis | Reuters

President Donald Trump on Tuesday called the House of Representatives' ongoing impeachment probe into his conduct "a lynching."

Trump's tweet instantly sparked criticism for his use of a term, lynching, which historically refers to the extrajudicial, racially motivated killings of thousands of black Americans after the Civil War and into the 1960s.

Jeb Bush, son and brother of Republican presidents, and a former governor of Florida who was bested by Trump during the 2016 GOP presidential nomination contest, said on Twitter that "The president is not a victim ... To equate his plight to lynching is grotesque."

At least two Republican lawmakers defended Trump's language as appropriate, and said the current impeachment process is in fact a lynching.

One of them, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said of the impeachment effort, "This is a lynching in every sense."

But other GOP members of Congress did not back Trump's use of the term.

From 1882 through 1968, according to the NAACP, there were at least 4,743 lynchings in the United States. Of those people killed, 3,446 — or nearly 73% — were black.

Rep. Bobby Rush, a black Democrat from Chicago, blasted Trump, asking the president, "What the hell is wrong with you," and telling Trump to "delete this tweet."

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Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, "True to form, Donald Trump is once again using racial rhetoric to distract from the truth – his corrupted behavior is weakening the integrity of our democracy, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security."

"Lynching is a horrific stain on our country's history," Bass said. "The president's tweet is comparing a constitutional process to the prevalent and systematic brutal torture and murder of thousands, I repeat, thousands of African Americans in this country. It's unacceptable."

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a black Democrat currently seeking his party's presidential nomination, said on Twitter, "Lynching is an act of terror used to uphold white supremacy. Try again."

Another Democratic presidential contender, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, said on Twitter, "Lynching is a reprehensible stain on this nation's history, as is this President."

"We'll never erase the pain and trauma of lynching, and to invoke that torture to whitewash your own corruption is disgraceful," Harris said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP's legal defense and education fund, said on Twitter, "Mr. Trump's actions & words are consistent w/those who incited lynching, not its victims. And that fact makes this tweet particularly grotesque."

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley, when asked about Trump's language during an appearance on Fox News, said, "I've not spoken with him directly about the tweet," but added, "The president wasn't trying to compare himself to the horrific history in this country at all."

Gidley criticized the impeachment probe as "an unfair, secretive process by the Democrats," and said the president has supported the black community with various economic and criminal justice initiatives.

A senior official with Trump's reelection campaign said "don't remember any Democrats complaining in 1998" when current House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, referred to the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton as "a lynch mob" being run by Republicans.

OnTuesday night, The Washington Post reported that at least four other House Democrats besides Nadler had called Clinton's impeachment a "lynching," or "lynch mob," including Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York.

Meeks on Tuesday had tweeted: "I don't expect Trump to be sensitive to the weight of that word, or see how insulting and hurtful it is to invoke it here. I do expect Republicans to not even dare defend this language."

The same Post article noted that then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware had called  Clinton's impeachment proceedings a "partisan lynching" during an October 1998  appearance on CNN.

Biden, the now-former vice president who is seeking the Demoratic presidential nominiation, on Twitter said, "Our country has a dark, shameful history with lynching, and to even think about making this comparison is abhorrent. It's despicable."

Trump is scheduled on Friday to deliver a keynote address at a bipartisan forum on criminal justice reform at Benedict College in South Carolina. Benedict is a historically black college.

Graham, the South Carolina lawmaker who is a key Trump supporter, said, "No," when asked by a reporter if he understood that black Americans would be offended by the term lynching.

Graham said the current inquiry in the House is not only "lynching," but also "un-American."

"This is a sham, this is a joke," Graham said of the probe, criticizing the fact that Trump does not know the identity of the CIA whistleblower who raised concerns about his July call with Ukraine's president, the fact that Republican House members cannot call witnesses to testify and "that everything's being done behind closed doors."

"I think lynching is being seen as somebody taking the law in their own hands and out to get somebody for no good reason," Graham said.

Graham's fellow Republican senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, who is one of just two black GOP members of Congress, said, "There's no question that the impeachment process is the closest thing to a political death row trial, so I get his absolute rejection of the process."

But, Scott added, "I wouldn't use the word lynching."

Scott last year introduced a bill with Sens. Booker and Harris to make lynching a federal hate crime.

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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said lynching is "obviously a word with significant historical freight," according to a reporter from Politico.

But, "the connotation the president is carrying forward is a political mob seeking an outcome regardless of facts," Cruz reportedly said.

"And that I think is an objectively true description of what is happening in the House right now."

Both Cruz and Graham represent states that had relatively large numbers of lynchings in the past. Texas had 493 lynchings from 1882 through 1968, and South Carolina had 160.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who like Trump is a Republican, called out the president for using the term lynching.

"We can all disagree on the process, and argue merits. But never should we use terms like 'lynching' here," Kinzinger wrote on Twitter.

"The painful scourge in our history has no comparison to politics, and @realDonaldTrump should retract this immediately. May God help us to return to a better way," Kinzinger said.

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said of Trump's tweet, "That's not the language I would use."

McCarthy said that while he does not believe Democrats are conducting a fair impeachment process, "I don't agree with that language. It's pretty simple."

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, "Given the history in our country, I would not compare this to a lynching."

"That was an unfortunate choice of words. It is an unfair process and a better way to characterize it would be to call it an unfair process, and inconsistent with the kind of procedural safeguards that are routinely provided for people in this situation either in court or in an impeachment process in our country," McConnell said.

Jaime Harrison, who is Graham's presumed Democratic challenger in the 2020 Senate race in South Carolina, condemned what his campaign called Graham's "flippant" use of the word lynching.

"For three generations in South Carolina, we have understood the evil history of lynching in our state. We have all — Democrats, Republicans, Independents — agreed it will not define who we are as South Carolinians anymore," Harrison said. "We put the shadow of lynching behind us, but now Lindsey Graham is casting that shadow across South Carolina and our nation to defend Donald Trump."

"I don't know why Sen. Graham has changed and now spits on the values we hold dear as South Carolinians," Harrison said.

The House's impeachment probe was sparked by revelations that Trump had withheld congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine at the same time he was asking that country's new president in July to investigate a conspiracy theory regarding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and to also probe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company at the time his father, as vice president, urged Ukraine to dismiss a prosecutor for not doing enough to fight corruption in that country. Trump has said Biden asked to protect his son from an investigation.

On Tuesday, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, testified in a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry. Taylor told the panel that in recent months he came to learn that Trump was insisting that Ukraine's leader publicly state that his country was investigating the issues Trump wanted probe in exchange for a promised meeting with Trump and the release of the military aid.

On Tuesday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was set to hear arguments about whether federal judges can order the unsealing of normally secret records from grand juries in old cases that have historical significance. The case before the appeals court relates to the mob lynching of two black couples in rural Georgia in 1946.

On Monday, the fourth sign memoralizing the kidnapping, torture and lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi was dedicated next to the river where his body was found in 1955. Till, who was black, was kidnapped and killed after being accused of flirting with a 21-year-old white woman in a grocery store. Till's admitted killers were found not guilty at trial, but his death — and his mother's decision to have an open-casket funeral that let mourners view his destroyed face — was a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Photos of the dead boy's face were published by Jet magazine and other black publications.

The first sign memorializing Till was torn down and thrown into the river, while the next two were shot up with bullets.

The new sign is made of steel, and according to its manufacturer is bulletproof.

— Additional reporting by CNBC's Jacob Pramuk and Jordan McDonald.

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