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An Oral History of Trump’s Bigotry

His racism and intolerance have always been in evidence; only slowly did he begin to understand how to use them to his advantage.

The first quotation from Donald Trump ever to appear in The New York Times came on October 16, 1973. Trump was responding to charges filed by the Justice Department alleging racial bias at his family’s real-estate company. “They are absolutely ridiculous,” Trump said of the charges. “We have never discriminated, and we never would.”

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In the years since then, Trump has assembled a long record of comment on issues involving African Americans as well as Mexicans, Hispanics more broadly, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, women, and people with disabilities. His statements have been reflected in his behavior—from public acts (placing ads calling for the execution of five young black and Latino men accused of rape, who were later shown to be innocent) to private preferences (“When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor,” a former employee of Trump’s Castle, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, told a writer for The New Yorker). Trump emerged as a political force owing to his full-throated embrace of “birtherism,” the false charge that the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was not born in the United States. His presidential campaign was fueled by nativist sentiment directed at nonwhite immigrants, and he proposed barring Muslims from entering the country. In 2016, Trump described himself to The Washington Post as “the least racist person that you’ve ever encountered.”

Instances of bigotry involving Donald Trump span more than four decades. The Atlantic interviewed a range of people with knowledge of several of those episodes. Their recollections have been edited for concision and clarity.

I. “You Don’t Want to Live With Them Either”

The Justice Department’s 1973 lawsuit against Trump Management Company focused on 39 properties in New York City. The government alleged that employees were directed to tell African American lease applicants that there were no open apartments. Company policy, according to an employee quoted in court documents, was to rent only to “Jews and executives.”

The Justice Department frequently used consent decrees to settle discrimination cases, offering redress to plaintiffs while allowing defendants to avoid an admission of guilt. The rationale: Consent decrees achieved speedier results with less public rancor.

Nathaniel Jones was the general counsel for the NAACP. He later became a federal judge. John Yinger, an economist specializing in residential discrimination, served at the time as an expert witness in a number of fair-housing cases. Elyse Goldweber, a Justice Department lawyer, brought the first federal suit against Trump Management.

Nathaniel Jones: The 1968 Fair Housing Act gave us leverage to go after major developers and landlords. The situation in New York was terrible.

John Yinger: Community groups like the Urban League started doing audits and tests to show discrimination. In 1973, the Urban League found a lot of discrimination in some of the properties that Trump Management owned.

elyse goldweber: I went to a place called Operation Open City. What they had done was send “testers”—meaning one white couple and one couple of color—to Trump Village, a very large, lower-middle-class housing project in Brooklyn. And of course the white people were treated great, and for the people of color there were no apartments. We subpoenaed all their documents. That’s how we found that a person’s application, if you were a person of color, had a big C on it.

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The Department of Justice brings the case and we name Fred Trump, the father, and Donald Trump, the son, and Donald hires Roy Cohn, of Army-McCarthy fame. [Cohn, a Trump mentor, had served as Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel during his investigations of alleged Communists in the government and was accused of pressuring the Army to give preferential treatment to a personal friend.] Cohn turns around and sues us for $100 million. This was my first appearance as a lawyer in court. Cohn spoke for two hours, then the judge ruled from the bench that you can’t sue the government for prosecuting you. The next week we took the depositions. My boss took Fred’s, and I got to take Donald’s. He was exactly the way he is today. He said to me at one point during a coffee break, “You know, you don’t want to live with them either.”

Everyone in the world has looked for that deposition. We cannot find it. Trump always acted like he was irritated to be there. He denied everything, and we went on with our case. We had the records with the C, and we had the testers, and you could see that everything was lily-white over there. Ultimately they settled—they signed a consent decree. They had to post all their apartments with the Urban League, advertise in the Amsterdam News, many other things. It was pretty strong.

john yinger: Trump had some interesting language after the settlement: He said that it did not require him to accept people on welfare, which was kind of beside the point.

Pages from a February 1970 complaint against Trump Management alleging discriminatory rental practices

Under the terms of the settlement, reached in 1975, the Trumps did not admit to any wrongdoing. But soon, according to the government, they were back at it. In 1978, the Justice Department alleged that Trump Management was in breach of the agreement. The new case dragged on until 1982, when the original consent decree expired and the case was closed. Soon, Trump’s headquarters would be installed in Trump Tower, which opened in February 1983. Barbara Res was the construction manager.

barbara res: We met with the architect to go over the elevator-cab interiors at Trump Tower, and there were little dots next to the numbers. Trump asked what the dots were, and the architect said, “It’s braille.” Trump was upset by that. He said, “Get rid of it.” The architect said, “I’m sorry; it’s the law.” This was before the Americans With Disabilities Act, but New York City had a law. Trump’s exact words were: “No blind people are going to live in this building.”

elyse goldweber: Was he concerned about injustice? No. Never. This was an annoyance. We were little annoying people, and we wouldn’t go away.

barbara res: As far as discrimination, he wouldn’t discriminate against somebody who had $3 million to pay for a three-bedroom apartment. Eventually he had some very unsavory characters there. But if you read John O’Donnell’s book [Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump—His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall, written with James Rutherford and published in 1991], Trump talked about how he didn’t want black people handling his money; he wanted the guys with the yarmulkes. He was very much the kind of person who would take people of a religion, like Jews; or a race, like blacks; or a nationality, like Italians, and ascribe to them certain qualities. Blacks were lazy, and Jews were good with money, and Italians were good with their hands—and Germans were clean.

nathaniel jones: Consent decrees were an important tool. The sad thing now is that, in his last act as Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum curtailing enforcement programs and consent decrees across the board when it comes to discrimination.

II. “Bring Back the Death Penalty”

The so-called Central Park Five were a group of black and Latino teens who were accused—wrongly—of raping a white woman in Central Park on April 19, 1989. Donald Trump took out full-page ads in all four major New York newspapers to argue that perpetrators of crimes such as this one “should be forced to suffer” and “be executed.” In two trials, in August and December 1990, the youths were convicted of violent offenses including assault, robbery, rape, sodomy, and attempted murder; their sentences ranged from five to 15 years in prison. In 2002, after the discovery of exonerating DNA evidence and the confession by another individual to the crime, the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated. The men were awarded a settlement of $41 million for false arrest, malicious prosecution, and a racially motivated conspiracy to deprive them of their rights. Trump took to the pages of the New York Daily News, calling the settlement “a disgrace.” During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump would again insist on the guilt of the Central Park Five.

Jonathan C. Moore represented four of the Central Park Five when they later sued the City of New York. Yusef Salaam was one of the five young men who were wrongly convicted. Timothy L. O’Brien spent hundreds of hours with Trump while researching his 2005 book, TrumpNation. C. Vernon Mason represented Salaam and other defendants.

jonathan c. moore: The Trump ad was calling for the death penalty for juveniles. It was taken out at a time before there was any adjudication of their guilt. The theme was: Here are all these young black kids and Hispanic kids who are going to rape our young white women, so let’s put them all away. You know, we call them the Central Park Five, but it’s really the Central Park 15, or 18, or however many family members there were, because the family members suffered a great deal as well. They visited the boys in prison, on holidays; they did their birthdays inside, had Christmas parties. To this day I talk to some of them and they go into tears when they think about what happened.

yusef salaam: When we were accused of raping the Central Park jogger, it really wasn’t an accusation. It wasn’t like we were innocent and had to be proved guilty in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the people. Everybody, including Donald Trump, rushed to judge us, and therefore it became that much more difficult to be able to mount a really successful fight. And, of course, we lost.

timothy l. o’brien: One of the things Trump learned when he injected himself into the Central Park Five case was that he could get attention for himself because he was a spokesman for a certain type of Archie Bunker New Yorker. I think that’s one of the bonds that he shares with [Trump attorney and former New York City Mayor] Rudy Giuliani: They’re both profoundly guys from that moment in New York when a lot of racial boundaries got drawn.

c. vernon mason: The level of animosity and hatred was palpable. It was brutal. The language used around this case—“savages”—bordered on the kinds of stuff that Ida B. Wells and others wrote about during the lynching period.

An advertisement placed by Donald Trump in all four major New York newspapers on May 1, 1989, calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five

yusef salaam: For him to say, You know what? I’m going to take out an ad, and I’m going to call for the state to kill these individuals—it was almost as if he was trying to get the public or somebody from the darkest places in society to come into our homes. Remember, they had published our phone numbers, our names, and our addresses in New York City’s newspapers. So we were pariahs.

c. vernon mason: The defendants were afraid for their own safety and for their families. These were not people who had substantial means to protect themselves with security guards, or who were living in some gated community.

yusef salaam: I think about when they took our DNA and they tried to match it against what they had. And there was no match, and they still moved forward. The spiked wheels of justice continued to roll down the hill and mow us down. And all of this on the heels of what Donald Trump had published. Donald Trump’s ad was vicious. It was very disrespectful of what the law is supposed to be about.

jonathan c. moore: I have children, and I can’t imagine my son being in prison from age 14 to age 21. You’re stealing the most innocent part of somebody’s life. None of these kids had ever had any real interactions with the law before. When they were finally vindicated, there was never any apology from Trump, or even a hint of an apology.

yusef salaam: Donald Trump’s ad ran on May 1, 1989. The crime had happened April 19, 1989. We hadn’t even started trial! That was just a few weeks after we were accused. He put nails in our coffin. He’s continuing to do that by continuing to say that we are guilty, by continuing to say that the police department had so much evidence against us. What evidence did they have that stuck? They had no evidence. They had manufactured false confessions.

c. vernon mason: In 2016—this is 26 years after the case, and 14 years after it had been proved that none of these defendants had anything to do with that rape—Donald Trump said, I still believe they’re guilty. And I guess, in his mind, he would suggest that they still should be executed.

timothy l. o’brien: He trusts his gut on issues surrounding race, because he’s got a simplistic, deterministic, and racist perspective on who people are. I think at his core he has a genetic understanding of what makes people good and bad or successful. And you see it all the time—he talks about people having good genes. He looks at the world that way. He’s got a very Aryan view of people and race.

III. “They Don’t Look Like Indians to Me”

In the early 1990s, Trump attempted to block the building of new casinos in Connecticut and New York that could cut into his casino operations in Atlantic City. (All of Trump’s casinos eventually went into bankruptcy.) In October 1993, Trump appeared before the House Subcommittee on Native American Affairs of the Committee on Natural Resources. The subcommittee was chaired by Bill Richardson, later New Mexico’s governor. Trump was there to support an effort to modify legislation that had given Native American tribes the right to own and operate casinos. George Miller, a Democrat from California and the chair of the Committee on Natural Resources, was also present.

Tadd Johnson, of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Bois Forte Band, served as the Democratic counsel on the subcommittee. Rick Hill is a former chair of the National Indian Gaming Association and of the Oneida Tribe in Wisconsin. Pat Williams was a member of Congress from Montana.

Trump began by noting that he had prepared a “politically correct” statement for the committee, but almost immediately went off script. The hearing became loud and acrimonious.

bill richardson: He said he didn’t think that Native Americans deserved the legislation, because there was a lot of corruption around Native American casinos. I remember asking him after the hearing, “Well, what’s the evidence?” He said, “The FBI has it.” I said, “You’re making the accusation; why don’t you bring the evidence?” He said, “No, you should ask the FBI.” I said, “You’re making the charge of corruption and you’re not backing it up—that is unacceptable.”

tadd johnson: Trump was wearing pancake makeup, which I hadn’t seen before, at least not on somebody testifying in Congress. He was very evasive, and he made all these allegations about organized-crime activity but could produce no single incident, no tangible evidence, nobody we could talk to. A lot of what he was saying were just fabrications.

The transcript of an October 1993 hearing of the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs at which Trump testified

rick hill: He said, “You guys are all going to have egg on your faces.” This was going to be the worst thing to happen since Al Capone. Trump went all threatening, raving about how there is no way we could stop the Mafia. He used the phrase Joey Killer. He said there was no way the tribal chairmen could stop Joey Killer.

bill richardson: The second allegation he made that was very disturbing at that hearing was to examine some Native American tribes’ application as Indian tribes—they were trying to get the subcommittee to basically declare their tribes or their group of individuals Native Americans. Trump mentioned Native Americans who had recently opened casinos and said to George Miller, “They don’t look like Indians to me.” He said that. It was so outrageous.

rick hill: Miller challenged him. He said, “You know how racist what you’re saying is? How racist that is to judge people by what we think they look like and ignore their inherent rights as a person?”

tadd johnson: George responded, “Well, thank God people don’t have rights based upon your look test. And, you know, how many times have we heard this before in this country?” And then he went through a litany of various groups that were discriminated against, which is a long list.

pat williams: I was stunned by the openness of Trump’s anger toward anyone who would compete with him—and particularly if they were people of color.

tadd johnson: I remember watching the faces of the Indian people in the back. There were some tribal elders who had come in from Minnesota, and were giving looks that could kill.

bill richardson: It was the most hostile hearing that I’ve ever been involved in. And I was in Congress for 15 years.

pat williams: I think the reason Trump blew up at Miller didn’t so much have to do with whatever the debate was about at the moment. He blew up because he came to realize that Miller was more important than he was.

Later, using a front organization called the New York Institute for Law and Society, Trump and his associate Roger Stone placed advertisements in upstate–New York newspapers in an attempt to block the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s planned Sullivan County casino. On a page proof of one ad, featuring hypodermic needles and lines of cocaine, Trump wrote: “Roger, this could be good!” Trump, Stone, and the institute would later pay $250,000 in fines for violating disclosure rules governing political advertising. Bradley Waterman served as general counsel and tax counsel for the Saint Regis Mohawks. Tony Cellini was the town supervisor of Thompson, where the casino was going to be built.

Page proof—with Trump’s handwritten notation—of one of the ads Trump commissioned to oppose casinos run by Native Americans. The ad ran in 2000.

bradley waterman: Trump and Stone created an organization that was said to be pro-family and anti-gaming. Its real mission was to put the kibosh on gaming by the Mohawks in the Catskills and in that way protect Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City. To that end, the organization—actually Trump and Stone—purchased ads that portrayed the Mohawks as criminals, drug dealers, etc. The Mohawks regarded the ads as racist. So did I. So did everyone else who weighed in.

tony cellini: We were hurting for jobs in this area. And then all of a sudden these attack ads came out, which were financed, we found out later, to the tune of more than $1 million by Donald Trump.

bradley waterman: Trump personally approved the ads. For example, he wrote comments on proofs such as “Roger—do it.” Not surprisingly, Trump and Stone lied about the number of people who contributed financially to the organization. It was strictly a Trump-Stone operation. The chiefs were furious, particularly since Trump never met any Mohawks, set foot on Mohawk territory, or otherwise tried to learn about the Mohawks.

IV. “Our Very Vicious World”

In the summer of 2005, Donald Trump had an idea: What if the next season of his reality-TV show, The Apprentice, pitted “a team of successful African Americans versus a team of successful whites”? Trump thought the format would be a sort of social commentary—“reflective of our very vicious world.” The concept never made it to air, but Trump’s treatment of black contestants on his show generated controversy.

One contestant, Kevin Allen, a graduate of Emory University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago, was criticized by Trump on the show for being too educated; at the same time, Trump suggested that Allen was personally intimidating.

Mark Harris was a television critic for Entertainment Weekly. Kwame Jackson was the runner-up on The Apprentice’s first season.

mark harris: We were still very early in the history of reality-competition TV. The Apprentice started in January 2004, so the models that I was working off of as a critic were really just Survivor and American Idol. The Apprentice had this very manipulative approach to race. I felt that it was casting and shaping stories toward stereotypes that a default white audience would find somehow satisfying.

kevin allen: I remember Donald Trump asking me, “Kevin, why are the women in the suite scared of you?” I had never heard this before from anybody. It was shocking to me to hear that sort of attack. There was a lot of picking at me and trying to make me come out and be that overly aggressive, overbearing, scary African American male. But I was in law school at the time and I had worked on Capitol Hill, and I’m fairly adept at defusing that sort of thing. I think it made me sort of a boring character. But there were moments when I was put in situations where it could have gone wrong.

mark harris: It’s interesting to look back at it now, because the way Kevin Allen was treated was like a sneak preview of white critical reaction to Obama. It was like, Well, maybe he’s too qualified, maybe he’s too smart, maybe he’s too cerebral.

kwame jackson: I think that Donald Trump had only been used to dealing with black men of a very specific genre: Mike Tyson, Don King, Herschel Walker—celebrities, entertainers. So to have a young African American man with arguably a better education than him—I don’t think that was something he was used to, because obviously he didn’t hire any in his organization.

Randal Pinkett, a black man and the show’s 2005 winner, was asked by Trump to share his title with the white runner-up, Rebecca Jarvis. Pinkett refused. As the winner, he later worked briefly for the Trump Organization.

randal pinkett: He did not want to see an African American as the outright and sole winner. I believe I backed him into a corner. It goes back to an old adage that I’ve been told throughout my life as an African American man—that you have to be twice as good just to be considered equal. And that is a statement that reflects the thinking of a Donald Trump. Donald can be racist in ways that he’s not even aware are racist, because he is so out of touch with people who are not like him.

timothy l. o’brien: The only people of color he’s gone out of his way to try to establish relationships with are people who are athletes, celebrities, or entertainers. He became close to Mike Tyson because Donald and Don King were trying to arrange heavyweight fights in Atlantic City, to draw high rollers to the casinos. It wasn’t because he was fond of black athletes. It was because black boxers were good for his business.

Donald Trump talks with The Apprentice’s Season 4 winner, Randal Pinkett, in 2005. (Stuart Ramson / AP / Shutterstock)

randal pinkett: I was the only person of color that I saw at an executive level in my entire year with the Trump Organization. And to put that into context, this was 2006. This was the height of Donald’s popularity with The Apprentice. He had launched several ventures, most of which are now defunct: Trump University, Trump Institute, Trump Ice, Trump Mortgage, Trump magazine. All of those companies were up and running. All of them had employees; they had CEOs who ran those companies—and still, as I recall, none of them had persons of color in executive roles. None of them.

V. “He Doesn’t Have a Birth Certificate”

“Our current president came out of nowhere, came out of nowhere … The people who went to school with him—they never saw him; they don’t know who he is.” That statement, made at the February 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference, marked the launch of Donald Trump’s public efforts to sow doubt about whether President Barack Obama had been born in the United States. “Birtherism” had been festering for several years before Trump embraced it—supplanting other proponents and becoming its most prominent advocate. In March, on The View, Trump called on Obama to show his birth certificate. In April, he said that he had dispatched a team of investigators to Hawaii to search for Obama’s birth records.

For Trump, the run-up to birtherism had been a controversy that flared when a Manhattan developer proposed building an Islamic cultural center on a site in Lower Manhattan—the so-called Ground Zero mosque. In 2010, on the Late Show, Trump told David Letterman: “I think it’s very insensitive to build it there. I think it’s not appropriate.” Letterman pushed back, saying that blocking an Islamic facility would be akin to declaring “war with Muslims.” Trump answered: “Somebody’s blowing up buildings, and somebody’s doing lots of bad stuff.” Trump offered to buy out one of the investors in order to halt the project. The action made him one of the project’s key opponents and for the first time gave him national visibility on the political right.

Anti-Muslim sentiment animated Trump’s birtherism campaign. He said of Obama on The Laura Ingraham Show in March 2011: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me—and I have no idea whether this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be—that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim.’ ” 

Sam Nunberg became an adviser to Trump after working with him to oppose the Islamic cultural center. Jerome Corsi, the author of Where’s the Birth Certificate?, and Orly Taitz, a dentist and an attorney, are among the instigators of the birther movement. Dan Pfeiffer was the White House communications director.

sam nunberg: I don’t believe Donald Trump would have done birtherism if he had not done the Ground Zero mosque and gotten all the conservative publicity he did. I had met Roger Stone, and we briefed Trump on the issue, and he came out and said he wanted to buy the site. Then he got interviews on Fox News. It also was a part of his brand—he wasn’t just somebody coming out saying, “I’m opposed to you,” but “I want to buy it.” He went where the “Just run on lowering taxes” Republican intelligentsia, the Republican establishment, will tell you not to go.

jerome corsi: Donald Trump came into it pretty late. I was driving the story well before Donald Trump. He called me maybe three or four times in the period around April and May 2011. Donald Trump’s interest advanced the story in terms of public awareness.

orly taitz: I just turned over all the information to him. I talked to his assistant. She told me to forward all the information to his attorney Michael Cohen. Because Trump was a well-known public figure, the issue did get attention.

dan pfeiffer: It wasn’t until Trump picked this up that it spilled into the mainstream. It created a permission structure for normal reporters to ask this question. It’s like, Well, Donald Trump, this famous person, said this on The View, which is different than saying Jerome Corsi wrote it in a book.

sam nunberg: It was about destroying Obama’s favorability, his likability. It was this way to differentiate Trump from Mitt Romney, who was dancing around not wanting to criticize Obama directly. We looked at Obama as a Manchurian president. Trump will do anything to win. Birtherism would brand Trump as the guy who would do anything he could to take down Obama. He wasn’t just going to lose with a smile and lose respectably the way John McCain and Mitt Romney liked doing.

Attempting to quell the conspiracy theories, on April 27, 2011, Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Ben Rhodes was Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

ben rhodes: I remember Obama started to get increasingly frustrated in Oval Office sessions—not just that Trump would say these things, but also that the media would cover it as a story. Obama was angry that he had to release the birth certificate. I remember being in the Oval Office and him commenting that he couldn’t believe he had to do this, but feeling he had to nip it in the bud. Obama was more acutely aware of issues involving race and racism than he sometimes projected. Obama knew this wasn’t going away, and he knew it was racist, and he knew he needed as much armor as he could get.

The birth certificate of President Barack Obama, released to the public on April 27, 2011, in an attempt to quell Trump-fueled “birther” theories

A few days later, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama and the comedian Seth Meyers mocked Trump’s birther claims, leaving Trump red-faced and seething at a table in the audience. Jay Carney was the White House press secretary.

seth meyers: We were constantly getting a refreshed list of who was going to be in the room. I will say that we were happy when we saw that Trump was going to be there. I think our best joke about him being a racist that night was: “Donald Trump said recently he has a great relationship with the blacks, but unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I bet he is mistaken.” There’s a thing Donald Trump does better than anybody else, which is that by stating one position, he reveals that he actually holds the opposite position.

One of the reasons we piled on with our Trump jokes wasn’t that he was a reality star. It was that he was someone who was doing the rounds, continuing to double down and triple down and quadruple down on this incredibly racist rhetoric. Historically, if you look at other rooms I’ve been in, I’ve never done a run of 10 jokes about anyone before. Obviously we felt pretty strongly for that to be the case.

jay carney: After that, birtherism diminished as a subject in most media, but I’m sure folks took notice of what Trump had done, and how, by completely concocting this nonsense, he had hijacked the conversation. It still pisses me off.

dan pfeiffer: The mainstream political conversation after Obama released his birth certificate was: Trump is a clown, right? He’s a clown who got out of his depth and has embarrassed himself and should be run out of politics forever. It was not long after that that every Republican—even, you know, putatively serious Republicans like Mitt Romney—went and begged Trump for his endorsement. I don’t think any of us realized that there was a tremendous appetite for anger in the Republican base that Trump was seeking to use.

Trump did not let up. In May 2012, he told the CNN host Wolf Blitzer that “a lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.” In August, he called the birth certificate “a fraud.” Finally, in September 2016, under political pressure during his presidential campaign, Trump acknowledged that Obama had in fact been born in the United States. That was not the end of the matter. In November 2017, The New York Times reported that Trump was still privately asserting that Obama’s birth certificate may have been fraudulent.

ben rhodes: It cannot be overstated that this is the creation story of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. His whole brand is: I will say the things that the other guys won’t. Without birtherism there is no Trump presidency.

VI. “On Many Sides”

Roughly six months into Trump’s presidency, on the night of Friday, August 11, 2017, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched onto the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. The “Unite the Right” rally was protesting the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Confrontations arose between members of the so-called alt-right and groups of counterprotesters, including members of the anti-fascist movement known as “antifa.”

Mike Signer, Charlottesville’s mayor, had been dealing with far-right protests all summer. Richard Spencer was one of the key figures behind the “Unite the Right” rally.

mike signer: The first event was in May of 2017, led by Richard Spencer, who invented the term alt-right and is a UVA graduate. He had done an event right after Trump’s inauguration where he had led a fascist salute with all these people at a hotel in Washington, D.C.—buzz cuts, uniforms, very frightening.

richard spencer: There is no question that Charlottesville wouldn’t have occurred without Trump. It really was because of his campaign and this new potential for a nationalist candidate who was resonating with the public in a very intense way. The alt-right found something in Trump. He changed the paradigm and made this kind of public presence of the alt-right possible.

David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, who participated in the Charlottesville rally, called it a “turning point” for his own movement, which seeks to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” Will Peyton, the rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, near the UVA campus, hosted an interfaith service in opposition to the rally. As alt-right protesters marched by, the roughly 700 people in the church were advised to stay inside for their own safety.

will peyton: I was out in a parking lot during the morning while all the various neo-Nazi people and different white-supremacist groups were gathering and unloading. They were piling out of vans and trucks, and kind of giddy. I’d never seen swastikas and Nazi salutes out in the open like that—people wearing helmets and carrying clubs and shields.

richard spencer: The whole day was chaotic. I woke up that morning; we had breakfast. We didn’t quite know what was going to happen. I certainly thought it was going to be a big event, but I never quite knew that it was going to turn into this ultimately historic event.

mike signer: Richard Spencer and David Duke spent time attacking me and talking about the Jewish mayor of the city. There was a threat against a synagogue saying, “It’s time to torch those jewish monsters lets go 3pm.” There was an intensity in the anti-Semitism that previously was unthinkable in American political life. I grew up five blocks from the headquarters of the American Nazi Party, in Arlington, Virginia. It was above what is now a coffee shop, in a ramshackle house, and we laughed at this lonely, pathetic old man who would come in and out of that building. Now you’re seeing something different. I was infuriated that you weren’t seeing a condemnation of this coming from the White House.

On August 12, a black man named DeAndre Harris was beaten by at least four white supremacists. At about 1:45 p.m. that day, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old white supremacist from Ohio, drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others. Fields was convicted in December 2018 of first-degree murder. In March, he pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 federal hate-crime charges in a separate trial. Speaking on the afternoon of the attack from his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, Trump denounced “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” He paused, then repeated: “On many sides.” Lisa Woolfork is a UVA professor and an organizer with Black Lives Matter’s Charlottesville chapter. Jason Kessler was an organizer of the rally.

richard spencer: We were dealing with this terrible accident that occurred with James Fields and Heather Heyer, and it was certainly not why I came and I don’t think it’s why anyone else came. I was trying to deal with that situation in the best way I could by just saying that we simply don’t know what happened and we should stress that this young man deserves a fair investigation and a fair trial. Trump, in his own way, was being honest and calling it like he saw it. I was proud of him at that moment.

Pages from the indictment of James Alex Fields Jr., who rammed his car (top right) into counterprotesters at an August 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring many others (Photo: Matthew Hatcher / Getty)

mike signer: This was a coordinated invasion of the city by violent right-wing militias. I watched a clip of the president and my mouth fell open, and I was at once ashamed for him and for the country.

lisa woolfork: The car sped down Fourth Street and collided with the counterdemonstrators who were marching that way. I was about 100 feet from the impact, and it was complete chaos. I remember seeing a shoe fly into the air. I remember people screaming. It was an utterly terrible moment. After a long and traumatic day, the president’s remarks were chilling. One of the dangers of having the president speak in the way that he spoke about the events in Charlottesville—about “many sides”—was that it promotes this very dangerous false equivalency. Trump made things much worse by explicitly stating that you can be a white supremacist or a Nazi or a neo-Confederate and still be a good person.

jason kessler: The president was absolutely correct in blaming both sides. I’ve probably seen more video of the event than anyone alive. People who are upset feel that the majority of the blame should be with the alt-right because of the tragic death of Heather Heyer. It’s fair enough to acknowledge their emotional need for this, but no one at “Unite the Right” was responsible for that car accident but James Fields himself.

will peyton: I had a visceral, emotional reaction when I heard what the president said. I was an eyewitness. I saw with my own eyes that there was one side here that came planning and intending violence. There’s just no two ways about that.

On August 14, Trump walked back his initial statement and specifically condemned “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.” A day later, he walked back his walk-back. There were “very fine people on both sides,” he said, adding that the “alt-left” had been “very, very violent.” White-nationalist leaders welcomed his remarks.

mike signer: There was a robocall that went out in November 2018, because the trial of Alex Fields was happening and he was about to be convicted. The call was all about how the Jew mayor and the Negro police chief had created this situation, and how we’re the ones who should be held responsible for Heather Heyer’s death.

VII. “Go Back to Their Huts”

In office, Donald Trump followed through on his promise to curb immigration from majority-Muslim countries. He created a commission to investigate voter fraud (virtually nonexistent, according to state election officials), claiming that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of ballots cast by people in the U.S. illegally. He shut down the government for 35 days in an attempt to secure funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. He reportedly referred to African countries as “shithole” nations—asking why the U.S. can’t have more immigrants from Norway instead—and complained that, after seeing America, immigrants from Nigeria would never “go back to their huts.” The administration favored victims of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston, over those of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico, sending three times as many workers to Houston and approving 23 times as much money for individual assistance within the first nine days after each hurricane.

sam nunberg: Remember in 2011 he was criticized when he said, “I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks”? I think he just doesn’t speak “politically correct.” It’s not in his vernacular, or consciousness. It’s generational. It’s also probably—not to play psychiatrist—it’s growing up where he grew up, in Queens, New York, and dealing with union members, dealing in a crime-riddled New York City. I think it’s just the way things were thought of as different then.

timothy l. o’brien: This is the same debate we have about whether or not he’s a liar. And I get the journalistic need to be really clear about how we use terms. You know, lying implies volition and knowledge. But I’m very comfortable saying I think he’s got a pathology around lying. And when it comes to race, I don’t think it’s merely using racial animosities or race-baiting as tools to promote his business. I think it’s a deep-seated reflection of what he thinks about how the world works.

kwame jackson: America’s always trying to find this gotcha moment that shows Donald Trump is racist—you know, let’s find this one big thing. Let’s look for that one time when he burned a cross in someone’s yard so we can now finally say it. People refuse to see the bread crumbs that are already in front of you, leading you to grandma’s house.

This article appears in the June 2019 print edition with the headline “An Oral History of Trump’s Bigotry.”