The Trump and Obama administrations are as different as night and day in most respects but they have one important thing in common: They’re allergic to admitting mistakes even when it would cost them nothing to do so. For the last eight years, then-President Barack Obama and his aides did that with respect to a myriad of issues and scandals and the same stubbornness was on display in the days following what should have been an unremarkable routine acknowledgement of International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the Trump White House.
The problem isn’t just that the administration erred badly when it issued a statement that didn’t mention Jews or anti-Semitism when commemorating the Holocaust. They compounded that blunder by sending out first White House chief of staff Reince Preibus and then spokesman Sean Spicer to insist that it wasn’t a mistake and that anyone who called attention to it was either floating a conspiracy theory or failing to acknowledge Donald Trump’s support for Israel. The alibi they eventually settled on later was to make Boris Epshteyn — a White House staffer and former Trump TV surrogate who also happens to a Russian immigrant and a descendant of Holocaust survivors — the scapegoat for the blunder.
It was neither “pathetic” nor “petty” to point out that any appreciation of that historic crime must begin with an acknowledgement that Jews were the specific focus of Nazi policy. While not all victims were Jews, all Jews within Hitler’s grasp were victims. Denying that truth and thereby diminishing Jewish suffering and the primary goal of the Nazis is a form of revisionist history that has been championed by bigots. No matter how much more sensitive to Israel’s security needs Trump’s White House may be in comparison to his predecessor, there is no excuse for writing Jews out of the Holocaust in that manner.
That was doubly unfortunate because their refusal to own up to the fiasco gave ammunition to their critics. In doing so, the Trump team made it easier to argue that one could draw a straight line between the policy changes they put into effect on refugees and a poorly drafted document about a historical memory. That Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, didn’t hesitate to link the two and to accuse Trump of engaging in anti-Semitic Holocaust denial on “Meet the Press” probably only encouraged the White House to continue to deny fault. But the opening this gave to partisans distracted them from the fact that even Jewish groups that are inclined to be sympathetic to the new president, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition or the Zionist Organization of America (which only days earlier was boasting of its access to the administration), were expressing pain about the Holocaust statement. More importantly, the juxtaposition of the two issues also gave substance to charges that Trump’s refugee policy is rooted in a form of Holocaust denial.
But even though the connection between the memory of Jewish refugees being denied safe havens during the Holocaust and Trump’s decision seems logical, it is a false argument.
Aspects of Trump’s executive order that paused the acceptance of refugees and temporarily stopped immigration from seven countries that were already labeled as terrorist hotbeds were poorly thought out and badly implemented. Exceptions should have been made and the rollout in which Congress and relevant agencies were not informed led to televised scenes of anguish and protest at airports was a fiasco. But it’s possible to adhere to the concept that America should be a welcoming place for immigrants without also accepting the notion that there can be no limits on their numbers or attention paid to their places of origin. Trump’s focus may have been misplaced and the timing awful but the policy shift wasn’t illegal or unconstitutional. Nor was it a “Muslim ban” or racist.
Equally misleading are the analogies between Jews fleeing Hitler’s death machine and the plight of Syrian or other Middle Eastern refugees. The suffering of those seeking new homes is real but the idea that the influx of Islamist immigrants poses not even a theoretical threat ignores the reality of a changing world in which increasingly larger numbers of migrants are flocking to the West. Whatever one may think of Trump or some members of his administration, tightening vetting procedures is a matter of common sense, not xenophobia.
This is why the attempt to link the largely partisan furor over the executive orders to a perceived indifference to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust falls flat. As much as the Trump White House demonstrated how clueless it could be on the Holocaust, its critics, who have spent the months since the election calling Trump a fascist or a Nazi, are just as wrong. As unreasonable and appalling as Trump’s personal behavior and speech may be, reasonable people should still be able to debate how far the government should go in balancing security considerations with the needs of immigrants and refugees without resorting to hyperbole about the beginning of a new era of Nazi persecution. That’s especially true since most of those groups attacking Trump’s executive orders and calling him an authoritarian cheered Obama’s executive orders on immigration, which actually did violate the separation of powers laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
No one should hold his or her breath waiting for Trump to admit error on the Holocaust statement or anything else. But an apology from opponents who call him Hitler because of a disagreement about vetting procedures for immigrants would be just as appropriate.