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Al Franken rebukes Republicans for laughing off Steve Bannon's racism at hate crimes hearing

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Responses to the Increase in Religious Hate Crimes,” Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) quizzed Eric Treene, the Department of Justice’s special counsel for religious discrimination, about the racism and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s administration, and particularly about white nationalist and senior strategist Steve Bannon. Treene deflected the questions multiple times, but […]

By Tommy Christopher - May 03, 2017
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Al Franken

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Responses to the Increase in Religious Hate Crimes,” Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) quizzed Eric Treene, the Department of Justice’s special counsel for religious discrimination, about the racism and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s administration, and particularly about white nationalist and senior strategist Steve Bannon.

Treene deflected the questions multiple times, but Franken still managed to read Bannon’s despicable background into the record, and demonstrate the hypocrisy of Trump’s lip service on hate crimes:

FRANKEN: What message does Mr. Bannon’s presence send?

TREENE: The message I feel strongest, as a prosecutor and as a attorney for the Department of Justice, is the consistent message I’ve gotten from the attorney general to pursue hate crimes.

FRANKEN: I’m not saying the message you got. You’re not committing any of the religious hate crimes. I’m talking about the people who do. What message does it send to them, not you, that Mr. Bannon is the chief strategist?

TREENE: Right, I was encouraged as were you by the president’s remarks before Congress.

FRANKEN: That’s not answering my question

TREENE: Yeah, I can only really speak for myself and I have been consistently given the message to continue pursue cases on behalf of Muslims.

FRANKEN: Certainly, you must have some perspective on this that you can share with us on what it means when the president selects as a special counsel someone who’s trafficked in anti-Muslim propaganda.

TREENE: You know, with all due respect, I am here talking about hate crimes and can only stress that I’ve had a consistent message that we should continue to pursue these mosque cases … and these hate crime cases regardless of the religion of the victim.

Treene was referring to remarks Trump made about the rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes, which he only gave after attacking a Jewish journalist for asking him about the uptick and after suggesting the wave of anti-Semitic threats was a false flag. This was the same joint address to Congress in which Trump unveiled the racist “VOICE” office to demonize immigrants.

Franken also pressed Treene on anti-immigrant remarks that then-candidate Trump made during a campaign stop in Minnesota. Trump said that the state had “suffered enough” by accepting Somali refugees. Treene begged off the question again, but Trump’s remarks nevertheless became part of the record.

Later in the same hearing, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) presented a vastly different viewpoint. While paying lip service to the seriousness of hate crimes, Kennedy noted with wonder that “we’re talking about hate crimes,” which he contended we would not have been doing “not too many years ago.” There have been federal hate crimes laws on the books for 50 years. He also spoke with pride about the end of slavery and the election of President Barack Obama, before finally getting around to the election of Trump.

Kennedy asked Treene a series of questions seemingly mocking Franken’s concern over Bannon, which elicited laughter from Kennedy’s fellow Republicans:

KENNEDY: Does Mr. Bannon work at the Department of Justice?

TREENE: Uh, no sir.

KENNEDY: OK. Does the attorney general have any jurisdiction over the White House, and White House staff?

TREENE: Uh, no, Senator.

KENNEDY: Is there any doubt in your mind, any doubt whatsoever, that in your opinion, the attorney general of the United States intends to pursue hate crimes vigorously?

TREENE: He has consistently given us the encouragement to pursue these cases vigorously, yes sir.

KENNEDY: Is there any doubt in your mind?

TREENE: No.

KENNEDY: None.

TREENE: No sir.

KENNEDY: Zero.

TREENE: No, Senator.

KENNEDY: Nada.

TREENE: (laughter) Yes, sir.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

Kennedy’s suggestion that Bannon and the White House staff are not subject to the Justice Department’s jurisdiction might surprise most Americans, given that the FBI is currently investigating them.

Franken’s point, of course, was not that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would hinder prosecution of hate crimes, but that Trump’s bigoted administration will encourage their commission.

In a statement to Shareblue, Franken called on his Republican colleagues to take hate crimes — and the message the White House is sending by employing the unapologetically bigoted Bannon — far more seriously than they appeared to during the hearing:

Hate crimes are a serious matter. I’m concerned that the presence of Steve Bannon in the White House—a man who has trafficked in racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Muslim propaganda and anti-Semitism—may have the effect of legitimizing and stoking hatred against all kinds of minorities and vulnerable communities. I would strongly urge my Republican colleagues to start sharing this very real concern.

Republicans like Kennedy are more interested in providing cover for Trump and Bannon than in fighting the hatred and bigotry they promote. Thankfully, Democrats like Franken are ready to call them out for it.


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