Trump Tries to Get It Right at the Holocaust Museum Event

4-25-17 Donald Trump Holocaust Museum
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers the keynote address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., on April 25. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Donald Trump appears eager to improve his administration's record of speaking about the Holocaust after several high-profile missteps. He gave the keynote address Tuesday morning at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's annual Days of Remembrance ceremony, without any egregious omissions or factual errors.

"Friends, members of Congress, ambassadors, veterans and most especially to the survivors here with us today, it's an honor to join you on this very, very solemn occasion," Trump said upon stepping up to the podium. "I am deeply moved to stand before those who survived history's darkest hour. Your cherished presence transforms this place into a sacred gathering." He expressed gratitude to those who had served in uniform and helped to liberate the camps. "Your sacrifice helped save freedom for the world, for the entire world."

Related: How Sean Spicer accidentally became a poster boy for Holocaust education

The president, known during much of his election campaign for improvising onstage, mostly stuck to his script, albeit with a few very awkward pronunciations of the word Nazi and several very Trumpian interjections. When he mentioned the "organized attempt at the extermination of an entire people," he paused and added, "and great people, I must add." When he mentioned Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the U.S. who had spoken earlier during the ceremony, he added that Dermer was a "friend of mine" who has "done a great job and said some wonderful words."

"Sadly, this year marks the first day of remembrance since the passing of Elie Wiesel, a great person, a great man," Trump said. He was one of several speakers, including Dermer and museum director Sara Bloomfield, who paid tribute to Wiesel in their remarks. "His absence leaves an empty space in our hearts, but his spirit fills this room," Trump said. "It is the kind of gentle spirit of an angel who lived through hell and whose courage still lights the path from darkness," one who "inscribed on our collective conscience the duty we have to remember that long, dark night, so as never to again repeat it."

"The survivors in this hall through their testimony fulfill the righteous duty to never forget and engrave into the world's memory the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people," Trump said. "Despite your great pain, you believe in Elie's famous plea that for the dead and the living, we must bear witness. That is why we are here today, to remember and to bear witness."

Trump—whose administration has been criticized for slow responses to anti-Semitic incidents and a failure to confront and condemn white nationalist and other far-right supporters—also spoke Tuesday about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, bolstering the sense that the speech was intended, at least in part, as a corrective measure.

"Yet, even today, there are those who want to forget the past. Worse still, there are even those that are filled with hate, total hate, that they want to erase the Holocaust from history. Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil," Trump said. "Denying the Holocaust is only one of many forms of dangerous anti-Semitism that continues all around the world," he added, promising that "we will confront anti-Semitism. We will stamp out prejudice. We will condemn hatred. We will bear witness, and we will act. As president of the United States, I will always stand with the Jewish people. And I will always stand with our great friend and partner, the state of Israel."

Trump's speech comes just two weeks after his press secretary, Sean Spicer, made a jarring mention of the Holocaust while discussing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons at a press conference. "You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons," Spicer said. "I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no—he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing," he added. "There was not—he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I'm saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent—into the middle of towns." Spicer's grotesquely inaccurate comments drew widespread criticism and calls for his dismissal as press secretary.

But it wasn't the administration's first controversy related to the Holocaust. The first came just one week after Trump's inauguration on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January—a date that coincides with the liberation of the infamous Nazi concentration camp complex at Auschwitz (which was most certainly not called a "Holocaust center"). In its statement that day, the White House failed to mention the 6 million Jews murdered under Adolf Hitler's regime.

At the time, the Holocaust museum released a statement explaining that "millions of other innocent civilians were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, but the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi policy. As Elie Wiesel said, 'Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.'" The museum didn't mention the White House statement explicitly, but added that "the Holocaust teaches us profound truths about human societies and our capacity for evil. An accurate understanding of this history is critical if we are to learn its lessons and honor its victims."

The museum's announcement on Sunday that Trump would be delivering the keynote drew curiosity and criticism. The group Bend the Arc Jewish Action, for example, quickly published an open letter to the museum titled "American Jews to the U.S. Holocaust Museum: WTF?"

"President Trump's administration has repeatedly insulted the memory of the Holocaust, and embraced the agenda and rhetoric of white nationalism and antisemitism [sic]. So how can the U.S. Holocaust Museum invite him to deliver the keynote remarks at the National Day of Remembrance?" wrote Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action. "Jews across the country are outraged by this bizarre and unacceptable choice. While we recognize the longstanding tradition of American presidents giving remarks at this ceremony," he added, alluding to the fact that every president since the museum opened in 1993 has participated in the Days of Remembrance events, "this is not a normal president, and this is not a normal moment. It is an insult to the memories of survivors, descendants and allies that he would speak on this sacred day."

Others took a more positive stance. In an editorial for the New York Daily News, Rabbi Avi Weiss said that "President Trump's commitment to speak at a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum event on Tuesday deserves to be commended," as a way to counter Spicer's recent comments.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, David Leonhardt seemed to think it was too early to tell whether the decision was sound. The museum "has put itself in a tricky spot," he wrote. "Maybe the museum's leaders are confident Trump will use the speech as a turning point, which would be wonderful. But by conferring the museum's prestige on Trump, those leaders have a new responsibility to call out future dog whistles from the administration. The Holocaust Museum has effectively invested in Trump."

Trump has taken multiple steps this week in what appears to be an attempt to bolster his administration's record on matters related to the Holocaust. He spoke on Sunday at the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in New York, where he emphasized the "6 million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe, and that the human heart cannot bear."

The following day, Trump posted a proclamation to his Facebook page, asking the people of the United States to observe the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust between April 23 and April 30, and to commemorate "and the solemn anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camps, with appropriate study, prayers and commemoration, and to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution by internalizing the lessons of this atrocity so that it is never repeated."

Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, who last month became an official adviser in the White House, also released a "statement in recognition of Yom HaShoah" on Monday. "I want my children to live in a world where every country and its leaders pledge to ensure a genocide like the Holocaust will never happen again," she said. "I want them to grow up in a world where people are tolerant, inclusive, and loving toward one another."

The president ended his speech on similar notes, saying that the survivors have brought us hope that "love will conquer hatred" and that "right will defeat wrong." "We know that in the end good will triumph over evil," he said. "It only takes one light to illuminate even the darkest space, just like it takes only one truth to crush a thousand lies."

The words sounded out of character for a man who spewed so much hate—toward women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans and others—and uttered so many falsehoods during his campaign to reach the White House and since he took office.