A senior Justice Department official wouldn’t say whether President Donald Trump shouldered any blame for the recent alarming rise in religious hate crimes, even as Democratic senators prodded and pushed him to do so.
Eric Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination in the department’s civil rights division, repeatedly dodged questions during a Senate judiciary hearing.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) grew especially impatient with Treene’s testimony.
Franken acknowledged that the president has condemned hate on two occasions. But he added that the White House, “either through missteps or associations with controversial figures ... fails to speak clearly in opposition to bias and hate. Far too often the White House sends mixed messages.”
Franken pointed specifically to the presence of chief strategist Steve Bannon ― an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist ― in the White House.
“Steve Bannon, after all, is the former chairman of Breitbart News, and under his leadership the site regularly trafficked in an ideology of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Muslim propaganda and anti-Semitism,” Franken said. “What message does Mr. Bannon’s presence send, Mr. Treene?”
When Treene responded that the DOJ has received a “consistent message” from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to pursue hate crimes, Franken interrupted and said Treene wasn’t answering the question.
“You are the special counsel for religious discrimination,” Franken said. “Certainly you must have some perspective on this that you can share with us and what it means when the president selects as a special counsel someone who has trafficked in anti-Muslim propaganda.”
Treene repeated that he had received a “consistent message” from Sessions to pursue hate crime cases.
“I understand that,” Franken said. “I’m asking you a question.”
“Listen,” Franken continued, “the president came to Minnesota the Sunday before the election ― it was his first public appearance there and he told the people gathered at the airport, an airport where a thousand Somalis work, that Minnesota suffered enough because of the Somali refugees that were there.”
“What kind of message does that send to these people who desecrate mosques who attacked people who are Muslim, or they think are Muslim, what kind of message does that send to them?” Franken asked.
“Senator,” Treene responded, “I’ll just say with all respect, in my role, I’m concerned with sending out a message that we will enforce the law for all persons, that regardless of somebody’s nationality, their religion, that the Department of Justice stands ready to protect their rights.”
Hate crimes rose 7 percent across the U.S. in 2015, according to the latest available FBI data. Tuesday’s hearing was convened to address a startling rise in religious hate crimes, namely those targeting Jews, Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, hate incidents targeting Jews increased by 33 percent in 2016 compared to the year before. The group also says anti-Semitic hate incidents rose 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared to the same quarter in 2016.
There was a 67 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015, according to the FBI. HuffPost tracked about 400 incidents of anti-Muslim hate in 2016, the same year a Southern Poverty Law Center report said the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. tripled.
“It’s no accident that there is a rise in hate crimes because we’re in an environment where the president targets Muslims with his language,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said “the fish rots from the head.”
“And I think the head of our government has to be more understanding that you cannot divide people,” she said. “We have to work to bring people together.”
There was an 87.5 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the days directly following Trump’s initial proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
About a year later, the SPLC tracked over 1,000 bias incidents in the month after Trump won the presidential election. A perpetrator invoked Trump, his campaign slogans or his remarks about sexual assault in 37 percent of those incidents.
HuffPost also documented at least 13 times Trump supporters harassed, attacked or plotted to kill Muslims.
I think the head of our government has to be more understanding that you cannot divide people. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
“From you perspective at the Justice Department, what do you see as the cause of this increase in threats?” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked Treene on Tuesday.
Treene again avoided the question. “The attorney general has been consistent and strong in his message that hate crime is violent crime, and we need to do everything we can with all the tools in our prosecutorial tool box to fight this problem,” he said, adding that “one of the leading causes of anti-Muslim bias is not knowing any Muslims.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pressed Treene on comments Trump made during his campaign, when he claimed that a federal judge with Mexican ancestry may be biased against him.
“You were a law clerk for a very distinguished federal judge, were you not, John Walker?” Blumenthal asked Treene.
“Yes, Senator,” Treene responded.
“So does it concern you that the president of the United States denounced a federal judge based on his ethnicity?” Blumenthal said.
“You know, Senator, I’m here representing the department on hate crimes and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to speak about that,” Treene replied.
“Really?” Blumenthal responded. “A federal judge denounced based on ethnicity and you have no comment?”
“Well, you know, I’m here to discuss the issues of religious intolerance and hate crimes, and I don’t think it’s far afield to go into many other areas that might be out there,” Treene responded.
Other panelists who testified at Tuesday’s hearing ― including Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL, and Vanita Gupta, the incoming president and CEO of the Leadership Conference For Civil And Human Rights ― called on the Senate to make it mandatory for police departments to report hate crimes to the federal government.
Thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country didn’t report any hate crime data to the FBI in 2015, which Greenblatt and Gupta argued handicaps the government’s ability to combat hate.
Feinstein said she and other senators were interested in drafting legislation that would require police departments to report hate crimes.
The government’s incomplete hate crime data led HuffPost to partner with ProPublica and other news outlets to create a database of reported hate and bias incidents.
America does not do a good job of tracking incidents of hate and bias. We need your help to create a database of such incidents, so we all know what’s going on. Tell us your story.