In the Trump era, Democratic Party has zero tolerance for past racist behavior from its politicians

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference in Richmond on Feb. 2, 2019.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference in Richmond on Feb. 2, 2019.Alex Edelman / Getty Images

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Just a decade ago, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V. — who was a former KKK official in his younger days and apologized for that later in his political career — endorsed Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and was a member in good standing with the Democratic Party.

Five years ago, the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law by a Democratic president with a complicated personal history of talking about race.

But, after nearly the entire Democratic Party called for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign after a 35-year-old racist yearbook picture of him surfaced (he denies being in the picture) and after he admitted to darkening his skin to look like Michael Jackson at an old dance contest, the party is united in demonstrating that it has zero tolerance for any past racist behavior from its politicians.

Much of the reason: the current occupant of the White House, who led the “birther” crusade against Obama, referred to Haiti and African nations as “s---hole” countries, blamed "both sides" for what happened in Charlottesville, and tweeted that LeBron James was dumb (remember that?).

“Well, I think this country hasn't dealt well with the issues of race. I mean, we have a president who's a racist,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said on “Meet the Press” yesterday when asked why politicians are being held accountable for past behavior.

“I think, given the overall climate around race in this country, especially over the last two years, it's completely unacceptable,” added Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus, in explaining why Northam must resign.

As The New York Times' Jonathan Martin notes, this Trump rationale also explains why many Democrats had zero tolerance for Al Franken after being accused of past sexual harassment.

“Al Franken, the former Minnesota senator, found that out in 2017, when his own colleagues gave him little choice but to resign in the wake of sexual harassment accusations.”

Bottom line: It was only a few years ago when many Democratic voters and politicians drew distinctions between past behavior and current actions, old racial epithets from actual policy.

But no longer in the Trump era.

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Northam is a man on a political island

As one of us observed on “Meet the Press” yesterday, maybe the ONLY Democrats who haven’t directly called for Northam to resign are former President Barack Obama and current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would replace Northam as governor if he does resign.

Here was Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, plus Rep. Bobby Scott, all of Virginia: “After we watched his press conference [Saturday], we called Governor Northam to tell him that we no longer believe he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia and that he must resign. Governor Northam has served the people of the Commonwealth faithfully for many years, but the events of the past 24 hours have inflicted immense pain and irrevocably broken the trust Virginians must have in their leaders. He should step down and allow the Commonwealth to begin healing.”

And here was Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., on "Meet the Press": "I consider Ralph a friend. We were elected to the State Senate at the same time. But look, he’s lost the authority to lead. He's lost the authority to govern. He has to resign. It's in the best interest of the Commonwealth. It's in the best interest of the party.”

WaPo: Tip on Northam came from person angered by his abortion comments

“Patrick Howley, editor in chief of the website Big League Politics, first reported Friday the existence of a photo on Northam’s page of his medical school yearbook depicting a figure in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood,” The Washington Post writes.

“The tip came after Northam’s comments on Wednesday about late-term abortions, he said. Howley declined to give any further information about his source, citing a confidentiality agreement. But he said it took him just a few hours to confirm that the photo was authentic... The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.”

“‘The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,’ one of the two said.”

Axios: Since midterms, Trump has spent nearly 60 percent of his time in 'Executive Time'

“A White House source has leaked nearly every day of President Trump's private schedule for the past three months,” per Axios: “What the schedules show: Trump, an early riser, usually spends the first 5 hours of the day in Executive Time. Each day's schedule places Trump in "Location: Oval Office" from 8 to 11 a.m.”

“But Trump, who often wakes before 6 a.m., is never in the Oval during those hours, according to six sources with direct knowledge. Instead, he spends his mornings in the residence, watching TV, reading the papers, and responding to what he sees and reads by phoning aides, members of Congress, friends, administration officials and informal advisers.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders responded with a statement that didn’t deny all the “Executive Time” for Trump: “President Trump has a different leadership style than his predecessors and the results speak for themselves. While he spends much of his average day in scheduled meetings, events, and calls, there is time to allow for a more creative environment that has helped make him the most productive President in modern history. President Trump has ignited a booming economy with lower taxes and higher wages, established the USA as the #1 producer of oil and gas in the world, remade our judiciary, rebuilt our military, and renegotiated better trade deals. It’s indisputable that our country has never been stronger than it is today under the leadership of President Trump.”

Trump tells CBS he wants U.S. troops in Iraq to monitor Iran. But that could undercut the fight against ISIS.

The New York Times: “President Trump plans to keep United States troops in Iraq to monitor and maintain pressure on neighboring Iran, committing to an American military presence in the region’s war zones even as he moves to withdraw forces from Syria and Afghanistan.”

“‘I want to be able to watch Iran,’ Mr. Trump said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation.’ ‘We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.’”

“But senior American officers and diplomats said Mr. Trump’s comments could undercut the delicate negotiations in Iraq by inflaming fears among the Iraqis that the moves would be a guise to check Iran, potentially straining ties with Baghdad and weakening the ability of the United States to respond to Islamic State remnants in Syria.”