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Pennsylvania Attorney General On Trump's Response To Anti-Semitism

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the top of his address to Congress Tuesday night, President Donald Trump condemned recent anti-Semitic acts, and the killing of an Indian man that's being investigated as a hate crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.

MARTIN: Earlier this week, vandals toppled some 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. And since the new year, over a hundred bomb threats have been called into Jewish schools and community centers across the country, including in Pennsylvania. That's where Democrat Josh Shapiro is the new attorney general. On Tuesday, Shapiro was at a meeting with President Trump and other attorneys general. The president asked for questions and called on Shapiro.

JOSH SHAPIRO: I talked about the uptick in hate speech, threats and intimidation against minority communities across the country, and in particular the increased threats to the Jewish community in Pennsylvania. And I asked how the state and federal governments could best collaborate to deal with these threats. The president gave a curious answer.

First, and I commend him for this, he called those acts reprehensible, and said that he would be addressing it in his speech later that night. But then the second thing he said, which really confused me and many other attorneys general, is he said, you know, you've got to be careful, it could be the reverse. And he used the word reverse a couple of times and said that, you know, perhaps people were trying to make others look bad.

So when the president spoke about this issue at the top of his address, I was pleased to hear him again, you know, essentially say that the acts were reprehensible. But he did nothing to actually clarify the comments that he made with regard to it being the reverse.

MARTIN: What did you take that to mean when he said, be careful, it could be the reverse? What do you infer?

SHAPIRO: I don't know what the president meant. But here's what I know, is that presidents must speak with moral clarity, not through mixed messages. And I think what his comment did - and this isn't the first time that this has happened - is it stokes doubt. And this kind of wishy-washy speech leaves too much open to interpretation by the wrong people.

MARTIN: The implication being that it was liberals or Democratic supporters who are actually conducting these attacks to try to make Republicans look bad?

SHAPIRO: I don't know. I've heard some suggest that it was Democrats. Some suggest that it was American Jews or Jews themselves. I don't know. And I think it would be irresponsible for me to suggest what the president meant. Only he can say what he meant. And hopefully the White House will clarify what he meant by those comments.

MARTIN: Although we should note, Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci actually tweeted out an acknowledgement of your back and forth with the president. And then in that same tweet said, we should remember Democrats were stirring up violence at Trump rallies. So there's a reason people are drawing that inference. So now we've heard what the president has said about this string of attacks. But is there some kind of concrete action that you would like him to do?

SHAPIRO: And remember, that was the basis of my underlying question. Which is from a concrete perspective, how can the federal government and the state governments work together from a law enforcement perspective to deal with this? What I wanted to hear was a broader maybe, you know, 40,000-foot perspective.

MARTIN: So hate speech is complicated. How do you stop it? I mean, what is happening at the state level? You say you're working on this in Pennsylvania. What are you doing?

SHAPIRO: Well, I can tell you right now, there's ongoing investigations into a multitude of threats, which obviously I can't comment on. What I want is a commitment from the federal government to work with our state and local officials to combat this.

And what I want is a clear statement from the leader of the free world, from the president of the United States, that he not only condemns this, but, you know, he refuses to use the kind of language that he used in the meeting with the attorneys general in response to my question that gives too much openness to interpret his comments to mean anything but a straight up condemnation of this type of activity.

MARTIN: In your state and across the country, what is your sense of what's behind this particular string of threats on Jewish community centers, on two cemeteries? Why now?

SHAPIRO: Well, what I can say is that there has clearly been an uptick in these kinds of threats, this type of intimidation, this type of hate speech. I think it would be irresponsible for me to suggest that it's occurring just because of one person or one election or what have you. But I do think that now is the time for leaders to stand up and speak with moral clarity and make it clear that we do not tolerate this in the United States of America.

MARTIN: There is a concern among some Democrats that the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions could dilute the role of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ. Is there talk among attorneys general that you all could step into that void, and if so, what that would look like?

SHAPIRO: I can tell you one of my priorities in Pennsylvania - I'm a new attorney general, been in office just over a month - is to, you know, dramatically beef up my civil rights division in the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. I think it's critical. Frankly, I thought it was critical before the outcome of the presidential race. I think it's even more critical now.

MARTIN: Josh Shapiro is the attorney general of Pennsylvania. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We spoke to him via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.