WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Tuesday condemned recent threats against Jewish community centres in the U.S. as "painful reminders" of lingering prejudice and evil, his first full-throated comments on the rise of anti-Semitic venom after pressure for him to speak out forcefully.
With his somewhat delayed denunciation, Trump sought to reset his relationship with American Jews, which has been strained by a recent White House statement on the Holocaust, comments by some of his supporters and his own fractious exchange with a reporter for an Orthodox Jewish publication.
Trump's latest remarks, made at the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, marked the first time he directly addressed recent incidents of anti-Semitism. Earlier in the day, the White House put out a statement denouncing "hatred and hate-motivated violence" but not mentioning Jews, the weekend vandalism at a Jewish cemetery or multiple threats to community centres Monday.
Eleven Jewish community centres across the country received telephoned bomb threats, according to the JCC Association of North America. Like three waves of similar phone calls in January, the new threats proved to be hoaxes, the association said in a statement. In addition, as many as 200 headstones were damaged or tipped over at a Jewish cemetery in suburban St. Louis late Sunday or early Monday.
"The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centres are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil," Trump said. He did not outline what that might entail.
On Monday, Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump wrote on Twitter, "We must protect our houses of worship & religious centres," and used the hashtag #JCC. She converted to Judaism ahead of her 2009 marriage to Jared Kushner. She joined her father at the African-American museum tour.
The FBI said it was joining with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to investigate "possible civil rights violations in connection with threats."
Ryan Lenz, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it has seen an uptick in incidents since Trump's election. "People are much more willing to express their bigoted selves than they were prior to the election," Lenz said.
Trump's statement Tuesday followed a series of episodes that put some American Jews on edge.
Last week at a news conference, Trump tangled with a reporter from an Orthodox Jewish publication, cutting him off as he asked about a rise in bomb threats. The president, who seemed to interpret the query as an attack on him personally, said it was "not a fair question" and went on to say he was the "least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life."
In January, the White House drew criticism for a statement commemorating the Holocaust that did not mention the murder of Jews, in contrast with previous administrations. The statement, criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and others, was defended by the White House as inclusive.
And throughout his campaign, Trump was criticized for what some saw as belated and inadequately forceful denunciations of hateful rhetoric by some of his supporters.
Trump's top strategist Stephen Bannon came under fire for stories published by Breitbart News, which he'd led before joining Trump's campaign. During the campaign, Trump at times appeared to play to stereotypes, including tweeting out an anti-Hillary Clinton image that included what appeared to be a Star of David atop a pile of money.
Still, Trump has won strong support in some circles as an impassioned backer of Israel.
Trump welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House last week and signalled a new closeness between the countries as he withheld clear support for an independent Palestine and declared he could endorse a one-nation solution to the long dispute between Palestinians and Israel.
At a joint news conference, Trump called Israel a symbol of "survival in the face of genocide."
Trump's Tuesday comments were praised by several Jewish organizations.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights group that has been highly critical of Trump, called the statement an "important first step."
"I think the Jewish community has been looking for leadership from the president. I was encouraged to hear him step up and say that proactively and now we need to look for the follow-up so we can move from words to action," Greenblatt said.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in a statement that his group applauds "President Trump and his daughter Ivanka for their strong words in condemning these unspeakable actions."
Still, some said Trump had not done enough. On its Facebook page, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called Trump's Tuesday comments a "Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism that has infected his own Administration."
White House spokesman Sean Spicer pushed back against those remarks at a news conference Tuesday. He said Trump has spoken forcefully against hate, arguing, "It's ironic that no matter how many times he talks about this that it's never good enough."
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report from Washington. AP writer Patrick Mairs contributed from Philadelphia.