The exchange with the president did not go the way rookie White House correspondent Jake Turx, a Hasidic Jew who asked about a recent surge in anti-Semitism, had expected.
Jake Turx is a newly minted White House correspondent for a publication that has never before had a seat in the White House press corps: Ami Magazine, an Orthodox Jewish weekly based in Brooklyn, New York. He is a singular presence in the briefing room: a Hasidic Jew with side curls tucked behind his ears and a skullcap embroidered with his Twitter handle.
When President Donald Trump called on him at a news conference Thursday, saying he was looking for a “friendly reporter,” Turx was prepared. He had spent an hour crafting a question about a recent surge of anti-Semitism, with a preamble that he hoped would convey his supportive disposition toward Trump.
The exchange did not go the way he expected. A few hours later, with the clip replaying on social media and Jewish groups issuing news releases, Turx, 30, was still reeling. He said in a telephone interview, “Regretfully, today was a day I wish we could have done over.”
His editor, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, watched aghast from the magazine’s offices as his young correspondent received a tongue-lashing from the president: “It was a very disheartening moment for us, to watch him being berated.”
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The exchange began with Turx standing up from his third-row seat and gesturing slightly toward his fellow reporters:
“Despite what some of my colleagues may have been reporting, I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic. We understand that you have Jewish grandchildren. You are their zayde,” which is Yiddish for “grandfather” and often a word of great affection.
At that Trump nodded slightly, and said, “Thank you.”
“However,” Turx continued, “what we are concerned about and what we haven’t really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report out that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to —”
At that, Trump interrupted, saying it was “not a fair question.”
“Sit down,” the president commanded. “I understand the rest of your question.”
As Turx took his seat, Trump said, “So here’s the story, folks. No. 1, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. No. 2, racism, the least racist person.”
Turx tried to interject, realizing how the encounter had turned. He said he had wanted to clarify that he in no way meant to accuse Trump of anti-Semitism but instead intended to ask what his administration could do to stop the anti-Semitic incidents.
But Trump would not let him speak again, saying, “Quiet, quiet, quiet.” As Turx shook his head with an incredulous expression, Trump accused him of having lied that his question would be straight and simple.
Trump said, “I find it repulsive. I hate even the question because people that know me …”
He went on to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, during his visit to the United States on Wednesday, had vouched for Trump as a good friend of Israel and the Jewish people and no anti-Semite.
Trump concluded Turx should have relied on Netanyahu’s endorsement, “instead of having to get up and ask a very insulting question like that.”
“Just shows you about the press, but that’s the way the press is,” Trump said.
At the news conference, Turx was referring to a rash of incidents that have shaken many American Jews since Trump was elected. On three separate days in January, Jewish synagogues, community centers and schools across the country received what seemed to be a coordinated wave of telephone bomb threats that led to evacuations and FBI investigations. Other Jewish institutions have seen an uptick in vandalism and graffiti in the past few months.
It was the second time in two days that Trump was asked to denounce anti-Semitism and offer American Jews a dose of reassurance. In his joint news conference with Netanyahu, Trump responded to a question about anti-Semitism by breezily recounting the size of his Electoral College victory and then reminding the reporters that his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and their three children — Trump’s grandchildren — are all Jewish.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement Thursday that said, “It is mind-boggling why President Trump prefers to shout down a reporter or brush this off as a political distraction.”
David Harris, chief executive of the American Jewish Committee, said, “Respectfully, Mr. President, please use your bully pulpit not to bully reporters asking questions potentially affecting millions of fellow Americans, but rather to help solve a problem that, for many, is real and menacing.”
Surveys show Trump was not the choice of the majority of American Jews, who tend to vote for Democrats and came out in force for Hillary Clinton. Many Jews have been critical of Trump for not more forcefully denouncing anti-Semites and racists like David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan who endorsed Trump. Many Jewish leaders are also wary of Stephen Bannon, Trump’s White House strategist, because of the close affinity between Breitbart News, which he once ran, and white supremacists.
But Trump was popular among many Orthodox Jews. They were reassured to see the Orthodox Jews in his family and attracted to his hawkish line on Israel, his support of vouchers for religious schools and his promise to ban Muslim immigrants from the country.
Ami Magazine was founded more than six years ago. It circulates in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and is one of several English-language news publications serving the ultra-Orthodox community.
After the news conference, Turx, a pen name, said he had had conversations Thursday evening with White House staff members and that he and members of the Orthodox Jewish community were “extremely confident” that the White House would give “the proper help, guidance and collaboration” on anti-Semitism.