WASHINGTON – In his nearly two decades of activism, Martin Luther King Jr. fought a number of contentious issues, from segregation and racial discrimination to dangerous conditions for sanitation workers.
But if the civil rights leader were still alive today, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said, he would be speaking out against another topic dividing the country: the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
“I don’t think it was within Dr. King’s vision to have Americans dragged through a process where the president is not going to be removed from office, is not being charged with bribery, extortion, high crimes or misdemeanors,” she told reporters on Monday.
On a holiday set aside to honor King, and in the week in which the Senate is set to begin its impeachment trial of Trump, Conway’s criticism of the latter event marked one of the White House’s few commemorations of the former.
During a news conference, NBC News correspondent Geoff Bennett asked Conway why the president’s public schedule of events on Monday did not include any functions meant to commemorate King. In response, Conway argued that impeachment went against the ideals that King had put forth.
“The president … agrees with many of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King stood for and agreed with for many years, including unity and equality,” she said. “He’s not the one tearing the country apart through an impeachment process and a lack of substance that really is very shameful at this point.”
Her comments were immediately ridiculed as one of the most bizarre attacks on the impeachment process to date.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, called the remark an “embarrassingly incompetent answer.” Trump, she suggested, has in fact strayed far from King’s legacy – by redefining the presidency and pushing it away from leadership.
“He just gets to tweet whatever he wants that he thinks will put him in a better political position,” she said on MSNBC. “We don’t need Mr. Trump to lead us in knowing what to do around equality and justice.”
On Twitter, later in the afternoon, Trump noted that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the three-year anniversary of his inauguration and an “appropriate” occasion to point out low unemployment numbers for African Americans. (A Washington Post-Ipsos poll last week found that most black Americans don’t believe he deserves credit for those economic successes.)
“So appropriate that today is also MLK jr DAY. African-American Unemployment is the LOWEST in the history of our Country, by far,” Trump said on Twitter. “Also, best Poverty, Youth, and Employment numbers, ever. Great!”
Yet Trump, who was sued in the 1970s for housing discrimination against blacks, has not fared much better in office: He has been largely panned by black Americans, an overwhelming majority of whom say they think he is a racist and has made racism a larger problem in the United States.
Hours before jetting off to Davos, Switzerland, he made a brief visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence.
On MSNBC, Ifill said that, if he were alive today, King would be leading the fight against voter suppression. On CNN, Harvard University scholar Cornel West went a step further.
He surmised that King would have a similar view of Trump as the activist did of figures like Eugene “Bull” Connor, the public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, known for his staunch support of segregation and crackdowns on civil rights protesters.
And while King would support Trump as a person, he would be fiercely opposed to his ideals. The force driving King would not be Trump’s impeachment, but the president himself.
“I would tell my dear sister Kelly: Your boss is a gangster,” West said. “Martin loves both of you, so do I, but we’re fighting against both of you.”
Like her boss, though, Conway noted that the date of this year’s MLK holiday has a personal significance for her.
“I appreciate the fact that we as a nation respect him by giving him his own day. I’m happy to share a birthday with this day,” the newly minted 53-year-old said.