As Congress begins a new session today, one of its top Republicans has acknowledged he once addressed a gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has confirmed reports he spoke at a 2002 convention of EURO – the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. EURO is founded by David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and perhaps the country’s most notorious white supremacist. Scalise was serving as a Louisiana state representative at the time. “Mr. Scalise reportedly described himself as ‘David Duke without the baggage,’ so it’ll be up to Republicans to decide what that says about their conference,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday. We speak with Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who says that Scalise’s denials are not believable.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: As Congress begins its new session today, one of its top Republicans has acknowledged he once addressed a gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has confirmed reports he spoke at a 2002 convention of EURO—that’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization. EURO was founded by David Duke, a former KKK leader and perhaps the country’s most notorious white supremacist. Scalise was serving as a Louisiana state representative at the time.
The news was first reported last month by law student Lamar White Jr. on the website CenLamar.com. Scalise told the New Orleans Times-Picayune he does not recall the conference and, quote, “didn’t know who all of these groups were … For anyone to suggest I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous.” Scalise did apologize for his speech, saying, quote, “It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said it’s up to Scalise’s GOP colleagues to decide if he faces consequences.
PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of individual members of the House Republican Conference to decide who they want to elect as their—as a leader of their conference. And certainly, who those elected leaders are says a lot about who the conference is and what their priorities and values are. And they’re going to have to answer for themselves whether or not elevating somebody who described himself as “David Duke without the baggage” sort of reinforces the kind of message that the House Republican Conference wants to project.
AMY GOODMAN: As the House majority whip, Steve Scalise is the number three Republican in the House of Representatives. Many colleagues have rallied to his defense. These include Congresswoman Mia Love of Utah, the first black woman elected to Congress as a Republican and one of the 74 new GOP members to be sworn in today. On Sunday, Mia Love spoke about Scalise to ABC’s This Week.
MIA LOVE: These groups are awful, and the last thing I want to do is give them any sort of publicity or credibility. And I can say, as far as I’m concerned with Representative Scalise, he has been absolutely wonderful to work with. He has been very helpful for me, and he has had the support of his colleagues.
MARTHA RADDATZ: Does it hurt the image of the Republican Party? And should he remain in leadership?
MIA LOVE: I believe he should remain in leadership. There is one quality that he has that I think is very important in leadership, and that’s humility. And he’s actually shown that in this case and has apologized. And I think that we need to move on and get the work of the American people done.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the congresswoman from Utah, Mia Love, or she will be when she’s sworn in today.
A longtime adviser to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke confirmed he personally invited Scalise to speak to the 2002 gathering of white supremacists. Kenny Knight told The Washington Post Scalise was his neighbor and came as a favor to him and didn’t know about racial views of the organizers. He said, quote, “He agreed, believing it was going to be neighbors, friends, and family. He saw me not as David Duke’s guy, but as the president of our civic association.”
Well, for more, we head south to speak to Mark Potok. He’s senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, joining us from Montgomery, Alabama; his latest piece headlined “Steve Scalise’s Denials Are Not Believable.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Mark. Why not? Why aren’t they believable?
MARK POTOK: Well, thanks for having me, for starters. I mean, they are wildly unbelievable. You know, first of all, when Steve Scalise was in his twenties and a state representative, that was the peak of David Duke’s sort of heyday. Duke ran for Senate in 1990. He ran for governor in 1991. In both cases, he got the majority of the white vote in Louisiana. And it was a huge international story. Moreover, Kenny Knight—
AMY GOODMAN: But for young people—
MARK POTOK: —the person you mentioned as inviting—
AMY GOODMAN: For young people—Mark, for young people—
MARK POTOK: —Scalise to this event—
AMY GOODMAN: Mark, for young people—for young people who don’t know who David Duke is, can you talk about his history before he ran for public office?
MARK POTOK: Sure. Duke, early on, formed a major Klan group called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. When he was still at LSU, at Louisiana State University, as a student, he paraded, in one instance, in a full neo—a Nazi getup, carrying signs having to do with the Holocaust and so on. He later tried to shed his Klan past, in the sense that he formed new organizations. One of them was called the National Association for the Advancement of White People. Later on, he created something called NO FEAR, which then changed its name to EURO. That was his latest iteration.
During those contests, especially the 1991 run for governor, a huge amount of reporting was done about Duke’s ties to various neo-Nazi groups and beliefs and so on. And it became very clear that it was simply false that he had put these beliefs behind him. While he was campaigning, he was still selling Holocaust denial materials from his bookstore and so on. So, I think it is certainly fair to say that David Duke was then and remains today the best-known white supremacist in the United States.
AARON MATÉ: Mark, I want to turn to a clip from a video promoting a 2005 EURO conference, three years after Scalise spoke. It begins with David Duke, followed by two speakers expressing white supremacist views.
DAVID DUKE: This meeting is attended by leaders of European-American organizations dedicated to our heritage and freedom from all over the European-American world.
KEVIN ALFRED STROM: One advantage we have over the Jewish supremacists who oppose our people’s awakening is that their growth curve, either in numbers or power, is severely restricted. Ours is not.
DON BLACK: We have the advantage because we are the white race. We have the ingenuity and the creativity to overcome anything that they can put up against us.
AARON MATÉ: That is from a 2005 video about the EURO conference, where Steve Scalise spoke three years earlier. Now, in a 2002 post from when Steve Scalise spoke, written on the neo-Nazi website Stormfront, a commenter who said he attended the EURO conference praised Scalise’s speech. Using the name “Alsace Hebert,” the commenter wrote, quote, “Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, underfunded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race.” Two years later, the same commenter expressed excitement that Scalise would run for Congress. He wrote, quote, “Those that attended the EURO conference in New Orleans will recall that Scalise was a speaker, offering his support for issues that are of concern to us.” Mark Potok, can you talk about Stormfront and what this EURO conference is—and, of course, the likelihood that Scalise didn’t know what it was?
MARK POTOK: Well, Stormfront, first of all, is the largest white supremacist web forum in the world. It’s run by a former Alabama Klan leader, a man named Don Black. It’s a huge forum. It has—there are claims to have something like 300,000 registered members, and not all of them Americans. It’s really quite something.
EURO, at the time, really was, in a sense, the most important white supremacist organization around, or it was certainly trying to be that. It had collected many of the better-known leaders of what they would call the white nationalist movement, with David Duke at the core, as the sort of head.
You know, to go to the believability of Scalise’s claims, it’s, I think, important to say that Kenny Knight, the person who invited him, has been lying through this entire episode. We know that because, among other things, Kenny Knight made a later claim to the New Orleans Times-Picayune that what Scalise had attended was not Duke’s meeting at all, was not the EURO meeting at all, he had attended a homeowners’ association meeting earlier that morning in the same space. He went on to say—Kenny Knight went on to say to the reporters that he, Scalise, and Kenny Knight then left. That is false. We know that because we have a picture, a photograph, of Kenny Knight at the EURO conference giving a speech, that was published, in fact, in the David Duke Report.
So, there’s been a lot of effort on the part of Kenny Knight and others to essentially muddy the trail, but as I said at the beginning, I think it’s simply not believable that a politician like Steve Scalise at that time could possibly not have known what this meeting was. He knew Kenny Knight. David Duke has himself explained in the last few days that Scalise new Knight as Duke’s campaign manager. So he knew that he was going to a Duke event. We have had one of our own staff members, Heidi Beirich, attend later EURO meetings. These meetings are draped with all kinds of racist banners and flags and so on. So I think the whole tale is nothing but that, a fairytale.
AMY GOODMAN: You also write about, in terms of was it known what EURO represented at the time, that the Iowa Cubs, a Triple-A team, were planning to stay at the Best Western Landmark Hotel in Metairie, Louisiana, at the same time that the national EURO convention was taking place, and that their—the local New Orleans team, that was arranging the visiting team’s accommodations, actually switched hotels in part because EURO was there.
MARK POTOK: That’s right. And this made the local papers. In addition, a spokesman for the hotel itself took the trouble to go on local television and say that the hotel did not in any way agree with the views of EURO, they hadn’t understood what the organization was when it booked, and so on. So, there was a lot of public putting of distance between various organizations and people and the Duke organization. So I think that simply goes to the fact that EURO was well known locally as an organization, an organ of David Duke’s.
AARON MATÉ: Well, Mark, former KKK leader David Duke says Scalise is being singled out. Speaking to Fusion, Duke said of the 2002 meeting, quote, “He was just going there, obviously, to tell voters about some of his initiatives on some tax matters. … If Scalise is going to be crucified—if Republicans want to throw Steve Scalise to the woods, then a lot of them better be looking over their shoulders.” Duke suggested he could release a list of names of politicians he is connected to. In a follow-up interview with CNN, Duke said we would name names from both main political parties.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: You said this week that if he’s crucified—I think that was your word choice—
DAVID DUKE: Yeah, yeah.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: —then you’re going to name names.
DAVID DUKE: Yeah.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: What are we talking about?
DAVID DUKE: I would name names of any Democrat or—and I know some Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who tried—in fact, urged me to support them.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: In other words, you’re saying there are members of Congress today who have relationships with you.
DAVID DUKE: Have had relationships.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: Have had, but they choose to keep those private.
DAVID DUKE: So—and that’s fine.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: And you honor that.
DAVID DUKE: And I respect somebody’s privacy.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH: But you’ll call them out.
DAVID DUKE: But I would call them out if they—hypocritical.
AARON MATÉ: That was David Duke speaking to CNN. Mark Potok, what do you make of that, him claiming he has ties to politicians from both parties, Democrats and Republicans?
MARK POTOK: Well, I think he said, and said correctly, that he had had ties to them. I think that’s certainly not true now, or at least it’s very unlikely. At the time, around the turn of the century, turn of the millennium, there was quite a lot of contact between politicians and various white supremacist groups. Another big group was the Council of Conservative Citizens, the group that Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, got into trouble over endorsing and speaking to and so on. So, I think it’s probably true that there were a number of politicians in Louisiana. Duke had a real constituency. He earned, in various elections, 600,000 votes, white votes, and in another, 700,000 white votes. So, there were certainly politicians who were interested, if not in David Duke personally, then his constituency. So, you know, we don’t know what was in Steve Scalise’s head in 2002 when he went to attend the EURO conference. We don’t know whether he had similar views or was simply trolling for votes.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark, according to the longtime Louisiana political reporter Stephanie Grace, Steve Scalise once described himself to her as, quote, “David Duke without the baggage.” In an interview with The New York Times, Grace recalled her first meeting with Scalise, saying, quote, “He told me he was like David Duke without the baggage. I think he meant he supported the same policy ideas as David Duke, but he wasn’t David Duke, that he didn’t have the same feelings about certain people as David Duke did.” Can you comment on this and, finally, what you think should happen? I mean, right now Steve Scalise is the number three power in the House of Representatives, as it begins today. He’s the House majority whip.
MARK POTOK: Well, first of all, it wasn’t a one-off claim. You know, as to what should happen to Scalise today, I mean, I think that the Republican Party, if it is being remotely honest in terms of trying to reach out to minorities, which it has made an awful lot of noise about in the last couple of years, it seems obvious that they ought to get rid of Scalise. I think he is being given a pass because we don’t happen to have video of whatever it was that he said at the EURO meeting, because there’s a little bit of shakiness in exactly when he spoke and so on. And so he’s being allowed to get away with this. You know, I mean, to me, if the Republicans have any kind of earnestness, you know, in their repeated statements that they’re looking to enlarge what is becoming a narrower and narrower party, this would be the move to make, but they seem quite unwilling to make it.
And, you know, I think part of the reason for that is that Steve Scalise is in the Republican House leadership, in part, as a kind of outreach to tea party Republicans and so on. You know, after all, Scalise is a man who, on a couple of different occasions, was a very lonely voter against the Martin Luther King holiday back in 1999 and 2004, as well. He was one of three, in one case, and one of six, in another case, of representatives who voted against that bill.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, we want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where his latest piece for their Hatewatch blog is headlined “Steve Scalise’s Denials Are Not Believable.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we’re going to California to talk about Mexico and some new revelations about who was involved in the disappearance of 43 students. Stay with us.