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August 4, 2019

The Boston Globe: Ayanna Pressley ‘absolutely’ believes Trump is a racist, but says her focus is policy, not rhetoric

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said she believes President Trump is a racist and has been one for decades, but the Dorchester Democrat is focused not on what the former reality TV star believes but the effects of his policies on people’s lives.

That’s what Pressley told co-hosts Ed Harding and Janet Wu on WCBV-TV’s “On the Record” Sunday morning, as the three engaged in a wide-ranging interview that touched on topics from the president’s attacks on “the Squad,” to the 2020 race, to Pressley’s efforts to eliminate the federal death penalty.

“Do you believe the president’s a racist?” Harding asked less than three minutes into the televised interview.

“Yes, I do, absolutely,” Pressley responded, with a facial expression that suggested she was surprised by the question.

Then she quickly added, “But I just want to say this, though. I don’t think he’s a racist because of the vitriol that he spews, OK? I think and know that he’s a racist based on a pattern of behavior that began well before he was the occupant of this White House.”

Pressley listed actions of Trump’s going back decades that she said have demonstrated indifference or hostility to people of color, from his claims that former president Barack Obama was born outside the United States; to Trump’s calls for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were eventually exonerated; to his refusal to rent to African-American tenants in the 1970s.

She suggested that Trump’s racial attitudes are clear from his choice of language. Asked by Harding about Trump’s claims that his administration is helping African-Americans, Pressley retorted, “Actually, he doesn’t even say, ‘African-Americans.’ He says, ‘The blacks.’ ”

“At this point, it is fatiguing, the level of venom and vitriol and racist rhetoric, but I’m not allowing that to distract me from the real work, and the real harm that this administration is causing with racist and hurtful policies.”

There were also lighter moments, as when Pressley admitted that she has never learned to drive a car but said, “Excuse me, I do co-chair the Congressional Bike Caucus,” and when she talked about her beloved longhaired cat, Sojo, named for 19th-century African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

Asked about “the Squad” — the first-term congresswomen of color that also includes Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — and the public spotlight on them since Trump suggested “they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came,” Pressley suggested that the conflict is just another part of the circus-like atmosphere Trump creates.

“I am encouraged by and grateful for the outpouring of solidarity and love and support that myself and my colleagues have received in our districts and throughout this country,” she said. “I do believe most days it does drown out the level of vitriol and venom that is on the other side.”

Pressley touted the accomplishments of her first six months in the House, saying she is the lead author on 10 pieces of legislation and a cosponsor on about 130 more. She has been careful, she said, to coordinate with colleagues in the Senate to increase their bills’ chances of success.

“My very first bill, with United States Senator Tina Smith out of Minnesota, was to provide back pay for federally contracted third-party service workers — custodians, food service workers, security workers — who were not made whole after the federal government shutdown,” she said. “And I was able to get that into our appropriations package.”

She also discussed the immigration crisis and her visit earlier this summer to a migrant detention center in El Paso. She expressed frustration with the Senate, particularly majority leader Mitch McConnell, for failing to act on the immigration crisis.

“It’s typical to say that the system is broken, but I think actually the system is doing what it was designed to do,” she said. “That means that the system is fundamentally flawed, and we need a system . . . that works, that is compassionate, that is humane, that prioritizes families staying together. After all, seeking asylum is a legal and a human right.”

Pressley repeatedly stressed that her district is 40 percent immigrant, and said, “Look, I work in Washington, but I answer to and I work for the people of the Massachusetts Seventh [District].”

“The fear and the abuse of power is not hyperbole; it’s not imagined,” she said. “We have seen the overreach of ICE right here, in the Massachusetts Seventh, and that fear is palpable.”

The prerecorded interview did not address the mass shooting Saturday at an El Paso Walmart that killed at least 20 people, or the separate mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, early Sunday that killed at least nine, but Pressley addressed the El Paso massacre in a Twitter post Saturday night.

“What we witnessed in #ElPaso today was an act of terrorism,” she wrote. “Robbing us of the lives of more than 20 people, a terrorist emboldened by racist rhetoric, armed with weapons that should be outlawed. Enough. It’s time to channel our rage and heartbreak into real policy change.”