Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), facing a barrage of criticism over a Monday night television interview in which he refused to say white nationalists are racists, relented Tuesday afternoon, acknowledging to reporters on Capitol Hill that they in fact are.
“White nationalists are racists,” Tuberville told reporters, after earlier exchanges with reporters in which he continued to insist that was a matter of opinion, a position that echoed his comments from an interview the night before.
Appearing on CNN on Monday night, Tuberville was given the opportunity to clarify remarks from this spring when he appeared to be advocating for white nationalists to serve in the U.S. military.
Tuberville said he rejects racism but pushed back against host Kaitlan Collins when she told him that by definition white nationalists are racist because they believe their race is superior to others. He said that was only her opinion and at one point in the back-and-forth characterized white nationalists as people who hold “a few probably different beliefs.”
Tuberville’s remarks drew a sharp rebuke Tuesday from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who urged Tuberville to apologize.
“The senator from Alabama is wrong, wrong, wrong,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “The definition of white nationalism is not a matter of opinion. White nationalism, the ideology that one race is inherently superior to others, that people of color should be segregated, subjected to second-class citizenship, is racist down to its rotten core. For the senator from Alabama to obscure the racist nature of white nationalism is indeed very, very dangerous.”
Tuberville’s CNN interview resurrected another controversy for the first-term senator, who has been in the news mostly for stalling scores of senior military nominations in an attempt to stop a Defense Department policy that helps ensure access to abortions for service members and their families. His holds were a topic Tuesday at a confirmation hearing for Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr., President Biden’s choice to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a brief interaction with reporters on Capitol Hill earlier on Tuesday, Tuberville struggled to clarify his views on white nationalists.
“Listen, I’m totally against racism,” he said. “And if the Democrats want to say white nationalists are racist, I’m totally against that too. … My definition is, racism bad.”
Even fellow Republicans were reluctant to defend Tuberville’s CNN interview.
“I am not sure exactly what he was trying to say there,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chamber’s minority whip, told CNN. “I mean, I would just say that there is no place for white nationalism in our party.”
Asked about Tuberville’s comments during a news conference Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t comment directly but said, “White supremacy is simply unacceptable in our military and in our entire country.”
In a May interview with a local public radio station in Alabama, Tuberville, a former football coach, criticized Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for his efforts “to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists” from the military. Tuberville said it was part of an effort to politicize the armed services and accused Pentagon leaders of “ruining our military” and driving away supporters of former president Donald Trump.
Tuberville subsequently told reporters that he looks “at a white nationalist as a Trump Republican,” adding, “That’s what we’re called all the time.”
On Monday night, Collins pressed Tuberville on whether white nationalists should be allowed to serve in the military, offering a definition of a white nationalist as someone who “believes that the white race is superior to other races.”
“Well that’s some people’s opinion,” Tuberville said.
Asked for his opinion, Tuberville said: “My opinion of a white nationalist, if someone wants to call them white nationalist, to me, is an American. It’s an American. Now if that white nationalist is a racist, I’m totally against anything that they want to do because I am 110 percent against racism.”
Tuberville then accused Democrats of using the term to push “identity politics,” which he said is “ruining this country.”
Asked to clarify his comments on white nationalists in the military, Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s response: pic.twitter.com/deTfS4XKnR
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) July 11, 2023
Collins continued to press Tuberville on whether white nationalists should be able to serve in the military, saying they are people who believe “horrific things.”
“Well that’s just a name that has been given,” Tuberville said of white nationalism.
Collins told him, “It’s a real definition.”
“If you’re going to do away with most White people in this country out the military, we’ve got huge problems,” Tuberville responded.
“It’s not people who are White. It’s white nationalists,” Collins said.
“That have a few probably different beliefs, they have different beliefs,” Tuberville said. “Now if racism is one of those beliefs, I’m totally against it. I’m totally against racism.”
Earlier in the interview, Tuberville cited his coaching experience at Auburn University and elsewhere.
“I was a football coach for 40 years and had the opportunity to be around more minorities than anybody up on this Hill,” Tuberville said.
“A white nationalist is racist, Senator,” Collins said.
“Well that’s your opinion, that’s your opinion,” Tuberville said.
He added, “I’m totally against any type of racism.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, among the Democrats to criticize Tuberville on Tuesday, suggested in a tweet that Tuberville’s comments were driven by ignorance. With an attached clip of the CNN interview, Newsom wrote: “That moment in which Sen. Tommy Tuberville admits he does not know what it means to be a white nationalist, and then goes on to defend them.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “white nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of nonwhite persons.”
“Their primary goal is to create a white ethnostate,” the group says on its website. “Groups listed in a variety of other categories, including Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead and Christian Identity, could also be fairly described as white nationalist.”
Military leaders have long worried about extremist views in their ranks.
A study by the Center for Strategic International Studies found that 6.4 percent of all domestic terrorism incidents in 2020 involved active-duty or reserve personnel, more than quadrupling the tally from the previous year. Hate groups actively target troops to become recruits while encouraging their own extremists to join the military ranks.
The presence of many military veterans at the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol further alarmed senior Pentagon officials and prompted Austin to create a counter-extremism working group in April 2021.
Paul Kane and Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.