Hakeem Jeffries, a top House Democrat, calls Trump the "grand wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue"

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) compared Trump to a Ku Klux Klan leader during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event

Published January 22, 2019 10:23AM (EST)

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (AP/Seth Wenig)
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (AP/Seth Wenig)

The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus compared President Donald Trump to a leader of the Ku Klux Klan when he called him "the Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event on Monday.

"These are challenging times in the United States of America. We have a hater in the White House, a birther-in-chief, the Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said as he addressed the National Action Network in New York. "One of the things that we've learned is that, while Jim Crow may be dead, he's still got some nieces and nephews that are alive and well."

Several other New York Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio,  also spoke at the event.

Jeffries was not the only Democrat to attack the president's long history of inciting racial tensions on the holiday. During a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in South Carolina, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is reportedly laying the groundwork to forge a second White House bid to challenge Trump in 2020, told a crowd, "It gives me no pleasure to tell you that we now have a President of the United States who is a racist."

Republican National Committee Chair, Ronna McDaniel responded to Sanders' speech on Twitter, calling his comments "disgusting and wrong."

"@realDonaldTrump has brought African American and Hispanic unemployment to record lows, passed historic criminal justice reform," McDaniel wrote. "Even worse that Bernie is using MLK Day to make an incendiary comment like that."

The president on Monday made an unannounced trip to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. along with Vice President Mike Pence. Trump did not mention the civil rights leader during the visit, which reportedly ended about two minutes after he arrived, even though neither Trump or Pence had public events listed on their schedules for the day. It was the second Martin Luther King Jr. Day observed since Trump took office in January 2017.

"Good morning, everybody," Trump told reporters after laying a wreath in front of the monument. "It's a great day. It's a beautiful day, and thank you for being here. Appreciate it." He did not take questions.

Trump came under fire last year for spending Martin Luther King Jr. Day at his private golf club in Florida, and only tweeting a video message about the civil rights leader. This year, he remained in the nation's capital amid the ongoing partial government shutdown, which entered its 31st day, as Trump and congressional Democrats continue to spar over funds to build a wall along the southern border. Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency to fund the wall if Democrats do not budge. The shutdown, as it currently stands, appears to have no end in sight and is the longest budget impasse in U.S. history.

Trump's quick trip to the memorial on Monday stands in stark contrast with former presidents, such as Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who spent MLK Day volunteering or visiting memorials in honor of the civil rights leader during their presidencies.

Trump, for his part, shared a link Monday morning on Twitter to a proclamation he signed last week declaring Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.

"Today we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God," Trump wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Pence, the president's second-in-command, quoted the civil rights leader during a Sunday interview with CBS's "Face the Nation" in an effort to rally support for Trump's long-promised border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, 'Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,'" Pence said. "You think of how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process."

However, King did not support using walls to divide people, as he stated in a speech to over 20,000 people during a visit to East and West Berlin in 1964.

"It is is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth," King told East Berliners. "For here on either side of the wall are God's children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact."

By Shira Tarlo

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