Trump, black NASCAR driver in war of words over noose protest


Washington (AFP)

NASCAR's Bubba Wallace accused Donald Trump on Monday of stirring up "hate" after the president demanded that the circuit's only black driver apologize for protests launched over a noose found hanging in his garage stall.

The garage door pull-rope fashioned like a noose -- widely seen as a symbol of lynchings in the American South -- sparked outrage when it was found but the FBI concluded it was not the result of a hate crime.

Dozens of Wallace's fellow drivers staged a demonstration against bigotry but the FBI probe discovered that the rope had been hanging in the stall months before the June 23 race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

"Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?" Trump said on Twitter.

Wallace responded with an uplifting message "to the next generation" -- and a denunciation of the president.

The 26-year-old encouraged his fans to embrace "love over hate every day... even when it's hate from the POTUS," referring to the president.

Trump's tweet was his latest divisive rhetoric -- he also spoke out Monday about US sports franchises considering changing their Native American-themed team names -- ahead of November's presidential election.

The noose discovery was made shortly after Wallace had successfully campaigned for a ban on flying the controversial Confederate flag at NASCAR, a popular sport with conservative Americans.

Trump also claimed in his tweet that the ban and the noose controversy had "caused lowest ratings EVER!"

The president's remarks came after two divisive Independence Day weekend speeches which critics said were an attempt to exploit racial animus and stoke fear among his base of white supporters, four months ahead of the presidential election.

Last week Trump, who is trailing presumptive Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the polls, shared a video of his supporters chanting "white power" -- before deleting it amid an outcry.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps noted after the inquiry had finished that "the noose was real" and "our initial reaction was to protect our driver."

"In hindsight, I should have used the word 'alleged' in our statement," said Phelps.

- 'Politically correct' -

The United States has been upended by coast-to-coast protests since the May killing of African American George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

The demonstrations have seen attacks on symbols of the country's slave-holding history such as the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals.

Trump has branded the movement a "left-wing cultural revolution" and an assault on American "heritage," and vowed to resist it.

The White House slammed the media over the Wallace clash, saying reporters were "mischaracterizing" Trump's words.

"The intent of the tweet was to stand up for the men and women of NASCAR and the fans, and those who have gone in this rush to judgment of the media to call something a hate crime, when in fact the FBI report concluded this was not an intentional racist act," Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.

McEnany also declined to say whether Trump agrees with NASCAR's decision to ban the rebel-themed flag, saying the president has not made a judgment "one way or the other."

Trump also weighed in on two sports teams that are considering changing their names and logos amid renewed calls for social justice and civil rights.

"They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness," Trump said in a tweet that mocked efforts to avoid marginalizing certain minority groups.

"But now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct."