WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump assailed the only full-time African American NASCAR race car driver on Monday and sharply criticized the racing organization for its recent racetrack ban on the display of the Confederate flag.
Trump pointedly asked whether Black driver Bubba Wallace has apologized for the support NASCAR rendered him after a noose was recently discovered in an Alabama racetrack garage he was occupying. NASCAR and investigators later determined the rope was being used as a door pull and had been in the garage months before Wallace occupied the space.
Trump, on Twitter, wondered whether Wallace has "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 the ensuing uproar over the rope and NASCAR's "Flag decision has caused lowest (television) ratings EVER!"
NASCAR recently had announced that the display of Confederate flag, which celebrates the 11 Southern states that seceded from the United States in the 1860s in support of slavery, "will be prohibited from all" its events and properties.
After Trump's tweet, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News, "The president is merely pointing out that we've got to let facts come out before we rush to judgment. There was no hate crime committed against Bubba Wallace."
Trump's Monday tweet was his latest racially tinged statement four months ahead of his November national re-election contest, which polls show him trailing former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. The polling shows Black voters overwhelmingly support Biden.
Trump has previously said he would veto defense spending legislation calling for changing the names of military bases named after Confederate military generals and said that the phrase "Black Live Matter" is a "symbol of hate."
After the rope was discovered at the garage Wallace was assigned at the Talladega Superspeedway track, NASCAR officials quickly informed law enforcement officials about the possible hate crime.
Nooses have a long malign history in the U.S., in most, but not all cases, used by racist whites in lynchings to hang Black people from trees, particularly in the Southern states that fought in the Civil War. In all, 4,700 such killings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968, with other minorities and some whites also targeted in states beyond the Confederacy.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents within a day of being informed of the noose-like rope found in Wallace's garage determined that it had been there since last October, months before Wallace was assigned the garage.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps said "the noose was real" and "our initial reaction was to protect our driver."
"We're living in a highly charged and emotional time," Phelps said. "What we saw was a symbol of hate, and was only present in one area of the garage -- that of the 43 car of Bubba Wallace.
"In hindsight," he added, "we should have -- I should have -- used the word 'alleged' in our statement. ... As you can see from the photo, the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba. With similar emotion, others across our industry and our media stood up to defend the NASCAR family -- our NASCAR family -- because they are part of the NASCAR family too. We were proud to see so many stand up for what's right."
Wallace, NASCAR's only Black full-time driver, told the ESPN sports television network that he was thankful that the noose wasn't intended for him. But he said he did not think the ensuing investigation was an overreaction.
Phelps said NASCAR conducted a sweep of every garage area at all 29 tracks at which it races, a total of 1,684 garage stalls.
"We found only 11 total that had a pull-down rope tied in a knot, and only one noose -- the one discovered ... in Bubba Wallace's garage," Phelps said.
He said that cameras will be added to garages to capture any ill-intended actions.
"We need to keep Bubba safe. We need to keep a member of our family safe," Phelps said.