Trump picks ‘Jew counter’ at center of Nixon-era anti-Semitic campaign to lead powerful think tank

On the heels of Charlottesville, it doesn't look great.

MALEK IN 2002. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
MALEK IN 2002. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

On Wednesday, President Trump announced his intention to appoint longtime Republican operative Fred Malek as chair of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a highly recognized think tank that is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

While the position may be a relatively obscure one, Trump’s selection of Malek — coming as it does on the heels of the president defending neo-Nazis who were involved in a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — is significant, as Malek was involved in one of the most notorious anti-Semitic episodes in modern American history.

Malek, now 80, served as a special assistant to President Richard Nixon. In that role, in 1971, he put together a list of “important Jewish officials” who were working in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Four of those officials were later demoted.

As The Atlantic has detailed, Nixon had come to believe that Democratic Jews in the BLS were conspiring against him after the bureau released a report playing down a drop in the unemployment rate, and ordered Malek to work on purging them from leadership positions.

“We’ve got to get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish … do you understand?” Nixon told chief of staff H.R. Halderman.

In 2010, Slate characterized the episode as “the last recorded act of official anti-Semitism by the United States government.” And while Malek later said he was simply following Nixon’s orders and played no role in the demotions — “If I had even been peripherally involved or asked to alter someone’s employment status I would have found it offensive and morally unacceptable, and I would have refused,” he told the Washington Post in 1988 — Nixon-era memos released in 2007 revealed he was lying.

According to one of those memos, on September 8, 1971, Malek — following up on the earlier memo listing “important Jewish officials” — wrote Haldeman and said, “I had several meetings with [Labor] Secretary [James D.] Hodgson to convince him of the need for fairly drastic moves.” Regarding the transfers of three BLS employees with Jewish-sounding names, Malek added, “These moves do not go as far as I would have preferred but represent a reasonable compromise [with the president’s demand for a Jew purge] that I feel will make the BLS a more responsive and effective unit,” Slate reported.

The Jew-counting episode has dogged Malek throughout the latter part of his career, which included a stint as co-chair of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, another as head of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) Commission, and fundraising for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid.

Trump’s appointment of Malek comes weeks after an alleged Nazi sympathizer killed a counter-protester and injured 19 others in Charlottesville by driving his vehicle through a crowd. Days after the incident, Trump defended the group of white supremacists of which the alleged murderer was a part, suggesting during a news conference that they have legitimate reasons to protest the removal of a Confederate monument from a public park.

“They didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you have some very bad people in that group,” Trump said. “But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides … You had people in that group that were in to protest, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park.”

In an unusual development, Trump’s failure to unequivocally denounce white supremacists, Nazis, and the KKK drew criticism from a top White House official — Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, who is Jewish.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Cohn said Trump “can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”

“As a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job,” Cohn added, referring to a chant white supremacists used in Charlottesville. “I feel deep empathy for all who have been targeted by these hate groups. We must all unite together against them.”

Malek’s appointment comes on the heels of the departure of Sebastian Gorka from the White House. Gorka’s tenure in the Trump administration was dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism — he wore a medal issued by a group that the State Department identified as Nazi collaborators to the inauguration, and reportedly has links to a number of anti-Semitic groups in Hungary.