CLEVELAND (AP) — They don’t like to be called white supremacists. The well-dressed men who gathered in Cleveland’s Ritz-Carlton bar after Donald Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president prefer the term “Europeanists,” “alt-right,” or even “white nationalists.” They are also die-hard Trump supporters.
And far from hiding in chat rooms or under white sheets, they cheered the GOP presidential nominee from inside the Republican National Convention over the last week. While not official delegates, they nevertheless obtained credentials to attend the party’s highest-profile quadrennial gathering.
Several gathered in the luxury hotel well after midnight following Trump’s Thursday address, a fiery appeal they said helped push the Republican Party closer to their principles.
“I don’t think people have fully recognized the degree to which he’s transformed the party,” said Richard Spencer, a clean-cut 38-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, who sipped Manhattans as he matter-of-factly called for removing African-Americans, Hispanics and Jews from the United States.
Like most in his group, Spencer said this year’s convention was his first. On his social media accounts, he posted pictures of himself wearing a red Trump “Make America Great Again” hat at Quicken Loans Arena. And he says he hopes to attend future GOP conventions.
“Tons of people in the alt-right are here,” he said, putting their numbers at the RNC this week in the dozens. “We feel an investment in the Trump campaign.”
He and his group chatted up convention goers late into the night, including an executive from a major Jewish organization and a female board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition. They sat at the marble bar as Spencer explained his position on blacks, Hispanics and Jews. They challenged him repeatedly and expressed shock at how calmly he dismissed their rejection of his ideals.
“We’ll help them go somewhere else. I’m not a maniac,” Spencer said of the minorities he wants to eject from the country. “I know in order to achieve what I want to achieve, you have to deal with people rationally.”
The New York billionaire’s campaign declined to comment on the attendance last week by Spencer and other white supremacists at Trump’s nominating convention. Trump has publicly disavowed the white supremacist movement when pressed by journalists.
Sean Spicer, chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, said convention organizers release credentials in large blocks to state delegations, special guests and media outlets. Officials have little control over where they end up, he said, noting that even protesters from the liberal group Code Pink managed to get into the convention hall.
“People get tickets through various means, including the media,” Spicer said. “In no way, shape or form would we ever sanction any group or individual that espoused those views.”
Yet Trump’s “America First” message, backed by his call for a massive border wall and focus on immigrants who are criminals, has energized people like Spencer. He described their mood as “euphoric.”
Seizing on that energy, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke on Friday announced a bid for the Senate. The Louisiana Republican likened his policies on trade and immigration to Trump’s in an announcement video.
“I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I’ve championed for years,” Duke said. “My slogan remains ‘America First.'”
“America First” was first used in 1940 by the America First Committee, a short-lived isolationist faction that formed to pressure the U.S. government not to join the Allies’ war against Germany.
Trump referred to “America First” repeatedly in his convention speech Thursday night, highlighting people murdered by immigrants in the country illegally and warning of rising inner-city crime. Earlier in the week, a convention screen displayed a tweet with the hashtag “#TrumpIsWithYou” from a self-described member of the alt-right, one of the thousands of tweets promoted over the course of the week.
“Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” Trump charged in his speech.
Such a message, combined with the Trump campaign’s repeated brushes with white supremacist material on social media, has drawn criticism from Republican leaders. House Speaker Paul Ryan was among those who spoke out against a recent Trump tweet that showed an image shaped like the Star of David over Hillary Clinton’s likeness and a pile of money.
Trump has repeatedly re-tweeted messages from Twitter users with questionable profiles, including an individual with the handle “@WhiteGenocideTM.”
And late last year, he re-tweeted inaccurate and racially charged crime statistics that vastly overstated the percentage of whites killed by blacks. His team — accidentally, it said — selected as a delegate a white nationalist leader who paid for pro-Trump robo-calls during the GOP primary. He was removed.
There are no indications Trump himself has consciously courted these groups, but the series of errors, compounded by Trump’s muddled condemnation of supremacist supporters early in the campaign, have forced allies to answer uncomfortable questions as Republican leaders try to improve the party’s standing with minority voters.
When asked about Trump’s white supremacist supporters, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, noted that Trump has repudiated Duke.
“He’ll be more aggressive with Duke than you will have Hillary being with people who are saying terrible things with Black Lives Matter. Let’s hear her condemn some of the guys who called for killing cops,” Gingrich said.
But Gingrich conceded it bothered him that white supremacists were drawn to the Republican National Convention this year.
“I don’t want white supremacists anywhere,” Gingrich said. “Trump last night was pretty clear about that. This is a country that has to provide opportunity for everybody.”
Yet that wasn’t clear to the group gathered at the Ritz-Carlton after the speech. Spencer and a handful of like-minded friends, most wearing convention credentials and Trump paraphernalia, said the nativist overtones — and the series of tweets over the last year — marked a clear nod to them.
“Trust me. Trump thinks like me,” Spencer said. “Do you think it’s a coincidence that everybody like me loves Trump and supports him?”
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.