President Donald Trump on Monday took aim at NASCAR's Darrell "Bubba" Wallace, a prominent Black driver, falsely claiming on Twitter that the sport's recent anti-racist stance had lowered its television ratings.
"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 tweeted. "That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!"
Utilizing his Twitter account on Monday to criticize NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag and separately two sports teams considering changing their names, Trump demonstrated his eagerness to make his views on race a central part of his re-election campaign amid the growing national conversation after George Floyd's death on May 25 in police custody.
In a statement posted on his Twitter page, Wallace framed his response as advice to young people, saying, "All the haters are doing is elevating your voice and platform to much greater heights!"
"Last thing, always deal with hate being thrown at you with LOVE!" he said. "Love over hate every day. Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it's HATE from the POTUS.. Love wins."
NASCAR drivers have rallied to support Wallace. NASCAR Cup Series driver Tyler Reddick tweeted in response to Trump, "We don’t need an apology."
"We did what was right and we will do just fine without your support," he continued. The tweet was later deleted.
NASCAR released a statement saying the organization "continues to stand tall with Bubba."
"We are proud to have Bubba Wallace in the NASCAR family and we commend his courage and leadership," the statement said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Fox News said Trump's tweet was part of a "broader point" about the "rush to judgment."
"The president is merely pointing out that we have to let facts come out before we rush to judgment," she said.
Reporters grilled McEnany over the tweet during Monday's press briefing, questioning her about Trump's claim that banning the Confederate flag was bad for ratings.
McEnany said Trump was not taking a stance on the Confederate flag nor whether it was a good or bad decision for NASCAR to ban it. Instead, McEnany argued that that "NASCAR men and women" are "being called racist" and that Trump was defending them.
"He stands against the demonization of Americans and he stands firmly on the side of preserving our history," she said.
Asked whether a Confederate flag would be permitted at a Trump rally, McEnany said the campaign does not allow flags other than official Trump campaign gear into rallies. Trump campaign national deputy press secretary Courtney Parella confirmed the policy to NBC News, saying, "We do not permit rally attendees to bring their own signage or displays of any kind and only allow approved rally signs inside our events."
Speaking with Fox News Radio, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and a prominent Trump ally, said he didn't think Wallace "has anything to apologize for."
"You saw the best in NASCAR," he said. "When there was a chance that it was a threat against Bubba Wallace, they all rallied to Bubba's side. So I would be looking to celebrate that kind of attitude more than being worried about it being a hoax."
Since NASCAR announced a ban on the Confederate flag last month, the sport has seen a boost in television ratings. Overnight ratings following the sport's June race at Martinsville, Virginia, which immediately followed the banning announcement, were up 104 percent over a comparable 2019 race.
The Talladega race in Alabama later in June, where the noose incident Trump referred to happened, rated as the most-watched Monday contest in years. NASCAR has also benefited from being one of the few live events on TV, as most other sports remain idled in the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Before Talladega, a door-pull rope shaped like a noose was found in Wallace's assigned garage, raising questions about whether it had been placed there intentionally in response to his outspokenness in support of banning the Confederate flag at NASCAR events. Fellow NASCAR drivers marched alongside his car in a show of unity afterward. The FBI investigated the incident and ruled out a hate crime, citing video evidence showing the rope was in the stall months before it was assigned to Wallace. NASCAR released a photo of the rope to dispel the idea it was a hoax.
"I was relieved just like many others to know that it wasn’t targeted towards me," Wallace told Craig Melvin on TODAY last month. "But it's still frustrating to know that people are always going to test you and always just going to try and debunk you, and that’s what I'm trying to wrap my head around now."
As a politician, Trump's history with NASCAR dates to early in his presidential campaign when he won the endorsement of the sport's top leadership. At this year's Daytona 500, Trump took the presidential limo on the track as a pace car before the race began. And at this weekend's Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, one driver began racing in a fully decked-out pro-Trump branded car. He crashed a few laps into the race.
This weekend, Trump delivered a lengthy speech on defending statues from being removed or torn down and has increasingly bashed protesters.
The White House said he didn't hear the comment when he posted.