Donald Trump repeatedly refused to disavow the outspoken antisemite and white supremacist Nick Fuentes after they spoke over dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort, rejecting the advice from advisers over fears he might alienate a section of his base, two people familiar with the situation said.
The former US president was urged publicly and privately to denounce Fuentes in the aftermath of the dinner, which included the performer Ye, previously known as Kanye West, who has also recently been propagating antisemitic remarks.
But Trump eschewed making outright disavowals of Fuentes, the people said, and none of the statements from the campaign or on his Truth Social account included criticism of Fuentes, despite efforts from advisers who reached Trump over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Trump ultimately made clear that he fundamentally did not want to criticise Fuentes – a product of his dislike of confrontation and his anxiety that it might antagonise a devoted part of his base – and became more entrenched in his obstinance the more he was urged to do so.
Across three statements on Friday, Trump initially sought only to play down the dinner and made no mention of Fuentes or his views, before saying angrily in a post on his Truth Social website that evening that Ye “expressed no antisemitism” and “I didn’t know Nick Fuentes”.
The line about not knowing Fuentes was the closest Trump came to acknowledging the offensive nature of the dinner, under pressure from advisers who warned him that being associated with a racist and Holocaust denier could further damage his personal brand as well as his recently launched 2024 presidential campaign.
But even with his ignorance of Fuentes taken at face value, the statements signal Trump will give extraordinary deference to the most fringe elements of his base – even if it means potentially losing support from more moderate Republicans who have not typically cared for his indulgence of extremism.
Trump has had a long history of delaying or muting criticism of white supremacy, drawing moral equivalency in 2017 between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters at the deadly unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, and refusing to denounce the far-right Proud Boys group at a 2020 presidential debate.
The halting response to Fuentes most closely mirrored his inability to condemn white supremacist groups after Charlottesville, the people said, when Trump faced intense criticism for not naming the rightwing groups in the bloodshed that ended with the death of a young woman.
When reached for comment, the Trump 2024 campaign said the former president had a record of combating antisemitism, including the appointment of a special envoy to combat antisemitism, and strengthening ties to Israel by recognising Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
The circumstances of the dinner at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, though, have been a new source of consternation for aides, who privately concede that Ye should never have been allowed to meet with Trump in the first place given his own recent antisemitic history.
Trump had intended to meet with Ye one-on-one for some time, according to a person briefed on the matter, though it was postponed around the time that Ye tweeted offensive tropes against Jews – only for it to be inexplicably rescheduled for late November.
The former president ended up meeting with Fuentes, who was at the unrest in Charlottesville, after he came along with Ye and a former Trump campaign aide, Karen Giorno. There was only a skeleton staff from Trump’s “45 Office” at the property ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
During the dinner, the person said, Fuentes told Trump he was among the former president’s supporters, but that he had been unimpressed with the 2024 campaign launch speech because it appeared stilted instead of appearing “authentic” with his ad-libs and off-the-cuff remarks.
Trump, who had told Fuentes that his advisers preferred him to read speeches as scripted, turned to Ye at one point and said: “He gets me.”
Fuentes also told Trump that he thought the former president would crush other 2024 candidates in a primary, including the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, the person said – though Fuentes later appeared less than enthusiastic on his live stream, saying the future of the country “isn’t Donald Trump”.
On Saturday, US president Joe Biden said “you don’t want to know what I think” when asked about Trump’s guests.
On Sunday, White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates issued a statement, saying: “Bigotry, hate, and antisemitism have absolutely no place in America – including at Mar-A-Lago. Holocaust denial is repugnant and dangerous, and it must be forcefully condemned.”
And during the White House media briefing on Monday afternoon, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “This administration, this president totally rejects bigotry, racism, antisemitism and there is just no places for these types of vile forces in our society … We should all be condemning this.”
She added: “When you say things like this, when you do not speak out against these kinds of poisonous and dangerous kind of remarks … that is also incredibly dangerous within itself.”
• This article was amended on 30 November 2022. A previous version stated that Nick Fuentes, in a live stream, appeared to endorse Ron DeSantis. A reference to these remarks has been clarified.