Donald Trump became the first sitting president to address the Virginia General Assembly in its 400-year history Tuesday, condemning slavery and congratulating lawmakers on four centuries of representative democracy.
“By the devotion of generations of patriots, it has flourished throughout the ages,” he said, addressing members of the General Assembly in attendance. “And now that proud tradition continues with all of you.”
Trump’s presence in Jamestown — where the first members of the House of Burgesses convened for six days in 1619 — was marked by the absence of most state Democrats, including the entire black caucus, who boycotted the event.
One Democrat, Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, walked out in the middle of Trump’s speech with a sign that read “Deport Hate,” “Go back to your corrupted home” and “Reunite my family and all shattered by systemic discrimination.” His walkout was followed by cheers of “Trump.”
Samirah said later that his Jordanian father was barred from legally entering the country because of his Muslim religion.
“I think everybody has a way of protesting,” Samirah said. “I think that’s the beauty of democracy; you have a different way of expressing the same voice. We all did not appreciate that President Trump came and bombarded our 400th (anniversary) celebration.”
Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Bristol, at one point interrupted Samirah’s interview with reporters to tell him he should’ve stayed home if he wasn’t happy with Trump’s attendance.
“You are an embarrassment to this state and you should go home,” he said, adding reporters are “feeding into this crap.”
Carrico is retiring at the end of his term, but Samirah and other state lawmakers face an election in November. The GOP holds a slim majority in both the House and the Senate.
Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, attended Trump’s speech and said Samirah’s interruption was disrespectful to the General Assembly, the office of the presidency and the state.
“This was not a Trump rally,” he said. “This is something that should be celebrated. It doesn’t matter who the president is.”
Tuesday’s speech was part of a slew of events the organization American Evolution is holding over the next few days to commemorate the anniversary of Virginia’s representative democracy. Throughout the day, speakers oscillated between honoring the men who settled Jamestown and lambasting them and generations of Americans that followed for their mistreatment of enslaved Africans.
Earlier in the morning, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, pointed to Virginia and America’s complex history of liberty and enslavement while standing in the Jamestown Island church.
“Our doors are open and our lights are on,” he said, adding immigrants and refugees were encouraged to come to the state. “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, and no matter where you came from, you are welcome in Virginia.”
Northam was flanked by Sen.Tommy Norment and Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, both members of the majority party who have — along with the majority of Virginia’s elected officials — called for the governor’s resignation amid a scandal involving a racist photo appearing on his medical school yearbook page.
In keeping with his recent attempts to address racial disparities through policy in the face of the scandal, Northam pointed to several inequities Virginia still faces, including greater access to healthcare and better voting rights.
Northam wasn’t there for Trump’s speech, according to his press secretary.
Trump thanked the governor for his invitation on Tuesday. He has been critical of the governor’s pro-choice position following a viral video of Northam defending a Democratic state lawmaker’s bill that would loosen restrictions on abortions on WTOP.
He has referenced Northam and his abortion comments — accusing him of infanticide — during at least one rally since January and during his State of the Union.
Several speakers on Tuesday pointed to the inequities minority groups still face today.
Presidential historian Jon Meacham said we still have a “mixed record of bringing immigrants to our shores.”
In a jab at Trump, who’s said he wants to build a wall across the border of Mexico to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from entering the United States, he continued: “We don’t tend to build monuments to people who build walls; we build monuments to people who open doors.”
Next month, events will be held at Fort Monroe to commemorate the arrival of enslaved Africans 400 years ago.
“It was the beginning of the barbaric trade of human lives,” Trump said. “We remember and honor every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage.”
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American to be elected to statewide office in Virginia, sat behind Trump on stage next to Norment. His spokeswoman, Lauren Burke, said he wasn’t asked to speak during any of the events Tuesday.
Fairfax, a Democrat, wrote in a Medium post a few weeks ago that he would attend because “the honor of standing in the footsteps of my enslaved ancestors as a statewide elected official far supersede the petty and racist actions of the current occupant of the White House.”
Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, represents what was 400 years ago some of the original Jamestown settlers’ boroughs. Trump’s speech was appropriate “considering the hateful rhetoric that he has espoused previously,” Mullin said, referring to the president’s recent tweets about four U.S. congresswomen of color.
Trump ended his speech encouraging citizens to “take ownership of their future and control of their destiny.”
“In America, we are not ruled from afar,” he said. “Americans govern ourselves, and so help us God, we always will.”