President Donald Trump’s political fortunes took a nosedive when he had federal agents use tear gas to clear out a park across from the White House so he could conduct a photo-op at a nearby church.
But to hear his campaign’s newest senior adviser, Steve Cortes, tell it, Trump’s misstep was not the act of authorizing attacks on peaceful protesters—it was that the president wasn’t even “more of a fascist.”
As the Trump campaign’s new senior adviser for strategy, Cortes has been tasked with helping right the ship of President Donald Trump’s re-election efforts after months of strategic and tactical blunders under newly demoted campaign manager Brad Parscale. Cortes is a familiar presence to television viewers for his appearances on cable programs, but he also hosts a radio show, The Steve Cortes Show. With that platform, he has advocated for an even more authoritarian version of the current president.
“If Trump were the fascist that they pretend that he is, wouldn’t he have cracked down much, much harder on the unrest in the American streets?” Cortes said on The Steve Cortes Show on June 25, less than three weeks after the incident at Lafayette Square. “To be quite honest, you know, when there were people being bloodied, cops being attacked, businesses being smashed, I could have used a tad bit more of a fascist Trump.”
Cortes, most recently the spokesman for the Trump-aligned America First Action SuperPAC, has a long history of controversial statements, the lingua franca of talk radio. But in recent months, as Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread civil unrest have weakened his re-election prospects, he has turned up the volume on public comments tapping into race anxieties and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and has encouraged Trump to embrace authoritarianism as the ideal response to those twin perceived threats.
Among Cortes’ most recent statements: declaring that billionaire philanthropist and conservative bête noire George Soros is manipulating the Black Lives Matter movement to achieve the “nullification of America;” saying that the “propensity of Black people in this country to commit violent crime” meant that white criminals are actually the victims of police violence; and dismissing concerns about schoolchildren spreading the novel coronavirus to elderly relatives by saying that “grandma can stay somewhere else.”
“The data does say that children themselves are absolutely statistically not vulnerable to this virus,” Cortes said, inaccurately, during a July 14 episode of The Steve Cortes Show. “So, what should be done then? Well, with people who do live with somebody, for children who do live with somebody who is susceptible to the virus, say, somebody’s being raised by their grandmother. Those situations, hopefully accommodations can be made. Hopefully grandma can stay somewhere else.”
Many of Cortes’ statements track with the publicly expressed opinions of President Trump, who has denied the existence of structural racism in law enforcement, called some Black Lives Matters protesters “terrorists,” and who has dismissed concerns about the further spread of COVID-19 infections due to packed classrooms in public schools.
Trump has been a fan of Cortes since the latter’s time serving on Trump’s National Hispanic Advisory Council during the 2016 campaign, and once fretted over his absence from the airwaves during his time as a CNN contributor.
“He happens to be Hispanic, but I’ve never quite figured it out because he looks more like a WASP than I do,” Trump once said during a campaign event in New Mexico, an apparent compliment.
In response to a detailed list of some of Cortes’ most recent comments on Black Lives Matter, law enforcement and the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump campaign did not respond.
The Biden campaign called it “no surprise” that Trump would hire a senior adviser with a history of divisive statements.
“Donald Trump’s spent years dividing America and pitting people against each other for political gain, so it’s no surprise that he would hire top aides who have done the exact same thing,” said Michael Gwin, the Biden campaign’s deputy director of rapid response, calling Trump a president who “endlessly fans the flames of division and surrounds himself with cronies who spread disgusting lies and smears.”
Even by Trump’s standards, some of Cortes’ more recent assertions are extreme.
While he has called some of the stated goals of the Black Lives Matter movement “laudable,” Cortes has theorized that the movement has been co-opted by “very powerful, very well-financed actors” who are using it as a “vehicle” to dismantle the country. Cortes specifically names Soros, a key figure in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the manipulation of minority communities for “globalist” ends, as one individual seeking “a nullification, really, of America.”
“I think this is incredibly important that we talk about George Soros and others,” Cortes said on a June 9 episode of his show. “There are some very powerful, very well-financed actors, both individuals and groups, on the left, who have decided that they are going to use Black Lives Matter as their vehicle, as their vehicle to achieve—and I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this—to achieve a nullification, really, of America, of our founding principles.”
Cortes has also repeatedly called Black public figures who have condemned systemic racism “ungrateful.”
In a July 15 call-in segment about Oprah Winfrey’s lauding of the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which explores the unexamined role that slavery played in the founding of the United States, Cortes told the caller that “there’s an ungrateful nature” to her support of the project.
“I mean, this country has been amazing to her, right? And the fact that she’s going to use her talents and wealth, then, to spread a lie about this country that has been so amazing to her, it really strikes me as ungrateful,” Cortes said.
Cortes criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), as well for seeming to “hate this country” and expressing insufficient gratitude for her presence here as an immigrant woman.
“The fact is, this country saved her,” Cortes said, noting that Omar’s family fled the Somali Civil War and spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya before being granted asylum. “You would think that somebody like that, who was literally saved from danger and squalor, given an opportunity to be in this country, to become, again, elected to our national, our national Congress… you would think somebody like that would be patriotic.”