David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan at the center of a brewing congressional scandal, told Fusion on Monday that two of his top associates invited Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) to a conference hosted by a controversial Duke-founded group in 2002.
Scalise, the House Majority whip, has come under fire after reports emerged he had spoken before the conference in 2002. Duke’s group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, has been described as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a characterization Duke rejects.
Scalise’s office didn’t deny he had spoken at the conference — stopping short of confirming it — but pleaded ignorance and said he was “never affiliated with the abhorrent group in question.”
Duke told Fusion he has met with Scalise several times, along with other members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation. He believes two close associates — Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight — invited Scalise to speak at the conference.
A representative for Scalise didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.
Duke called Scalise a “decent guy” and said he “likes him personally” from meeting him multiple times, but said he wouldn’t vote for him in the future because of disagreements on many issues, including foreign policy. He said he had no real professional, business, or political relationship with Scalise, despite the fact they briefly served together in the state House of Representatives. Neither he nor Scalise, Duke said, have contributed to the other’s campaigns.
“Why is Scalise being singled out? I don’t know,” Duke said. “He was just going there, obviously, to tell voters about some of his initiatives on some tax matters. That’s what it’s all about. And I think it’s insane, this whole process.”
The development has the potential to roil a Republican Party that is days away from taking control of both chambers of Congress. Scalise ascended to the House GOP’s No. 3 position earlier this year, after the stunning loss of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) in his primary pushed then-Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy up to the No. 2 spot.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night, and it was unclear if Scalise had spoken to either Boehner or McCarthy. News about Scalise’s past emerged at the same time the House Republican conference was dealing with the reported resignation of Rep. Michael Grimm (R-New York), who this month pleaded guilty to tax-evasion charges.
Scalise told The Times-Picayune on Monday night that he “detests any kind of hate group” — and that he doesn’t remember speaking at the 2002 event in question. Duke said he wasn’t “disappointed” by the quick work Scalise did to distance himself from Duke and the group, EURO. He said he was only disappointed in some of the positions Scalise has taken with respect to his support for Israel and foreign policy in general.
But what he described as political sanctimony stirring against him was “all bullshit.” He rejected claims that he was a “racist” or “white supremacist,” saying he wouldn’t have won an election in a Louisiana district that was 80 percent Catholic. Duke served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1989 to 1992.
“I’ve grown up. And I understand who the real racists are,” Duke said in a phone interview on Monday, saying a “zionist” and “tribalist” mentality throughout the press and media was mostly to blame for the negative portrayal of him.
The SPLC has described EURO as a “paper tiger” that serves as the “vehicle” for him to sell books and publicize his writing. They have detailed controversial past statements from multiple members of the group — including Ronald Doggett, the leader of its Virginia chapter who has said that African-Americans should be “flushed.”
Overall, Duke was rather flabbergasted by the new focus on Scalise. He said he has hosted both Democratic and Republican legislators at everything from conferences to his children’s birthday parties. He said he has met with Democratic legislators at least 50 times in his political life.
And he delivered a warning to both Republicans and Democrats: Treat Scalise fairly, and don’t try to make political hay out of the situation. Or he said he would be inclined to release a list of names of all the politicians — both Republicans and Democrats — with whom he has ties.
“If Scalise is going to be crucified — if Republicans want to throw Steve Scalise to the woods, then a lot of them better be looking over their shoulders,” Duke said.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.