Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is coming under criticism after he responded with a “flippant” comment to a congresswoman’s story about her grandfathers’ detention in internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa discussed two of her grandfathers’ detention to the Interior Secretary during a hearing on Thursday. She said her grandfathers did not speak about their experiences until late in their life. The Hawaii Democrat sought Zinke’s assurance that $2 million in grant money to maintain the infamous historic sites would be preserved in his budget.
“I believe that it is essential that we as a nation recognize our darkest moments so that we don’t have them repeat again,” she said.
“Konnichiwa,” Zinke said in response to Hanabusa’s testimony, using the Japanese word for “good day” or “good afternoon.”
A person sitting in the hearing appeared to gasp at the remark.
Hanabusa responded by saying, “I think it’s still ‘ohayo gozaimasu’ (good morning), but that’s OK.” Her office did not immediately return a CNN request for comment.
Zinke eventually said he would “look into” the grant funding, saying its elimination was “likely an oversight.”
“I understand the importance of it to American history,” he said.
Several Democratic members of Congress slammed Zinke on Twitter over the remark.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii who spent part of her childhood in Japan, took to Twitter to condemn the secretary’s remarks.
“The internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans is no laughing matter,” she wrote, adding that the response was “flippant & juvenile.”
Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth tweeted a link to an article about the exchange with the statement “Nope. Racism is not ok.”
Rep. Grace Meng, D-New York, called the remark “blatantly insensitive.”
“This blatantly insensitive remark by @secretaryzinke is uncalled for and is not behavior that a cabinet secretary should exhibit,” she tweeted.