Former Arkansas Republican governor Mike Huckabee is facing allegations of racism after he tweeted a photo on Saturday of five men who appear to be using hand signs associated with the MS-13 gang with the caption, “Nancy Pelosi introduces her campaign committee for the take back of the House.”
According to a guide to from New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General, some of the hand gestures seen in the photo are used as gang signs for MS-13. According to the Department of Justice, “MS-13, which is short for La Mara Salvatrucha, is a gang composed primarily of immigrants or descendants from El Salvador. In the United States, MS-13 has been functioning since at least the 1980s.”
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, a California Democrat who’s the House minority leader, said when reached for comment, “Trump and his surrogates will continue to repeat blatantly false attacks as long as the media continues to take the bait and print them.”
The image and caption have also generated backlash on Twitter, including accusations of bigotry and racism against Huckabee.
Conservative commentator Bill Kristol referred to the tweet as a “dog whistle.”
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, reacted to the tweet by calling Huckabee a “despicable racist.”
Huckabee later justified his tweet in an exchange with Washington Post political columnist Karen Tumulty.
“MS-13 is not a race but an illegal gang who rapes, murders, and mutilates children as sport. Nancy Pelosi defended them because she said @realDonaldTrump insulted them,” Huckabee tweeted at Tumulty. “Are you defending them too? Wasn’t aware that criminal was a ‘race.’”
When Tumulty then urged him to understand that his “tweet had a racial meaning,” Huckabee stood firm that it was not racist.
“Absurd!” he tweeted. “To see race in everything IS racist. Nothing about race but about a vile violent criminal gang. Please understand that.”
Later Saturday, Huckabee accused a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, of bigotry after his daughter, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, said that she was kicked out because she works for President Donald Trump.
Huckabee has a history of making inflammatory remarks, including ones that have drawn criticism from within his own party. While running for president in the 2016 election, Huckabee invoked the Holocaust to criticize then-President Barack Obama, comments that drew a rebuke from his then rival former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Huckabee’s tweet referencing Pelosi was retweeted on Saturday by the President’s son Donald Trump Jr.
Huckabee did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
Trump has previously made false and misleading statements attempting to inaccurately link Democrats to the MS-13 gang.
In May, Trump claimed that Pelosi “came out in favor of MS-13,” a statement that the fact-checker PolitiFact rated as false.