Trump asked supporters to raise their hands and pledge to vote for him in the primary.
Anyone involved was imitating Nazis; the hand gesture was spontaneous on the crowd's part or without context; Trump asked for a salute, not a pledge.
On 5 March 2016, the web site DailyNewsBin published an article reporting that Donald Trump had the crowd do the "Hitler salute" at a Florida rally:
Trump instructed attendees at his rally to raise their right hand and swear to vote for him in the upcoming Florida republican primary contest. In so doing, he managed to get the entire crowd doing a variation of the the Nazi salute. He didn’t mention the words “Nazi” or “Hitler” but he didn’t have to. Here’s the original tweet from Washington Post reporter Jenna Johnson.
The appended tweet (shared by a reporter on the scene) made no comparisons to Nazis or Hitler, and the journalist wrote simply:
Donald Trump makes members of his Orlando crowd raise their right hands and swear to vote in the primary. pic.twitter.com/EVenRilJrV
— Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) March 5, 2016
The rally wasn't the first time folks compared Trump to Hitler, and circulating still images made the comparison easy to buy. However, footage of the event looked much more benign than the photo: Trump first asked the crowd whether they "liked" him, before appearing to spontaneously elicit a pledge. He asked attendees to raise their right hands, then rattled off a promise for them to recite to vote for him:
Separate stills from the rally revealed a scene that looked more like a Pledge of Allegiance than a Third Reich gathering:
Subsequent tweets by the same reporter (Jenna Johnson, who is on the Trump beat) indicated that the pledge was an element Trump incorporated into later campaign stops:
In NC, Trump again has his crowd pledge to vote for him, although this one was shorter. "Should we do the pledge? Should we do the pledge?" — Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) March 7, 2016
For a third time, Trump asks for a pledge to vote for him. Lots of hands go up in the high school football stadium. pic.twitter.com/bnSiTdWkfm
— Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) March 7, 2016
On 8 March 2016, Johnson tweeted that Trump was unaware such claims were circulating until a Today Show interview:
Johnson, who was present for the initial controversial pledge, wrote in the appended article:
Taken out of context, photos and video of the pledge looked like a large crowd saluting the Republican presidential front-runner, which was reminiscent to some of Nazis saluting Adolf Hitler. When a Politico reporter asked Trump's spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, about these comparisons on Saturday, she responded: “What a disgusting thing to ask. A disgrace.”
Most presidential campaigns are equipped with "rapid response" teams that are tasked with spotting these sorts of trends on social media before they go viral and are widely picked up by the media. But Trump runs a small shop and usually acts as his own one-man rapid response team, immediately responding to controversy on Twitter. Trump usually seems to have his finger right on the pulse of social media, but in this case it appears that no one briefed the boss before he called into the "Today Show" on Tuesday morning.
"Today's" Savannah Guthrie brought up Foxman's comparison to a "Nazi salute" and asked Trump: "I wonder how you feel about that comparison and whether it would make you want to perhaps not do it anymore, if people do feel that way?"
"Well, I think it's ridiculous. I mean, we're having such a great time," Trump responded, listing off his latest crowd counts. "Sometimes, we'll do it for fun. ... They'll start screaming at me: 'Do the swearing! Do the swearing.' I mean, they're having such a great time. ... Honestly, until this phone call, I didn't know it was a problem."
Johnson said that the image was widely "taken out of context," and described a reaction from Trump that seemed genuinely unaware such comparisons were made. Trump sounded disheartened by the pushback and social media banter, and Johnson reported that he said he didn't want to offend anyone with the pledge:
Trump closed out the interview by saying that he would look into his use of the pledge at rallies.
"Well, I'll certainly look into it," Trump said. "I mean, I'd like to find out if that's true. But I would certainly look into it because I don't want to offend anybody. But I can tell you that it's been amazingly received, well received. But I will certainly look into that."
While still images of Trump's rally drew Nazi comparisons, the clip from which such allusions were drawn appeared to tell a different story. Trump maintained he was unaware of the claims until 8 March 2016, and the video footage depicted the candidate asking supporters to promise their primary vote to him.