On 28 December 2017, British tabloid the Daily Mail reported that a White House intern had flashed a “white power” sign with his hand while taking an official photograph alongside U.S. President Donald Trump:
A former White House intern is coming under fire after flashing a known ‘white power’ sign during a photo-op with President Donald Trump.
Jack Breuer, who graduated from Emory University in Atlanta this year, is clearly bucking orders — personally given by the president — to give a thumbs-up in the picture that was taken in the White House in November.
While the other hundred or so interns smile and follow Trump’s command, Breuer, a dentist’s son who grew up in Chicago’s western suburbs, stands stony-faced giving the ‘OK’ sign that has been linked with far-right groups.
The photograph can be seen embedded in this tweet authored by Washington Times writer Jessica Chasmar:
— Jessica Chasmar (@JessicaChasmar) December 29, 2017
The only evidence the Daily Mail offered for the assumption Breuer was making a hate symbol with his hand was the photograph that showed Breuer, along with dozens of other interns, standing with President Trump. All but Breuer were smiling and offering a “thumbs-up” gesture, but a straight-faced Breuer held his forefinger and thumb together with his other fingers splayed out.
Some associate Breuer’s gesture with the alt-right movement and white supremacists such as Richard Spencer, but Breuer denied that he was proffering a white supremacist hand signal. Notably, the Daily Mail did not speak to Breuer before publishing their rather devastating story about a private citizen, and their only on-the-record source for the story was a fellow intern, whom they did not name for unexplained reasons. We reached out to Breuer on social media but received no response.
Breuer appears to have a Twitter account he created in December 2017 for the sole purpose of refuting the accusations against him. There he released a statement on 28 December 2017, saying that he has Jewish heritage, and the his hand gesture was intended to mimic President Trump’s unique manner of gesticulating when he speaks, not to signal white supremacist leanings:
In some of our intern pictures, I emulated the OK sign the President sometimes makes. That was foolish. I should have listened more closely to the Commander-in-Chief and given the thumbs up. (1/2)
— Jack Breuer (@jjbreue) December 29, 2017
I’m proud of my Jewish heritage and strongly reject the hateful views associated with racist white power organizations. I would never make common cause with them. (2/2)
— Jack Breuer (@jjbreue) December 29, 2017
The intern who spoke to the Daily Mail said that “Context is everything. Jack is pictured with President Trump, one of the most controversial leaders we’ve had. It is a distinct symbol known in alt-right circles and what makes it worse is that he is doing it in the East Room just below the portrait of George Washington.”
The intern then cast doubt on that statement by adding that “Jack’s a good kid and is probably doing it as a joke. Some people do consider it a joke because it is the OK sign.”
The Daily Mail reported that Breuer interned for White House aide Stephen Miller, and Breuer’s brief Twitter biography says he is a “former White House intern” and that he graduated from Emory University in 2017 with a degree in Environmental Science. We reached out to the White House Press Office for confirmation and comment but received no response.
According to the prominent anti-hate group the Anti-Defamation League, the idea that the hand gesture signifies white supremacist sympathies started as an Internet hoax:
The “OK” hand gesture hoax originated in February 2017 when an anonymous 4channer announced “Operation O-KKK,” telling other members that “we must flood Twitter and other social media websites…claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy.” The user even provided a helpful graphic showing how the letters WP (for “white power”) could be traced within an “OK” gesture. The originator and others also suggested useful hashtags to help spread the hoax, such as #PowerHandPrivilege and #NotOkay. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy,” wrote the poster, “We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that s***.”
In February 2017, Miller was himself was accused of making the gesture in a Reuters photograph where he appeared to be adjusting his suit jacket. And although far-right characters like Spencer, Gateway Pundit bloggers Jim Hoft and Lucian Wintrich, and former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos have famously used the gesture, its meaning outside that political circle is amorphous.
Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, told us that while the gesture has evolved since it was first conceived by anonymous Internet trolls in the first half of 2017, it has persisted. But it’s still hardly safe to assume a person using the gesture is intending to communicate hate. Instead it’s typically used by various right wing personalities, often while posing for photographs, to troll liberals and garner an outraged response:
Right now whenever anyone is using it in this context it’s very sort of ironic and trolling. But if it persists there’s a chance the ironic aspects of it might fall away with time. That happens organically and it’s way too soon to know if the usage will just drop off once they get bored with it, or if they continue to using it ironically in a trolling fashion, or something else.
Breuer has denied he was making a hand gesture associated with hate groups, and what was going through his mind at that moment is unknowable. Resting on an unnamed source cited by a tabloid with a track record for being unreliable is hardly determinate evidence of what Breuer was thinking, or why he made the gesture.
In September 2018, the same claim was made of Zina Bash during the confirmation hearings for Trump Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh:
Kavanaugh’s former law clerk Zina Bash is flashing a white power sign behind him during his Senate confirmation hearing. They literally want to bring white supremacy to the Supreme Court. What a national outrage and a disgrace to the rule of law. pic.twitter.com/uQGOpNa6xg
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) September 4, 2018