The Obamas have been prominent targets of those seeking to spread the racist trope, which has a deep historical connection to racism in the United States.
In a statement provided by spokesman James Hewitt, Wheeler did not dispute that he had liked the post but said that he did not remember it. Other posts unearthed by Huffpost included incidences in which Wheeler retweeted prominent right-wing conspiracy theorists.
“Over the years, I have been a prolific social media user and liked and inadvertently liked countless social media posts," the statement said. “As for some of the other posts, I agreed with the content and was unaware of the sources.”
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The image was no longer publicly accessible Tuesday night on the Facebook page of the Italian meme group that posted it, Mia Mamma è Vergine (My Mother is a Virgin). The page had also posted other images comparing the Obamas to apes.
HuffPost said it had been alerted to Wheeler’s social media activity by the Democratic PAC American Bridge 21st Century.
The trope has a long connection to the world of racist thought in the United States and around the world. New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples, in a piece he wrote after Roseanne Barr employed it to attack Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, called it “one of the oldest and most profoundly racist slanders in American history,” noting that it has been used to justify slavery and lynchings.
“The toxically racist ape characterization has been pushed to the margins of the public square,” Staples wrote. “Nevertheless, a growing body of research shows that it has maintained a pernicious grip on the American imagination. It is especially problematic in the criminal justice system, where subhuman treatment of African-Americans remains strikingly visible.”
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Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, was nominated by Trump to be the second in command at the agency in October 2017, to cheers from those in the fossil-fuel industry.
He is now one of a long list of Trump appointees to draw scrutiny for making questionable or overtly racist statements before taking their current positions.
Carl Higbie, who was appointed as chief of external affairs at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps and other service programs, resigned in January after comments he made disparaging blacks, Muslims, gays, women, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and immigrants in the country illegally surfaced in the news media. Before that, Jamie Johnson, a Trump appointee at the Department of Homeland Security, resigned after comments he made linking blacks to laziness and promiscuity.
The White House did not return a request for comment about whether it planned to take any action about the disclosure.
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