President Donald Trump buoyed the white nationalist movement on Tuesday as no president has done in generations — equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rampaged in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.
Never has he gone as far in defending their actions as he did during a wild, street-corner shouting-match of a news conference in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, angrily asserting that so-called alt-left activists were just as responsible for the bloody confrontation as marchers brandishing swastikas, Confederate battle flags, anti-Semitic banners and “Trump/Pence” signs.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth,” David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, wrote in a Twitter post shortly after Trump spoke.
Richard Spencer, a white nationalist leader who participated in the weekend’s demonstrations and vowed to flood Charlottesville with similar protests in the coming weeks, was equally encouraged. “Trump’s statement was fair and down to earth,” Spencer tweeted.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a Democrat, wasted little time in accusing the president of adding to the divisions that put an unwanted spotlight on the normally peaceful college town.
“Neo-Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists came to Charlottesville heavily armed, spewing hatred and looking for a fight,” McAuliffe said. “One of them murdered a young woman in an act of domestic terrorism, and two of our finest officers were killed in a tragic accident while serving to protect this community. This was not ‘both sides.'”
No word in the Trump lexicon is as tread-worn as “unprecedented.” But members of the president’s staff, stunned and disheartened, said they never expected to hear such a voluble articulation of opinions that the president had long expressed in private. National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who are Jewish, stood by uncomfortably as the president exacerbated a controversy that has once engulfed a White House in disarray.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis,” Trump told reporters, who interrupted him repeatedly when he seemed to equate the actions of protesters on each side.
He spoke of “very fine people on both sides.” And of the demonstrators who rallied on Friday night, some chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, he said, “You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.”
Since the 1960s, Republican politicians have made muscular appeals to white voters, especially those in the South, on broad cultural grounds. But as a rule, they have taken a hard line on the party’s racist, nativist and anti-Semitic fringe. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush roundly condemned white supremacists.
In 1991, the first President Bush took on Duke, who was then seeking the governor’s seat in Louisiana, saying, “When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society.”
But Trump, who has repeatedly said he is not prejudiced, has been equivocal in his public or private statements against white nationalists and other racist organizations.
On Saturday, in his first comments on Charlottesville, Trump blamed the violence on protesters from “many sides.”
After a storm of criticism over his remarks, Trump’s aides persuaded him to moderate his message by assigning explicit blame for the violence on far-right agitators, which led to a stronger denunciation of hate groups — emailed to reporters and attributed to an unnamed “spokesperson.”
When that failed to quell the controversy, aides, including Trump’s new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, pressed him to make another public statement. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner urged him to take a more moderate stance, according to two people familiar with the situation. But as with so many other critical moments in Trump’s presidency, the two were thousands of miles away on vacation in Croatia.
Grudgingly, Trump agreed.
“Racism is evil,” the president said, delivering a White House statement from his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, written with aides during airplane and helicopter flights.
“Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, white supremacists and other hate groups,” he added — in response to bipartisan condemnation of his more equivocal statements during the first 48 hours of the crisis.
But his unifying tone, which his staff characterized as more traditionally presidential, quickly gave way to a more familiar Trump approach. No sooner had he delivered the Monday statement than he began railing privately to his staff about the press. He fumed to aides about how unfairly he was being treated, and expressed sympathy with nonviolent protesters who he said were defending their “heritage,” according to a West Wing official.
He felt he had already given too much ground to his opponents, the official said.
Trump prides himself on an unapologetic style he learned from his father Fred Trump, a New York City housing developer, and Roy Cohn, a combative lawyer who served as an aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump attracted a significant following of white supremacists, expressed sympathy with white southerners fighting to preserve monuments for Confederate icons and was slow to distance himself from racists like Duke.
The president’s fury grew on Monday as members of a White House business council began to resign to protest his reaction to Charlottesville. As usual, Trump found his voice by tweeting angrily about the media.
By Tuesday afternoon, Trump’s staff sensed the culmination of a familiar cycle: The president was about to revert to his initial, more defiant stance. As Trump approached the microphone in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday, aides winced at the prospect of an unmediated president. With good reason.
“Alt-left” groups were also “very, very violent,” Trump said early in his exchange with reporters.
He went on to assign “blame on both sides” — echoing his comments on Saturday, and reigniting a fight that has sunk staff morale after a brief bump in enthusiasm that followed the hiring of Kelly, who was to impose discipline on a chaotic West Wing.
Eric Cantor, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who was a member of GOP leadership, was horrified by what took place in Charlottesville, and said the president needed to have spoken out earlier.
“It really did demand a statement at the very beginning,” said Cantor, who is Jewish. He added that efforts by the president to equate the actions of the counterprotesters, however violent they may have been, with the neo-Nazis and the driver of the car that murdered a protester were “unacceptable.”
“There’s no moral equivalence,” Cantor said.