White House scrambles to explain Trump’s response

President Donald Trump on Saturday issued a vague condemnation of violence in Charlottesville in a televised statement from New Jersey.
President Donald Trump on Saturday issued a vague condemnation of violence in Charlottesville in a televised statement from New Jersey.

WASHINGTON — President Trump faced a bipartisan wave of criticism Sunday for his failure to explicitly condemn the white supremacists whose demonstration ignited a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, Va., leading to multiple deaths and injuries.

The White House has released several statements on the bloody protests, but even Trump’s most ardent supporters have interpreted the response as muted and ambiguous. Few of the White House’s top policy makers have personally denounced the white nationalists at the center of the violence, leading to more accusations that Trump’s political currency rests on racial resentment.

On Sunday’s political talk shows, congressional Republicans and even some Trump loyalists were particularly enraged that the president did not acknowledge that the vast amount of the violence in Charlottesville was carried out by supremacists — including many who acted in Trump’s name.


Trump “should use this opportunity today to say this is terrorism, this is domestic terrorism, this is white nationalism and it has to stop,” said Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado.

“This is not a time for vagaries,” Gardner said on CNN. “This isn’t a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines. This is a time to lay blame — to lay blame on bigotry, to lay blame on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred. And that needs to be said.”

The chaos left one person dead and several injured, after a man supporting a white supremacist group called Vanguard America ran into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters. Two State Police officers also died while patrolling the protests, after their helicopter crashed just a few miles from Charlottesville.

An Associated Press reporter saw at least one person on the ground receiving medical treatment immediately after the incident.
An Associated Press reporter saw at least one person on the ground receiving medical treatment immediately after the incident.

In his initial response to the violence, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”


“No matter our color, creed, religion, our political party, we are all Americans first,” he said, before adding that he would like for his administration to study why such violence is occurring.

Late Sunday afternoon, after the flood of criticism, the White House released a statement attributed to an unnamed White House official.

“The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred,” the statement said. “Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”

However, like previous statements the White House has released regarding the chaos in Virginia, the latest update did not acknowledge that racist and xenophobic acts of hate have risen in the Trump era, with Charlottesville as the latest and most high-profile example.

In his first interview since leaving the White House, Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly Trump’s head of communications, criticized the White House’s response.

“I think [Trump] needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists,” Scaramucci said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“It’s actually terrorism,” he said. “Whether it’s domestic or international terrorism, with the moral authority of the presidency, you have to call that stuff out.”

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, tweeted that Trump’s ambiguity aids those committing hate crimes.

“What happened in Charlottesville is domestic terrorism,” Wyden tweeted over the weekend. “The president’s words only serve to offer cover for heinous acts.”


Combined with the reproach Trump received Saturday, the criticism ensures another controversial week for a White House mired in scandal. Officials have sought to focus on policy issues such as tax reform and immigration, but the White House response to one of the first acts of domestic terrorism of the Trump presidency is certain to dominate the airwaves and, in turn, may have emboldened racist and bigoted extremist groups.

Trump’s refusal to denounce white hatred during the campaign often left his surrogates scrambling to clarify his remarks, but in the Oval Office, where the president’s words carry considerably more weight, some expected Trump to more directly denounce bigotry.

So far, he has chosen not to.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser who has sought to cast herself as a social liberal, issued a separate, personal denouncement of the extremist groups from her Twitter account.

“There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy, and neo-Nazis,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “We must all come together as Americans — and be one country united.’’

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said by drawing a false equivalence between violent white supremacists and the largely peaceful counterprotesters, Trump was continuing his unhealthy alliance with white supremacist groups and the “alt-right” wing of the Republican Party.

In an interview on CNN, Signer pointed to White House senior adviser Steve Bannon, who has a long history of giving a platform to white supremacist ideologies through his former website Breitbart News.


“Look at the intentional courting . . . of all these white supremacists, white nationalist groups like that, anti-Semitic groups,” said Signer, a Democrat. “And then look on the other hand, at the repeated failure to step up, condemn, denounce, silence, you know, put to bed all those different efforts.”

The strange link between the Trump family and white supremacist groups is well-documented. During the Obama years, Trump became a favorite of some discriminatory groups when he helped popularize the debunked, racist myth that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, has repeatedly used his large social media following as a megaphone for white supremacist Internet culture, sharing memes that include Pepe the Frog, the cartoon character of choice for many “alt-right” groups.

For years, mainstream Republican officeholders have gone to great lengths to explicitly dismiss white supremacists as fringe and extreme. But even on the campaign trail, candidate Trump stood out for his reluctance to renounce the endorsement of David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK.

In a February 2016 interview on CNN, Trump said he “didn’t know” Duke and therefore couldn’t immediately say whether he would renounce his endorsement. When asked if he would accept the endorsement of the KKK at large, Trump said he would need to look into it.

“If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow them if I thought there was something wrong,” Trump said at the time, before later denouncing both the KKK and Duke after days of controversy.


Months later, Trump hired Bannon as his campaign adviser, a move panned by civil rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center — but applauded by white supremacist organizations and hate groups. After Trump’s victory in November, he appointed Bannon as a senior adviser, which caused a similar uproar.

This weekend, in the wake of the Charlottesville incident, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for Bannon’s firing.

“We call on the president to take the steps to remove Steve Bannon — well-known white supremacist leader — from his team of advisers,” the historic civil rights organization tweeted. It was shared more than 18,000 times.

There was one place, however, offering constant and effusive praise for Trump’s comments about Charlottesville in recent days: white supremacist websites. This weekend on Daily Stormer, the large neo-Nazi website forum which features tabs like “the Jewish problem” and “race war,” Trump’s comments were met with instant acclaim.

“He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us,” read the home page. “There was virtually no countersignaling of us at all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.”

It ended the post with a prayer, “Really, really good. God bless him.”

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.