Steve Helber / AP
White supremacists marched into Charlottesville, Virginia Saturday brandishing shields, batons, and pepper spray, and the result was shocking violence, with the deaths of a young woman who was run over by a car and two police officers killed in a helicopter crash. Dozens of counter-protesters were wounded.
Republican and Democratic political leaders swiftly condemned white supremacists in the aftermath. But there was one curious exception from the near-universal censures: the president currently facing the most serious domestic crisis of his administration.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides,” President Donald Trump said in a brief statement Saturday afternoon, calling for a restoration of law and order. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America.”
Asked if Trump or his administration would have further comment or call out white supremacists specifically by name for the violence on Saturday, a White House official told BuzzFeed News the president already addressed it in his initial remarks. In an additional comment to reporters, an official said Trump’s intention was to condemn hatred, bigotry, and violence “from all sources and all sides.”
“There was violence from protesters and counterprotesters today,” the official said.
Trump’s vague public response prompted fury across social media and drove Republican lawmakers to say that Trump needed to do better.
Sens. Cory Gardner, Marco Rubio and Orrin Hatch used the terms “white supremacists,” “Nazis,” and “domestic terrorism” in their tweets about Saturday’s violence, but others went further, questioning whether the president of the United States is afraid to go after white supremacists who support his administration.
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and founder of Potomac Strategy Group, said that Trump has had “a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the alt-right, nationalist part of his support base,” and that the president doesn’t take a lot of opportunities to criticize his own supporters.
“I think his advisers have to help, they have to be better, more adamant,” he said. “Not rising to this moment gives his opponents a very easy attack to use against him and the Republican Party, as unfair as I think that is.”
“I think it’s obvious that he has a problem, he will not do it,” Evan McMullin, a #NeverTrump conservative who ran for president as an independent, told BuzzFeed News of the president’s seeming hesitance to explicitly call out white supremacists. “He speaks in the vaguest of terms, only in the worst of situations, only when there is public outrage.”
“He was vague and not biting or specific,” Rev. Al Sharpton, who is preparing for a march of ministers in the name of social justice and civil rights this month in Washington, told BuzzFeed News. “He will not denounce Nazism or white supremacy by name. It’s telling and insulting. It will intensify our 1,000 Minister’s March and I’m glad we have Jewish faith leaders up front with us.”
David Duke, a former Louisiana politician and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, responded by issuing a warning to Trump on Twitter that he not forget who made him president.
Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, targeted white supremacists by name in a somber speech Saturday night, saying there is no place for them in America.
“I have a message to all of the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Our message is plain and simple: Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth, shame on you. You pretend that you’re patriots, but you are anything but a patriot,” he said.
Trump later tweeted condolences to the Virginia state police officers and the young woman who died in the car attack. The attack resulted in at least 19 other injuries and charges against a twenty-year-old suspect.
Steve Cortes, a Fox News contributor and Trump surrogate, said it was “nonsense” to suggest that Trump has been hesitant to disavow and condemn white supremacists.
“He made a very brief statement, I suspect it was off the cuff,” Cortes said, despite the fact that the president spoke more than twelve hours after white supremacists first descended on Charlottesville Friday night. “I don’t think he’s ever afraid to denounce racism. In the immediacy of the moment the most important thing is to denounce violence clearly. The worst violence was from the white supremacist racists, but there was violence on both sides.”
But Democrats and some Republicans explicitly lambasted Trump, suggesting that his refusal to call out white supremacists by name is driven by a nakedly political rationale.
Democratic National Committee deputy chairman Rep. Keith Ellison tweeted a damning appraisal of Trump’s comments. “A frightening truth,” he wrote. “Our president has no problem with violence being perpetrated on people who are not in his base.”
“It’s a moral issue, it’s beyond politics,” said Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, the largest civil rights organization in the country.
Morial said it’s important for the president to rise to the occasion and respond with a new statement condemning white supremacists in “clear and unequivocal terms” that reflect a “force and fury of language.”
But McMullin said Trump tips his hand on how he feels about the alt-right by keeping around his embattled but influential senior strategist, Steve Bannon, who previously ran Breitbart News.
“He has someone who has empowered them in his White House, who helped grow the alt-right through the Breitbart platform,” McMullin said. “Will he remain? Does the president care that he has someone who played a significant role in fomenting the bigotry of the al-right movement?”