President Donald Trump on Saturday declined to condemn the violent actions and protests of white supremacists who had converged en masse on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of a Confederate general.
The clashes killed at least one person and injured a number of others.
Instead, Trump called out, in what he deemed the strongest possible terms, "this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides.” Yet, he never denounced by name the extremist group or called the behavior of the white supremacists unacceptable. He made his pronouncements from his golf club in New Jersey just before signing a bill related to veterans’ health care.
The worst violence came in the afternoon, when a car sped up and rammed into a group of people protesting the white nationalists, resulting in one death and numerous injuries. The state police later linked a helicopter crash that killed the pilot and a passenger outside Charlottesville to the rally, bringing the death tally Saturday to three.
Earlier in the day, hours after the white nationalists had marched in Virginia with lanterns and assaulted nonviolent protesters, Trump tweeted out that “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let’s come together as one!”
The call for Americans to “come together as one” alongside a high-profile white nationalist group that openly derides minorities, Jews and women left many people aghast. It also gave Democrats an opportunity to paint Trump as a president ill-equipped to represent all Americans.
"America is no place for bigots. And to be silent in the face of their hatred is to condone it,” Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “That’s why it is on all of us to stand up to these reprehensible acts and speak out against white supremacy. We cannot allow a group of cowards [to] instill fear in our communities."
By late Saturday afternoon, a number of prominent Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Cory Gardner, Orrin Hatch, Tim Scott and Marco Rubio, along with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, had condemned the actions of the white supremacists in far stronger language than the president.
Gardner went as far as calling the incident “domestic terrorism.”
"Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists,” Gardner tweeted from his official account.
Trump’s response to the Charlottesville white nationalist demonstrations also showed the limits of retired Gen. John Kelly’s power as the newly installed White House chief of staff. Kelly has spent the past two weeks trying to professionalize the decision-making process inside the White House, but he has been unable to steer Trump away from controversy, including his provocative statements on North Korea this week.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency on Saturday with law enforcement in riot gear flooding the area.
In his in-person statement, Trump was quick to thank law enforcement. “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives,” he said. “No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society, and no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play or be with their parents and have a good time."
Trump later expressed his condolences through Twitter for the three people who lost their lives on Saturday.
The group that gathered in Charlottesville included well-known figures in the white supremacist movement, among them David Duke, who previously led the Ku Klux Klan, and Richard Spencer, the so-called alt-right leader who, at a Washington, D.C., conference in November, led supporters in a Nazi salute and the chanting of “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
The furthest Trump went in protesting the white nationalists’ "Unite the Right" rally was to say that his administration wanted to “get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville and we want to study it and we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country, where things like this can happen.”
In closing, Trump — who in recent days has publicly criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican senators and announced the firing of his former chief of staff via Twitter — went on to say: “We have to respect each other. Ideally, we have to love each other."