White House aides are wrestling with how to respond to President Donald Trump’s defiant news conference on Tuesday in which he doubled down on his statement that “both sides” are to blame for the Charlottesville violence and offered what some perceived to be overtures to white supremacists.
No aides had yet threatened to resign as of Wednesday morning, according to White House officials and advisers, but a number of White House staffers had private conversations on Tuesday night about how terribly the day went.
White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, who was standing near Trump on Tuesday for what was supposed to be a statement about infrastructure, was particularly displeased, according to people familiar with the matter, as the president launched into a rant about the culpability of the “alt-left” while calling some of the protesters at the white nationalist rally “very fine people.”
But there has been no word from Cohn about any plans to step down.
Still, White House aides say they were startled by the extensive comments, especially because Trump paid so little attention at the event to the intended focus of infrastructure, which is an issue the president often says he cares deeply about.
It also created an intensely awkward moment for new chief of staff John Kelly, who stood by in Trump Tower with a look of apparent pain on his face. Kelly has been trying to instill a sense of discipline in the West Wing and to introduce more efficient processes, but Tuesday starkly demonstrated how little control he has over a president who can easily blow up his own agenda.
Trump, however, was in “good spirits” on Tuesday night, according to a White House adviser who spoke to him. The adviser said the president felt the news conference went much better than his statement on Monday, in which he declared that “racism is evil” and denounced certain hate groups by name. Aides had pressured Trump to deliver the statement after his initial remarks on Saturday — in which he blamed “many sides” for the fatal protests in Charlottesville — set off a firestorm.
Another White House adviser said Trump has been telling people privately that he’s watched video of the Charlottesville protests, emphasizing to them that the counter-protesters had weapons as well, and insisting that he’s going to say what is right.
“People have tried to assuage him by saying, ‘You’re just not helping yourself.’ He doesn’t care,” the adviser said, adding that in some ways Trump would rather that people call him a racist than to say he backed down.
The president was not alone in his pleasure at the news conference. Chief strategist Steve Bannon, whose nationalistic views helped shape Trump’s presidential campaign, was thrilled with the remarks, according to a friend of Bannon. Even though Trump on Tuesday failed to offer full-throated confidence in Bannon, saying, “We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon,” the controversy has brought some additional job security for the strategist, who has been on the outs with Trump and other White House aides.
In an attempt to shore up support for Trump, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller was planning to hold a call with surrogates later on Wednesday.
It’s unclear, though, whether Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who have been away on a trip to Vermont, will be able to exert some influence over the president. And there is a distinct feeling of a White House on edge, with aides and advisers unsure about the extent of the fallout, which included sharp rebukes from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio.
“A number of people are on thin ice,” said a White House official, explaining how some aides feel they are at wit’s end.
There was a notable lack of Trump supporters defending the president on the Wednesday morning talk shows, as Republicans continued to distance themselves from the president’s remarks.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel offered some defense of Trump, saying the president clearly condemned hate groups.
“Well, the president condemned the white supremacists and the KKK and the neo-Nazis unequivocally,” McDaniel told anchor David Muir on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“But it took 48 hours for him to do that,” Muir replied.
“But he did it, and he should have, and he did. And our party across the board has said this is unacceptable. We have no place in our party at all for KKK, anti-Semitism, race — racism, bigotry, it has no place in the Republican Party,” she said. “There is no home here. We don’t want your vote. We don’t support you. We’ll speak out against you. The president has said so.”
McDaniel also tried to downplay the message from former KKK leader David Duke, who thanked Trump via Twitter on Tuesday afternoon “for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists.”
“Oh, I think that makes everybody’s stomach turn, and I think it makes the president’s stomach turn,” McDaniel said when asked about Duke’s online comment. She said Trump “has condemned David Duke. David Duke has nothing to do with the Republican Party.”
But other Republicans were emphatic about the damaging nature of Trump’s comments.
“Pathetic. Just pathetic, isn’t it?” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said on NBC’s “Today” show.
“This is terrible. The president of the United States needs to condemn these kinds of hate groups,” Kasich added. “The president has to totally condemn this. It’s not about winning an argument.”
Louis Nelson contributed to this report.
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