NEW YORK — It took President Donald Trump two days to explicitly call out the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who engaged in violent protests over the weekend that resulted in the death of a 32-year-old Charlottesville woman.
It took him less than 24 hours to undo the damage control that had been foisted upon him by teleprompter-wielding, crisis-managing aides.
Bridling at the term “alt-right,” Trump attempted to redirect blame for the violence at the rally onto the other side.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he said at an unplanned news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, referring to the “alt-right” protesters who gathered to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a park.
Trump also said he has yet to speak to the family of the woman killed, Heather Heyer, but promised that he would be “reaching out” and applauded her mother’s “beautiful statement,” in which she praised Trump.
With no teleprompter to keep him on a message crafted for him by his top aides, like chief of staff John Kelly, Trump reverted to the “many sides” language he ad-libbed on Saturday — remarks that earned him criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, and even pushback from his own top aides.
“You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other,” Trump explained Tuesday, “and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch.”
He added: “I think there’s blame on both sides.”
The free-wheeling remarks represented an about-face for the president, who after two days relented to pressure from his administration to read the statement that included the words “racism is evil,” while calling out specific types of hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
In his only appearance in front of the press on Tuesday, Trump was originally scheduled to make a short announcement on infrastructure from the lobby of his Manhattan home. He came equipped with charts to show how his administration was cutting the regulatory red tape to make building roads less onerous. Reporters were warned he would take no questions, and that two of his top aides, economic adviser Gary Cohn and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, would take questions after the president departed.
But Trump overruled his staff.
Kelly stood off to the side while Trump spoke, staring down at the marble floor as the president doubled down on his widely criticized “many sides” rhetoric. Kelly’s stiff body language appeared to reflect the feeling among many Trump aides.
“My head is spinning,” texted one White House aide watching the president unleash himself on television.
When asked whether he and other officials supported the president’s views on the protest, Cohn hedged. “We share the president’s view that infrastructure is really important to America, and our infrastructure is crumbling,” he said.
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the two family members who serve in Trump’s administration, were absent from Trump Tower on Tuesday — they were on a two-day, pre-scheduled trip to Vermont, a White House official said, and were planning to rejoin the president at his Bedminster, N.J. golf club on Thursday.
Trump’s charged statements on Tuesday inflamed the controversy his aides had just started to contain.
After Trump’s original ad-libbed comments on Saturday, his communications staff went into immediate crisis control, according to a White House official. An anonymous press statement was released, stating that the president “condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
The statement was put out with no name on it because press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was on a brief vacation in Bermuda, the official said. The statement was written by another more junior press aide, Jessica Ditto, and the hope was that it would gird against the backlash to the president’s own words.
But by Sunday night it was clear that a statement from a nameless aide was doing little to staunch the outrage, and that only the president could clean up his own mess.
While the revised statement on Monday eased some of the outcry, Trump was quickly hit by a fresh backlash — including from prominent Republicans — after his Trump Tower news conference.
“We must be clear,” House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the white supremacist rally organizers are “100% to blame” and that it’s dangerous to put some of the responsibility on the counter-protesters.
“The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win.We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected,” Rubio tweeted.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Trump cast himself as a cautious, fact-focused president, insisting that despite a long history of celebrating vicious attacks and reveling in conspiracy theories, he was simply reserving judgment until the full story unfolded.
“Before I make a statement, I need the facts,” he explained. “So I don’t wanna rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent.”
Trump described the “alt-left” as a “very, very violent” group that charged at protesters without a permit to even assemble in Charlottesville. He reiterated that he condemned hate groups but argued that not everyone was a white supremacist or neo-Nazi.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, ‘Where does it stop?’”
Trump, who appeared to relish his time battling with the press, even used the opportunity to promote one of his properties, a winery in Charlottesville.
“Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?” he said, pausing to continue bantering with reporters as he walked out of the lobby. “I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States in Charlottesville.”
Trump claimed that he did not know that David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, attended the rally. But Duke further inflamed the situation when he thanked Trump on Tuesday afternoon, via Twitter, for his “honesty & courage to tell the truth about” Charlottesville and “condemn the leftist terrorists” in Black Lives Matter and anti-fascists.
Trump’s show on Tuesday also lent new skepticism to the idea that Kelly, a retired United States Marine Corps general who has been trying to instill new order in the West Wing, would be able to affect any real change on a president like Trump.
At a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Vice President Mike Pence was speaking shortly before Trump’s new comments on Charlottesville, his No. 2 praised the man at the top for his forthrightness.
“We have an American President who says what he means, and means what he says,” Pence said.
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