The Senate’s lone black Republican on Wednesday offered President Donald Trump a belated opportunity to rebound from a low point of his presidency – his equating of neo-Nazis and white supremacists who staged a violent uprising in Charlottesville last month with counter-protesters on the left.
But Trump’s delayed reckoning with his own comments – which exacerbated racial tensions and earned him public rebukes across the board, including from two former Republican presidents and senior members of his own administration – occurred off-camera, in a closed-door meeting with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
And in its official readout of his meeting with Scott, who had criticized Trump’s comments about violence “on many sides,” the White House gave no indication that the politically fraught subject of Charlottesville was even broached.
In a statement, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said only that Trump and Scott met “to discuss the administration’s relationship with the African-American community, the bipartisan issue of improving race relations and creating a more unified country.” And while administration officials sought to emphasize the close relationship that Scott enjoys with Vice President Mike Pence and other senior advisers, that bonhomie seemed undercut when the White House circulated a photo of the meeting that misspelled Scott’s name in the caption, referring to him as “Sen. Tom Scott.”
Scott – who last month criticized Trump for ceding the “moral authority” of the presidency with his comments in the days following the deadly protest – provided a more detailed version of his 40-minute Oval Office meeting, which was also attended by Pence, White House legislative director Marc Short, Sanders and other aides.
Speaking to reporters from the second floor of the Capitol, Scott said that while Trump “certainly tried to explain what he was trying to convey,” the president listened to him outline the significance of drawing a false equivalence between two sides in Charlottesville.
“The real picture has nothing to do with who’s on the other side,” Scott said he told the president. “It has to do with the affirmation of hate groups who over three centuries of this country’s history had made it their mission to create upheaval in minority communities as a reason for existence.”
Trump withstood a public outcry over his response to the Charlottesville rally last month, when he said that “many sides” – white supremacists protesting the planned removal of a Confederate statue and counter-protesters gathered to oppose them – shared responsibility for the violence that resulted in the death of a 32-year-old woman.
Scott added: “I shared my thoughts of the last three centuries of challenges from white supremacists, white nationalists, KKK, neo-Nazis…there’s no way to find an equilibrium when you have three centuries of history versus the situation that’s occurring today.”
Trump, a contrarian president who only doubled and tripled down on his divisive comments in response to backlash from leaders of his own party, has yet to publicly offer any acknowledgement of the white supremacists he enlivened, or the political damage he heaved upon himself.
But at least in a private setting, Scott’s message to Trump seemed to sink in. Scott said that in response to the brief history lesson he delivered to the president, Trump “shook his head and said ‘yeah.’ He got it.”
Scott called Trump “receptive” and noted that “he was ever-present during the entire meeting…we stayed on subject as well, which I thought was helpful. I thought it was important that he took it seriously.”
The meeting came just as Congress was set to send over to the White House a joint resolution passed Tuesday night explicitly rejecting the violence from White supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. The resolution makes no mention of counter-protesters. During her daily press briefing, Sanders said the president plans to sign the resolution, adding that “he looks forward to doing so.”
The White House declined to comment about whether Trump would sign it in front of the cameras, or try to put the politically damaging incident to bed without fanfare, in private.
“Plainly, the handling of Charlottesville and the visceral, negative reaction it engendered was a low point for Trump and the White House,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama.
“These steps certainly seemed defined to sooth some of the lingering anger from that debacle.” He called it an “obvious recognition that this is a brick on his ability to grow his constituency.”
But Charlottesville, Democrats said, was not a stand-alone moment – it was, instead, the apex of a long strategy that Trump has flirted with since his campaign, of appealing to the white supremacist fringe.
“It’s too little, too late,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton in an interview. “It took weeks and two hurricanes for him to finally wake up and realize the gravity of what happened there. He has not reached out to civil rights leaders – he sits down with the comfort of someone in his party. He didn’t reach out to even other Democratic congressman or senators about it. It’s cosmetic outreach. It’s a photo-op.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he also saw Wednesday actions as belated, pro forma clean-up. “This resolution is an important statement and President Trump should sign it,” said McAuliffe. “But when Virginia and the whole country looked to the President to bring us together and denounce Nazis and white supremacists, he poured salt in the wound instead. It will take more than resolutions and meetings with political allies to undo that damage.”
In crisis mode last month, Sanders was the first White House official to reach out to Scott, multiple sources said, inviting him to a private meeting at the White House after he publicly criticized the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville native.
The discussion between Scott and Trump on Wednesday also extended to the importance of more diversity hiring across the administration, multiple sources said.
Two White House officials involved with promoting more diversity in hiring said that there are about 25 African-American potential hires in the pipeline, to fill slots across agencies and in the White House. But one hold-up is that the administration has slow-walked any potential hires who in the past identified themselves as Democrats. Sanders did not reply to a request for comment about the pace of diversity hires.
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