UPDATE (Aug. 13, 11:40 a.m.): The White House gave a statement to NBC News Sunday intended to clarify President Donald Trump’s comments on the situation in Charlottesville, saying “of course” the president condemned white supremacist groups. But Trump still has not done so directly or explicitly. On Saturday Trump said he condemned bigotry “on many sides” and Sunday’s White House statement also referred to “all extremist groups.”
Earlier Sunday, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, sent a series of tweets first explicitly calling out white supremacy and then calling for unity.
And H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, said on “Meet the Press” that the attack in Charlottesville “meets the definition of terrorism.” But he seemed quick to defend Trump’s refusal to explicitly call it that, saying, “What the president did is he called out anyone, anyone who is responsible for fomenting this kind of bigotry, hatred, racism, and violence.”
Several Republicans joined Democrats to rebuke Trump Saturday for attributing the violence in Charlottesville to “many sides” instead of forcefully condemning the hundreds of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis who gathered there with Confederate flags and militia gear.
Trump, speaking from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, carefully parsed his language about the attack, which resulted in at least one death and more than two dozen injuries after a man appeared to accelerate his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides — on many sides,” Trump said. “So we want 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.”
But politicians across the country, including several members of Trump’s own party, said his deliberative language was insufficient for the moment.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who is not often publicly critical of the president, chastised Trump on Twitter:
Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah gently criticized the president’s circumspect statement and called for more precise language.
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jon Meacham, who has been a frequent Trump critic, predicted that history would not judge Trump’s actions on Saturday kindly.
Many other Republicans, such as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Trump ally Mike Huckabee, also implicitly criticized the Republican president by issuing far less nuanced statements about Charlottesville.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, criticized the president in a statement: “There are not many sides to what happened last night, and today — these actions and this speech are a poison and serve to bring us all down to the lowest and most unAmerican of moments.”
And former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted:
The president’s careful language following attacks by white nationalists also stands in marked contrast to Trump’s unrestrained and blunt condemnations that tend to follow violence carried out by Muslims. In several instances — including the shooting at an Orlando nightclub last summer and the downing of a commercial flight over Egypt in 2015 — Trump tweeted before all the facts were known. On Saturday, he called for a “study” of the violence and its causes.
Trump’s political career has been marked with both subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to white racists. He rode to the top of the Republican presidential polls in 2011 in part by embracing the “birther” movement that questioned whether the nation’s first black president was born in the United States. Trump also blew dog whistles at every opportunity during the 2016 campaign, attacked a Mexican judge, and called to ban all Muslim immigrants to the United States.
Critics of Trump on both the right and the left also argued that Saturday’s vague statement was yet another dog whistle to the white nationalists who supported him in last year’s election.
Contacted by reporters about Trump’s “many sides” language, a White House spokesperson explained that “there was violence between protesters and counterprotesters today.”
The “counterprotesters” included militant left-wing groups who oppose white nationalists like former KKK leader David Duke, who say they feel emboldened in Trump’s America. These left-wing groups, such as antifa, have surged in the aftermath of Trump’s election, as VICE News’ Joshua Hersh has reported. None have been accused of driving a car into a protest.