On Tuesday, the good news for America was that we got to learn what was truly in Donald Trump’s heart. The bad news for Republicans: they also got to learn what was truly in Donald Trump’s heart.
Now that we know he supports the KKK and white nationalists groups, those standing to support the president are complicit. It’s as simple as that, now. There’s no guessing where he stands, and our president is standing firm with that small base that includes white supremacists who are praising him for supporting them.
One after another, the nation’s most powerful Republicans responded to President Donald Trump’s extraordinary remarks about white supremacists. Yet few mentioned the president like House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
The Senate’s top Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, condemned “hate and bigotry.” House Speaker Paul Ryan charged that, “White supremacy is repulsive.” Neither criticized the president’s insistence that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent weekend clash between white supremacists and counterdemonstrators.
…and people like Ms. Heyer. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing.The people of South Carolina will remember!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
The nuanced statements reflect the party establishment’s delicate dance. Few top Republican officeholders defended the president in the midst of an escalating political crisis. Yet they are unwilling to declare all-out war against Trump and risk alienating his loyalists. And as the 2018 elections begin to take shape, the debate over Trump’s words appears to be taking hold in GOP primaries.
The public is learning (even more so) how dishonest the Fake News is. They totally misrepresent what I say about hate, bigotry etc. Shame!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
Trump’s overall approval rating may be dismal, but a small group of die-hard supporters is expected to play an outsized role in next year’s midterm elections when the Republican control of Congress is at stake. Those supporters are praising the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one dead and many more wounded.
“You got racism in both factions, on both sides,” former New Hampshire GOP chair Jack Kimball said. “Trump has zero fault here. None.”
Republican leaders also need the president: They hope to work with him to enact meaningful legislation on infrastructure, taxes and health care to prove to voters their party can govern.
The delicate relationship helps explain Wednesday’s cautious comments from powerful Republicans like McConnell.
“We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head,” McConnell said in a statement, noting that white supremacists are planning a rally in his home state of Kentucky.
“Their messages of hate and bigotry are not welcome in Kentucky and should not be welcome anywhere in America,” he said.
Former Republican Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, usually silent on current political developments, released a joint statement that stopped short of criticizing Trump as well.
“America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms,” the Bushes said.
The political tap dance frustrated as least one member of Trump’s diversity council, CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Javier Palomarez, who called Trump’s response “a monumental failure in leadership.”
He challenged those who denounced racism in general terms without calling out the president by name.
“That’s a sign of weakness, and I don’t think the American people and the Republican Party is going to forget,” said Palomarez, who noted he would remain on Trump’s diversity council “for now.”
But Trump loyalists on the ground in key states are ready to fight for their leader. And there were signs that the divide between the loyalists and establishment Republicans is already shaping the mid-term political landscape.
“We’ve always had these weak skittish so-called Republicans in the D.C. crowd. They’re always peeing their pants,” said Corey Stewart, a former Trump aide who has already launched a 2018 Senate bid in Virginia.
Many were quick to blame the media for Trump’s struggles.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the liberal media is not a fan of President Trump,” said Trump’s Alabama campaign chairman, Perry Hooper, arguing the Russia investigation is driven by media obsession. He added, “Now they’re trying to make him some kind of racist. It’s ridiculous. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.”
Nevada Republican Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Republican Sen. Dean Heller, said those criticizing Trump’s response to the white supremacist rally were “splitting hairs.”
“It was clear the media went out of their way to find fault with his statement,” Tarkanian said.
Heller, who is considered one of the most endangered Republicans in the nation heading into the 2018 election, posted a simple statement on Twitter late Tuesday that stopped short of criticizing the president: “There is no defense or justification for evil in the form of white supremacists and Nazis. None,” he wrote.
The Republicans who lashed out at Trump most aggressively were, in many cases, those with the least to lose politically.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who doesn’t face re-election until 2020, said the president “took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally” and the people demonstrating against them.
“Many Republicans do not agree with and will fight back against the idea that the party of Lincoln has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world,” Graham added, referring to the former Ku Klux Klan leader.
Lowlights From Donald Trump’s Press Conference:
- On why he waited two days to denounce the racist groups
“I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. … I want to know the facts.”
- On whether the attack that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville was ‘terrorism’
“You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That’s what I’d call it. Because there is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer. And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”
- On whether he has confidence in White House chief strategist Steve Bannon
“He’s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that, and I like him. He’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard.”
- When asked about the ‘alt-right’s’ influence in Charlottesville
“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging them? Excuse me. What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? … Let me ask you this. What about the fact they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
- On how he viewed the weekend violence and who was responsible
“I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you have — you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group — you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”
- Defending the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstrators against accusations of racism
“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”
- Echoing the right-wing argument against removing Confederate monuments
“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed 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 all — you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
- On whether he was comparing counter-protesters and white supremacists
“You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”
- On who was to blame for the violence
“Well, I do think there’s blame — yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at — you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. … But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. … You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
- On Thomas Jefferson
“Are we going to take down the statue (of Jefferson)? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”
- Comparing George Washington to Robert E. Lee
“George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down — are we going to take down statues to George Washington?”
- On the media coverage of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally
“And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You’ve got — you had a lot of bad — you had a lot of bad people in the other group.”
- After being asked if he’s spoken to the family of Heather Heyer
“I’ll be reaching out. … I was very — I thought that the statement put out — the mother’s statement I thought was a beautiful statement. I must tell you, I was — it was something that I really appreciated. I thought it was terrific. And really, under the — under the kind of stress that she’s under and the heartache that she’s under, I thought putting out that statement to me was really something I won’t forget.”
- On Charlottesville
“I mean I know a lot about Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a great place that has been very badly hurt over the last couple of days. I own, actually, one of the largest wineries in the United States — it’s in Charlottesville.”