THE MEMO: Trump reignites race firestorm

President Trump supercharged a firestorm over race and violence on Tuesday with a news conference in the lobby of his Manhattan skyscraper that was controversial and chaotic even by his unusual standards.

Trump laid blame on the “alt-left” as well as white supremacists and neo-Nazis for unrest that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. In doing so, he returned to the stance he laid out in a Saturday statement that was widely criticized, in which he had blamed “many sides.”

A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed on Saturday in Charlottesville after being hit by a car allegedly driven by a man with far-right views.

ADVERTISEMENT
Her death came amid rallies — including a torch-bearing parade at the University of Virginia on Friday night — that had the avowed aim to “Unite the Right.” Neo-Nazis and other racist groups were among those taking part. 

The event also drew anti-fascist demonstrators onto the streets.

On Tuesday, Trump suggested that there were “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville. 

In response to a shouted question from a reporter about whether he believed the media have "treated white nationalists unfairly,” Trump replied, “You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest.”

The right-wing activists had gathered in Charlottesville not only to show unity but also to protest the city council’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army during the Civil War.

Trump made clear he was sympathetic to that particular cause.

“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 the statue of Robert E. Lee.” 

He accused the media of trying to whitewash history, asking if they would support removing statues of other former slave-owners. 

“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 really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” Trump said.

With those remarks and others, Trump seemed to make clear where his sympathies lie. Some of the prominent white nationalists who attended the rally quickly claimed vindication. 

Richard Spencer, the head of a white nationalist think tank, tweeted that he was proud of Trump “for speaking the truth,” while former KKK leader David Duke hailed the president’s “courage” and “honesty.”

Meanwhile, the president’s unparalleled remarks were met with shock and consternation even among Republicans, who had been relieved that the controversy over his initial response was beginning to fade from the headlines.

“Put down the damn shovel! You’re never going to dig your way out of a hole,” GOP strategist Terry Sullivan said in a text to The Hill. Sullivan was the campaign manager for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Trump bets base will stick with him on immigration MORE (R-Fla.) during the 2016 GOP presidential primary. 

Rubio himself took on the president directly in multiple tweets published soon after Trump’s remarks.

“Mr. President, you can't allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame. They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain,” the Florida senator wrote.

“The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win. We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected.”

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan: Graham-Cassidy 'best, last chance' to repeal ObamaCare Ryan: Americans want to see Trump talking with Dem leaders Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Wis.) rebuked Trump as well.

“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity,” Ryan wrote on Twitter. 

Also on Twitter, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said, “Blaming 'both sides' for #Charlottesville?! No. Back to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists? Just no.” 

John Stipanovich, a Republican strategist in Florida with ties to the Bush family, lamented to The Hill that Trump “has a gift for gaffes that has expanded the boundaries of ineptitude to a previously unimaginable extent.”

The reaction among some conservative-leaning media figures was just as strong. 

MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace, a former communications director in President George W. Bush’s White House, described Trump on-air as “a disgrace to the Republican Party.”

Democrats, meanwhile, excoriated Trump. Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Democrat: Trump only loyal to the 'pro-Trump' party Sunday shows preview: Trump officials gear up for UN assembly MORE (D-Calif.) said he was defending white supremacists "in a statement only the KKK could (and did) applaud." At least one Democratic lawmaker, New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, directly accused the president of being a racist.

Trump’s informal news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower was intended to showcase infrastructure spending and the easing of burdensome regulations on the construction industry. 

Instead, it devolved into a back-and-forth with reporters, replete with mutual interruptions, accusations of “fake news” from the president and comments that seemed to directly undo the effort Trump had made the quiet the storm the previous day.

“What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say — the alt-right?” Trump asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I am concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.” 

Trump also said: "You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” 

His comments will ensure that the furor over Charlottesville rages on, just as it had begun to subside.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE’s presidency.