The Memo: Trump tries to quiet race storm

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE sought to quell the storm over his reaction to violence in Charlottesville, Va., on Monday, but even some Republicans believe the damage has already been done.

“This should never have been a White House story,” said one House GOP aide granted anonymity to speak candidly. “They should have condemned it like everyone else and moved on.”

Speaking at the White House on Monday, Trump said, “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

ADVERTISEMENT

It was the kind of clear-cut statement that politicians across the ideological spectrum said should have come sooner, after white supremacist groups rallied in the Virginia city on Friday and Saturday. 

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed on Saturday afternoon after being hit by a car allegedly driven by a man with a history of espousing far-right views. The man, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., has been charged with second-degree murder.

Trump’s initial statement in the aftermath, in which he complained about “violence on many sides,” received a wide negative reception. Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCrenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat SCOTUS confirmation in the last month of a close election? Ugly The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' MORE (Texas), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBreaking the Chinese space addiction Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden MORE (Colo.), Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Bottom line Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  MORE (Utah) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' Graham vows GOP will accept election results after Trump comments MORE (Fla.) were among those offering at least implicit criticism.

Even among Trump allies, there were rumblings of discontent.

On Sunday, Anthony Scaramucci, who served a very short tenure as the president’s communications director, told ABC’s “This Week” that Trump “needed to have been much harsher” on white supremacists in his initial statement.

On Capitol Hill, in particular, there was a sense that the president had once again suffered a self-inflicted wound.

The GOP House aide said that while there was “a certain amount of relief” that Trump had finally offered a frank condemnation, there were also lingering worries about “a lot of the alt-right influence over on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s not good for the party and not good for the president.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, senior adviser and national spokeswoman for the progressive group MoveOn.org, told The Hill that Trump’s Monday statement was “a little too late.”

“Over the past three days, he had numerous opportunities to offer some kind of heartfelt response and he never did it,” she said. 

Some Republicans long skeptical of Trump acknowledge that there may have been a political calculation behind the president’s initial reticence.

John Stipanovich, a veteran GOP operative in Florida who has worked in the past for Jeb Bush, emphasized that not all Trump supporters were racist.

But, he added, “to deny that a significant portion of Donald Trump’s vote was animated by cultural anxiety and racial animus is patently ridiculous. Of course they were!”

Terry Sullivan, a Republican consultant who worked on Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said that his biggest worry was that Trump could harm the GOP brand in an increasingly diverse America.

Such worries have been long-standing. Trump won the presidency while trading in the kind of rhetoric about Mexicans and undocumented immigrants that some Republican insiders were convinced would doom any candidate.

Still, “it was my biggest concern about [Trump] as a candidate, and now as president, that he is the head of the Republican Party,” Sullivan said. “I am afraid that he does more damage to the party than he does to himself.”

Sullivan also noted that, even as the White House was trying to get on a firmer footing in the wake of the deadly violence in Charlottesville, the president began the day by hitting back on Twitter against the African-American CEO of Merck who resigned from a presidential council over Trump’s initial response.

Kenneth Frazier resigned “to take a stand against intolerance and extremism,” he said in a statement.

Trump, on Twitter, jabbed back: “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”

“The reality is that we elected a 70-year-old billionaire reality TV star and we got a 70-year-old billionaire reality TV star,” Sullivan said with a sigh. “Nobody should be shocked, but we’re all shocked.”

Will the gravity of what happened in Charlottesville hurt Trump’s standing in ways that other controversies have not?

As with so much pertaining to Trump, the answer is impossible to predict.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.