2020 Democrats feel more emboldened to label Trump a racist

Democratic presidential candidates are growing increasingly comfortable labeling President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE a racist or a white supremacist, pointing to his handling of racially divisive and violent incidents in Charlottesville, Va., and El Paso, Texas.

White House hopefuls who previously focused on Trump’s equivocations in the aftermath of the August 2017 Charlottesville white nationalist rally have since expanded that criticism to include the mass shooting in El Paso, where the suspected gunman allegedly posted a manifesto denouncing an "invasion" of Latinos and reportedly told authorities he wanted to kill "Mexicans."

Democratic contenders wasted little time tying the shooter's rhetoric to Trump's own descriptions of immigrants as "thugs" and "criminals" and his characterization of migrant caravans as an "invasion."

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“[Trump] has given aid and comfort to white supremacists. He’s done the wink and a nod," Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Following school shooting, Biden speaks out: 'We have to protect these kids' MORE (D-Mass.) told The New York Times just days after the El Paso shooting that killed 22 people.

Former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeDeval Patrick enters 2020 race O'Rourke says he 'absolutely' plans to stay in politics Krystal Ball: Buttigieg is 'the boomer candidate' MORE (D-Texas) and entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew Yang 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Panel devolves over new Russian accusation about Tulsi Yang unveils '21st century approach' to regulating tech MORE were among those in the 2020 Democratic field who described Trump as a white supremacist following the Aug. 3 mass shooting.

"As we saw in El Paso, Americans were killed because you stoked the fire of racists,” Julián Castro, a 2020 presidential candidate, said in an ad targeting Trump released this week. "Innocent people were shot down because they look different from you. Because they look like me. They look like my family.”

Trump’s reelection campaign argues that the ratcheting up of racism allegations is nothing more than Democrats grasping at straws.

"For two years, Democrats called President Trump a Russian agent, and now that the Russia Hoax has fallen apart, they’ve moved on to white supremacy," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement, adding that Castro's ad was "false and ludicrous on its face."

Trump himself has dismissed the allegations of racism and instead accuses Democrats and other opponents of using the term "racist" only when they lack legitimate criticisms of his presidency.

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"I don’t like it when they do it because I am not any of those things," Trump told reporters last week when asked whether he thinks it benefits him when Democrats call him and his supporters white supremacists.

"I think it's a disgrace," he added. "And I think it shows how desperate the Democrats are."

But as Trump and his allies reject the labels as political ploys from potential 2020 challengers, they are still working to contain the fallout from the president's response to the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville that took place two years ago this week.

The president's comments were widely panned at the time, as he ascribed blame to both white supremacists and counterprotesters, and Democrats are banking on the incident resonating with voters into 2020 as they seek to paint Trump as unfit to lead and unable to unite the nation.

Several Democratic candidates this week marked the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, when white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia campus chanting anti-Semitic slogans. Protesters later clashed with counterprotesters, leading to the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed after a man drove his car into a crowd.

"We all have a responsibility to condemn white nationalism — whenever we see it," Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockBiden, Buttigieg condemn rocket attacks on Israel Press: Another billionaire need not apply Obama's former chief economist advising Buttigieg MORE said in a statement. "This is about the country we pass down to our kids. We deserve better than a President who sees 'good people on both sides' — and together, we can do something about it."

O’Rourke, whose hometown is El Paso, tweeted: "Two years ago, neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville—and killed a woman named Heather Heyer. This violence has metastasized from Pittsburgh to El Paso; and the violence will continue until we defeat this hatred and the man endorsing these 'very fine people' from the Oval Office."

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California MORE has made Charlottesville a central part of his campaign message. Biden's launch video in April featured scenes from the rally and described the event as a "defining moment" for America.

On the campaign trail, Biden has referenced the events of Charlottesville in his stump speech, condemning Trump over his "very fine people on both sides" remarks. In a speech earlier this month, Biden accused Trump of "fanning the flames of white supremacy."

"I said at the time we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation," Biden said in Iowa. "I said it again when I announced my candidacy. And I say here today, we are in a battle for the soul of this nation. That’s why, primarily, I’m running for president. Charlottesville was no isolated incident."

The president has been surprisingly willing to revisit his remarks that sparked bipartisan backlash.

"You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides," Trump said during an Aug. 15, 2017, press conference at Trump Tower, referencing the group of white nationalist protesters.

He added that he felt there was "blame on both sides" for the ensuing violence.

In April, Trump insisted that he answered questions about the rally "perfectly," and that he had been defending the far-right attendees protesting the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

On Wednesday, Trump again broached the Charlottesville controversy. He retweeted a video in which former adviser Steve Cortes contended that the media inaccurately reported the president was referring to neo-Nazis and white supremacists as "very fine people."

"Thank you Steve!" Trump tweeted in sharing the video.

The president and his allies have latched onto a moment in the August 2017 press conference at Trump Tower in which Trump says neo-Nazis and white nationalists "should be condemned totally."

The ongoing defense of Trump’s Charlottesville comments show his willingness to dig in on his remarks, even in the face of widespread criticism.

Trump in recent weeks has added to his catalog of inflammatory statements by tweeting that four minority congresswomen should "go back" to where they came from, in addition to attacking Baltimore as a "rat and rodent infested mess" where nobody would choose to live.

Those incidents prompted swift backlash from 2020 presidential candidates, a seemingly intuitive response but one that could prove problematic and even distracting down the line, according to Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

He argued that the eventual Democratic nominee will need to proceed carefully and pointed to the 2016 contest as a case study.

"Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' DOJ watchdog won't let witnesses submit written feedback on investigation into Russia probe: report What are Republicans going to do after Donald Trump leaves office? MORE got caught up in basically responding to the president and going through these long cycles where the president says something insulting, and Hillary Clinton responded to it,” Bannon said. "I think that was a mistake in the Clinton campaign.”

"As a Democratic strategist, I wouldn’t want to see this Democratic nominee, whoever it is, make the same mistake," he added. "So the president says something insulting, racially charged, you need to respond to it. You can’t ignore it but then you need to move on, keep your eye on the prize and focus on the bread and butter issues."