- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2017

As the dust settled after Saturday’s deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, President Trump was stung by a political backlash from both sides, with leading Republicans condemning what they saw as a tepid response and a failure to call evil by its name.

After a counterprotester was killed when a car plowed into her and two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash, the president had an opportunity to dispense fully with the notion that he welcomed the support of fringe right-wing groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.

Such charges have dogged Mr. Trump since the beginning of his presidential campaign, and his vice president used a trip to South America to push back against the charge.

Powerful figures in the Republican Party say the president squandered that opportunity with a Saturday statement that condemned violence and bigotry in broad terms but blamed tensions on “many sides.” The statement made no mention of the white nationalist groups that perpetrated the fatal gathering.

“These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House. … I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he’s their friend,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I think the president can be very clear when he wants to be, and he needs to be clear here,” he said.

SEE ALSO: James Fields denied bond, accused of fatally ramming car into crowd in Charlottesville

Other Republican senators, including Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and others condemned the deadly demonstration. But Mr. Trump’s handling of the situation fueled commentary that he is comfortable with the support of white nationalist groups, some of which praised his remarks and said they amounted to a victory because they didn’t explicitly blame anyone for the violence.

On Sunday night, Vice President Mike Pence denounced such white supremacists as “dangerous fringe groups” and said Mr. Trump shares his views.

“We have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK,” Mr. Pence said at a press conference in Cartagena, Colombia. “These dangerous fringe groups have no place in American public life and in the American debate, and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms.”

Mr. Gardner on Sunday urged the president to speak out again in more forceful terms and make clear that the Republican Party does not welcome such views. A failure to do that, the senator said, makes it fair to question if Mr. Trump wants to remain popular among white nationalists.

“Call this white supremacism, this white nationalism, evil, and let the country hear it, let the world hear it. It’s something that needs to come from the Oval Office,” Mr. Gardner said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “If he doesn’t do that, then we can continue to answer the question of why.”

But the vice president criticized such accusations that Mr. Trump has not spoken out strongly enough or specifically enough.

SEE ALSO: Mike Pence calls white supremacists ‘dangerous fringe groups,’ defends Trump’s call for unity

“I take issue with the fact that many in the national media spent more time criticizing the president’s words than they did criticizing those that perpetrated the violence to begin with,” Mr. Pence said. “We should be putting the attention where it belongs, and that is on those extremist groups that need to be pushed out of the public debate entirely and discredited for the hate groups and dangerous fringe groups that they are.”

The demonstration in Charlottesville, dubbed “Unite the Right,” was organized under the pretext of protesting the city’s removal of Confederate monuments.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency for the demonstration because he and other state officials worried that escalating tensions would result in violence. Those fears proved correct Saturday afternoon when a car drove head-on into a crowd of counterprotesters, claiming the life of Heather Heyer, 32, of Virginia and injuring at least 19 others.

James Alex Fields Jr. has been charged with second-degree murder and is scheduled to be arraigned Monday. Before the incident, he was pictured in a Vanguard America uniform of khaki pants and a white polo shirt, The Associated Press reported.

The Anti-Defamation League says Vanguard America believes the U.S. is an exclusively white nation.

Two Virginia state troopers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and pilot Berke M.M. Bate, died when their chopper crashed outside the city just before 5 p.m. Saturday. They were conducting aerial surveillance of the demonstration.

Charlottesville was still on edge Sunday as the organizer of the alt-right rally was chased away from a news conference.

“That hate that you hear around you, that is the anti-white hate,” Jason Kessler said as he was being booed at a news conference in downtown Charlottesville.

Video of the event showed Mr. Kessler being shouted down and blamed for the violence. He then runs from the mob into a police station, protected by officers.

One man spat on Mr. Kessler, and state police told reporters that the Charlottesville man was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.

“I knew going in that I was putting my life in my hands. That’s probably the last time I’m going to do that for quite some time,” Mr. Kessler said in a video he posted after the news conference.

As officials of all political stripes heaped condemnation on the rally and the automobile assault, Mr. Trump spoke from his golf club in New Jersey, where he is vacationing.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides,” he said, adding that the divisions on display in Charlottesville have been brewing for many years.

“Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama — it’s been going on for a long, long time,” the president said.

As the president came under fire for his stance, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced late Saturday night that he was launching a civil rights investigation into the protest.

“The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Mr. Sessions said. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”

By Sunday morning, administration officials were rushing to contain the damage of Mr. Trump’s brief comments and to stress that the president was in no way offering a dog whistle to extreme groups.

A White House spokesperson told reporters in New Jersey that the president’s broad condemnation of evil extended to all white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations.

Officials appearing on Sunday morning talk shows said the same.

“I, for one, was with the president yesterday and proud of the fact he stood up and calmly looked into the camera and condemned this violence and bigotry in all its forms,” White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert told CNN.

Pressed on why the president didn’t specifically name white nationalists or other groups at the heart of Saturday’s violence, Mr. Bossert went further.

“I condemn white supremacists and racists and white Nazi groups and all the other groups that espouse this kind of hatred and exclusion,” he said.

First daughter Ivanka Trump took to Twitter Sunday morning, saying over two posts that “there should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis. We must all come together as Americans — and be one country UNITED. #Charlottesville.”

White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the violence amounted to domestic terrorism — a term the president did not use in his speech Saturday.

“I certainly think any time that you commit an attack against people to incite fear, it is terrorism. It meets the definition of terrorism,” Mr. McMaster told ABC’s “This Week” program.

But the White House’s attempts at damage control weren’t enough for critics, who laid at least part of the blame directly at the feet of Mr. Trump.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson suggested that the white nationalist movement has been emboldened partly because of Mr. Trump’s five-year “birther” campaign against former President Barack Obama, which some viewed as a blatantly racist charge.

“We are in a very dangerous place right now,” Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. McAuliffe, who talked to the president via phone Saturday, said Mr. Trump “needs to come out stronger” against white supremacist groups.

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer was even more direct, saying the seeds for Saturday’s violence were planted during Mr. Trump’s presidential bid.

“Look at the campaign he ran,” Mr. Signer told CNN. “Look at the intentional courting, on one hand, of all these white supremacists, white nationalists … and look on the other hand at the repeated failure to step up, condemn, denounce, silence, put to bed all of these different efforts, just like we saw yesterday. This isn’t hard.”

Andrea Noble and Stephen Dinan contributed this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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