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Charlottesville: Trump under fire after failing to denounce white supremacists

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/08/2017 Ben Jacobs and Warren Murray
Donald Trump speaks about violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. © AP Donald Trump speaks about violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Donald Trump has faced a hail of criticism after failing to explicitly condemn violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, that culminated in a car running into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing at least one person.

The president said he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence from all sources and all sides”. But there was immediate disbelief at Trump equating a largely peaceful counter-protest with far-right extremists who had marched through the streets carrying flaming torches, screaming racial epithets and setting upon their opponents.

Both Republicans and Democrats quickly lined up to call for a specific denunciation of the white nationalists responsible for the “Unite the Right” rally and its deadly outcome.

The clashes started after the far-right extremists planned a rally around a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee that is slated to be removed.

Speaking at a previously scheduled event in Bedminster, New Jersey, to discuss healthcare for veterans, Trump said: “I should put out a comment as to what’s going on in Charlottesville.”

After stopping to shake the hands of the assembled veterans, the president said: “We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Trump added that this had been “going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. A long, long time.” Trump added: “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order.”

Trump urged Americans to “love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together. So important. We have to respect each other. Ideally, we have to love each other.”

A White House spokesperson later amplified the president’s remarks, telling the Guardian: “The president was condemning hatred, bigotry and violence from all sources and all sides. There was violence between protesters and counter-protesters today.”

But the Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio was among those calling for a straightforward condemnation: 

The Republican senator Cory Gardner of Colorado tweeted: “Mr President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”

The Republican House speaker, Paul Ryan, tweeted: “The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant. Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry.” and tThe Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, tweeted: “The hate and bigotry witnessed in #Charlottesville does not reflect American values. I wholeheartedly oppose their actions.”

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and father of the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, issued a strident tweet about white nationalism. “‘White supremacy’ crap is worst kind of racism – it’s EVIL and perversion of God’s truth to ever think our Creator values some above others,” Huckabee said on Twitter.

Meanwhile there was incredulous commentary on social media and TV news channels. David Gergen – former adviser to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton – suggested on CNN that the president had recently condemned overseas governments such as Venezuela in strong and direct terms, but remained oddly solicitous towards extremist elements in the US. “You can’t have it both ways,” Gergen said. 

Earlier in the day, the initial White House response came from the Twitter account of the first lady, Melania Trump, not the president: “Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville” at 12:36 on Saturday.

The president did not issue a statement until 40 minutes later, when he said on Twitter: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”

David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan who was the subject of controversy during the 2016 campaign when Trump did not immediately condemn his endorsement, pushed back on this initial tweet. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,” responded Duke, who was in Charlottesville.

Trump did not specifically mention Charlottesville until a following statement on Twitter, in which he described the clashes as “Sad!” Trump tweeted: “Am in Bedminster for meetings & press conference on V.A. & all that we have done, and are doing, to make it better-but Charlottesville sad!”

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate in the 2016 presidential election, issued a string of tweets, several of them striking implicitly at Trump and the emboldening of extremists his presidency had wrought. “The incitement of hatred that got us here is as real and condemnable as the white supremacists in our streets,” Clinton said.

The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said in a statement: “The march and rally in Charlottesville goes against everything the American flag stands for. President Trump must condemn this in the strongest terms immediately.” The Hawaii senator Brian Schatz offered a pointed comment on Twitter: “It is not too much to ask to have a President who explicitly condemns nazis.”

The leftwing Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders rejected Trump’s characterisation of violence from all sides:

There was also a riposte from Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, who said the violence was not the fault of “many sides” but of “racists and white supremacists”.

The president, in his responses, bemoaned that the clashes were happening when “our country is doing so well in so many ways”, citing low unemployment and the renegotiation of trade deals. He noted: “We have so many incredible things happening in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”

The White House response also included a since deleted tweet from the homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, in which he condemned “the violence and hate in Charlotte”. The city of Charlotte is in North Carolina.

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