Who says President Trump never admits to making mistakes? A key revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” is that Trump privately conceded that he had mishandled his response to the white supremacist violence and murder in Charlottesville last year.
No, Trump didn’t admit that he erred in saying that there is hatred and bigotry “on many sides.” Just the opposite: Trump privately railed that he’d made a mistake in backing off of doing that.
Woodward’s book still has not been released, but CNN reported in detail on this particular revelation. After Trump took a huge beating for his “many sides” comment, he was persuaded to make a second set of remarks, and then-staff secretary Rob Porter worked with him on a new speech.
Trump then gave that second speech, in which he denounced racism by singling out the “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.” But according to Woodward’s book, as reported by CNN, Trump then grew enraged by the coverage of it:
One Fox News commentator gave Trump praise but also added, “That’s almost an admission of ‘Okay, I was wrong.’ ” Then Fox News correspondent Kevin Corke said: “Some 48 hours into the biggest domestic challenge of his young presidency, Mr. Trump has made a course correction.”
Trump exploded at the coverage, Woodward reports. “That was the biggest f—ing mistake I’ve made,” the President told Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?”
Trump continued venting to Porter, Woodward writes. “I can’t believe I got forced to do that,” he said. “That’s the worst speech I’ve ever given. I’m never going to do anything like that again.”
This revelation is simply awful. A young woman had just been murdered amid white supremacist violence, and not only did Trump refuse to unambiguously condemn what happened; he was only able to bring himself to do so after aides pushed him to do it. And once he had done that, Trump was unable to process the public discussion of this moment as being about anything other than perceptions of him, that is, of his weakness, as refracted through the demented prism of Fox News coverage.
What this confirms once again is Trump’s utter refusal to accept that his role confers on him any institutional obligation of any kind to speak to the nation in a unifying, conciliatory voice at national moments of searing racial tension and introspection. As I’ve noted, there is a reason we expect our presidents to step up and do this at these critical junctures. We want our presidents to speak to the fact that racism and white supremacy remain alive today as the present manifestation of a monstrous historical crime that continues to define the nation, one that deserves unique condemnation for both the depth of its betrayal of the country’s founding creed and for the unique horrors it inflicted on millions of people brought here forcibly, as well as their descendants, across centuries.
What’s more, as historian Eric Foner has noted, we want our presidents to acknowledge that we still haven’t sufficiently addressed or atoned for that crime — to relate it to the present, as a form of recognition that racism remains the “deepest problem we face,” one that we still must “confront and understand,” even today.
Yet this isn’t simply a case where Trump declined to rise to his institutional obligation to calm racial tensions that had been created purely by external events. Trump himself actively made those tensions worse — in a way that pleased him. Trump reportedly felt “vindicated” after making his “many sides” comment, because he believed his base would cheer him for it. Stephen K. Bannon even subsequently said the post-Charlottesville racial strife was a political winner for Trump. Indeed, subsequent to all this, Trump reverted to a version of his original “many sides” formulation.
Beyond this, on many other fronts as well, Trump has deliberately provoked racial discord out of a combination of genuine racist conviction and a belief that it helps him politically. Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, despite his racism and civil rights abuses directed at Latinos, after growing convinced that it was “a way of pleasing his political base.” After Trump’s horrific family separations policy attracted universal condemnation, he reportedly claimed that “my people love it.” And Trump revived his attacks on football players for the act of protesting racism in the explicit belief that doing so “revs up his political base.”
And yet, in spite of all the tremendous harm Trump is doing in this regard, on the single occasion where his aides prevailed on him to mumble a few conciliatory words on behalf of the country, he flew into a rage because Fox News made him feel as if he had somehow capitulated — to the forces of political correctness, one imagines, that is, to those who are simply trying to persuade Trump to stop deeply damaging the country with his endless displays of deliberate racist incitement.