BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — The White House said in a statement Sunday that when President Trump condemned “all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred” that were on display in Charlottesville this weekend “of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
And three of Trump's top advisers appeared on Sunday morning news shows to defend the vague statement that the president delivered the previous afternoon at his private golf club in New Jersey, although their messaging shifted as the morning progressed. Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a top adviser, broke with her father’s messaging Sunday morning to tweet: “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”
National security adviser H.R. McMaster said on ABC News that the president was “very clear” in his statement and “called out anyone, anyone who is responsible for fomenting this kind of bigotry, hatred, racism and violence.” Later in the morning, McMaster added on NBC News that it “ought to be clear to all Americans” that Trump’s comments about bigotry and hatred included white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He also said that he considers the death of a counterprotester in Charlottesville on Saturday an act of terrorism.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said on CBS News that the president was “specific,” “very clear” and, “frankly, pretty unambiguous” in responding to the violence. He added: “When someone marches with a Nazi flag, that's unacceptable, and I think that's what the president said yesterday.”
And Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, who has been in direct contact with Charlottesville authorities, repeatedly praised the president on CNN for not naming the groups that were involved and instead focusing on an overarching call for Americans to love one another. Bossert said that people “on both sides” showed up in Charlottesville “looking for trouble” and that he won't assign blame for the death of a counterprotester on either group, although he said the president would like to see “swift justice” for the victim. After repeated questioning, Bossert did say that he personally condemns “white supremacists and Nazi groups that espouse this sort of terrorism and exclusion.” He did not say whether the president agrees with him on that.
“The president not only condemned the violence and stood up at a time and a moment when calm was necessary and didn't dignify the names of these groups of people, but rather addressed the fundamental issue,” Bossert said on CNN's “State of the Union.” “And so … what you need to focus on is the rest of his statement.”
While Bossert acknowledged that white supremacy is a problem in the country, he quickly shifted to talking about the greater threat of “a global jihadi terrorist problem.” This is a common tactic used by the Trump administration, which considered refocusing the government's Countering Violent Extremism program on Islamist groups, not white supremacists, and has proposed slashing funding for the program. A recent study found that between 2008 and 2016, the number of designated terrorist attacks on U.S. soil carried out by right-wing extremist groups, including white supremacists, outnumbered those carried out by Islamists by 2 to 1.
In his statement on Saturday, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” He then added for emphasis: “On many sides.”
Numerous Republicans and Democrats have criticized the usually blunt-speaking president for reacting to the violence and racism in Charlottesville in such vague terms, for placing equal blame on the counterprotesters and for not specifically condemning the white supremacists involved.
Trump and some members of his staff have long been accused of quietly pandering to white nationalists, bigots and anti-Semites. Trump's chief strategist is Stephen K. Bannon, who formerly ran the right-wing Breitbart News and advocated for what he calls the “alt-right” movement.
Prominent white nationalists have celebrated Trump's immigration proposals, attempts to bar foreigners from majority-Muslim countries and his criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. On the campaign trail, Trump defended tweeting an image that had been circulating on white supremacy websites and featured his rival Hillary Clinton, cash and a Star of David. In late January, the president released a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that recognized “the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust" but made no mention of the millions of Jews murdered.
After the violence in Charlottesville, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.) urged the president to use the words “white supremacists” and to label what happened Saturday as a terrorist attack. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) declared that “white supremacy is a scourge” that “must be confronted and defeated.” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) tweeted, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer (D) has directly blamed Trump for the explosion of hate in his city this weekend, and he continued to do so Sunday in an interview with CNN. He accused Trump of intentionally courting white supremacists, nationalists and anti-Semitic groups on the campaign trail, and he criticized the president for not condemning these groups.
“This is not hard. There's two words that need to be said over and over again: domestic terrorism and white supremacy,” Signer said. “That is exactly what we saw on display this weekend, and we just aren't seeing leadership from the White House.”
Gardner also appeared on “State of the Union” on Sunday and urged the president to speak out directly on the issue today and “call this white supremacism, white nationalism evil.” He said the president should do so with the same kind of conviction that he has had in “naming terrorism around the globe as evil.” Gardner declined to theorize on why Trump is so hesitant to speak up in specific terms.
“This is not a time for vagaries, this isn’t a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines, this is a time to lay blame,” Gardner said.
The senator added that Trump should not fear any political blowback for doing so.
“They’re not a part of anybody’s base, they’re not a part of this country,” he said. “Call it for what it is. It’s hatred, it’s bigotry. We don’t want them in our base, they shouldn’t be in a base, we shouldn’t call them part of a base.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump needs to “correct the record here.”
"These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House," Graham said. "I don't know why they believe that, but they don't see me as a friend in the Senate, and I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he's their friend."
Some of the leaders of the protest in Charlottesville celebrated the president's statement, reading his vagueness as an endorsement of their cause and celebrating that he appeared to condemn the counterprotesters. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi and white supremacy news and commentary website, attacked Republicans who denounced white supremacy and provided a favorable review of Trump's response.
“Trump comments were good. He didn't attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us," an update on Saturday afternoon stated. " … There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."
Tensions rise as white nationalists hold a rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Members of the president's own administration and some of his close allies are breaking with his messaging, including Ivanka Trump. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, retweeted a message from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee saying that white supremacy “is the worst kind of racism." Anthony Scaramucci, the president's former communications director, said on ABC's “This Week” that he would not have recommended that the president say what he did Saturday.
“I think he needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists and the nature of that,” said Scaramucci, whose White House stint lasted only 10 days.
He later added that it's difficult for White House aides to change the president and his way of thinking, but that those around him need to give “direct advice, to be blunt with him.”
“He likes doing the opposite of what the media thinks he’s gonna do,” Scaramucci said. “I think he’s also of the impression that there’s hatred on all sides, but I disagree with it.”
Scaramucci said Trump “has to move away from that sort of Bannon-bart nonsense” and “move more to the mainstream” way of thinking that is embraced by most moderate Republicans and independents.
Demirjian reported from Washington. John Wagner and Janell Ross in Washington contributed to this report.