First came Joe Biden’s campaign announcement video highlighting President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment about the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville that left a counterprotester dead.
Then Trump dug in, arguing that he was referring not to the self-professed neo-Nazi marchers, but to those who had opposed the removal of a statue of the “great” Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Less than 24 hours later came another act of violence described by authorities as a hate crime: Saturday’s shooting at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., in which a gunman killed one person and injured three others.
Those events have pushed the rising tide of white nationalism to the forefront of the 2020 presidential campaign, putting Trump on the defensive and prompting even some Republicans to acknowledge that the president is taking a political risk by continuing to stand by his Charlottesville comments.
“The president’s handling of Charlottesville was not one of the finer moments of his time in office,” Republican strategist Ryan Williams said. “He shouldn’t take Joe Biden’s bait and re-litigate this controversy.”
In response to the Poway synagogue shooting, Trump delivered a full-throated denunciation of anti-Semitism and hate crimes at the start of his Saturday night rally in Green Bay, Wis. In a statement Sunday, White House spokesman Judd Deere reiterated that Trump and his entire administration “have and will continue to condemn racism, bigotry, and violence of any form.”
Deere said that Trump spoke on Sunday with Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was among those injured in the shooting, and expressed his condolences and support for the Poway community.
And Trump advisers maintain that the president’s comments about Charlottesville were — in the words of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Sunday — “darn near perfection.”
“All white supremacy, all neo-Nazis, all anti-Christianity, all anti-Semitism, all anti-Muslim activity should be condemned,” Conway said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” arguing that Trump’s words were “twisted for many years for political purposes.”
Nonetheless, the rise of white-nationalist violence during Trump’s tenure is emerging as an issue as the president turns his attention toward his reelection campaign.
According to the most recent annual report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has long tracked extremist activity, 39 of the 50 extremist-related murders tallied by the group in 2018 were committed by white supremacists, up from 2017, when white supremacists were responsible for 18 of 34 such crimes.
Trump has previously played down the threat posed by white nationalism. After a gunman last month killed 49 Muslims in two consecutive mosque attacks in New Zealand, Trump was asked by a reporter whether he thought white nationalists were a growing threat around the world. “I don’t, really,” Trump replied. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
Trump also has a long history of anti-Muslim remarks, including saying in 2015 that he would “strongly consider” closing mosques in the United States, declining to rule out the creation of a national Muslim registry and saying during a 2016 CNN interview, “I think Islam hates us.”
Trump’s doubling down on his remarks in response to Biden’s video has prompted calls from the ADL and others for him to be clearer about condemning what actually happened in Charlottesville, where white supremacists brandished torches and chanted anti-Semitic slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”
“We need our leaders to lead, to be clear and consistent in calling out hate when it happens and to recognize there is a through line between Charlottesville and Pittsburgh and Poway,” ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said. “We know the extremists are feeling emboldened because they’re saying so. They’re communicating a sense of energy and optimism in their message boards and in their subreddits, and it should be alarming to all of us.”
In its 2017 report, the ADL cited the murder of Heather Heyer, who was killed when a self-proclaimed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during the Charlottesville rally that year, as having served for many in the country as “a wake-up call to the dangers posed by a re-energized white-supremacist movement.”
Trump addressed Charlottesville twice in recent days — once in an exchange with reporters outside the White House, and again in an interview with conservative radio host Mark Levin. Both times, he did not raise the issue until asked about it and responded to specific questions.
“Many of those people were from the University of Virginia; they were from all around the neighborhood and the area — they just wanted to protest the fact that they want to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump told Levin. “Now, there were a lot of good people in that group. And they were protesting the taking down of statues. . . . And you had some very bad people in each group, too.”
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, said Trump is committed to combating white supremacy and violence in all forms — but is not eager to re-litigate his response to Charlottesville and is unlikely to give a speech tackling the issue.
Democrats on Sunday seized on Trump’s comments about Lee, with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) noting wryly that Trump “always said that he hated losers.”
“The fact of the matter is, Robert E. Lee was a great tactician — was not a great person,” Clyburn said on ABC News’s “This Week.” “Robert E. Lee was a slave owner and a brutal slave master. Thankfully, he lost that war. And I find it kind of interesting that the president is now glorifying a loser. He always said that he hated losers. Robert E. Lee was a loser.”
Asked whether Biden was right to focus on Charlottesville in his announcement video, Clyburn responded, “Absolutely.”
“I think that’s what the crux of this campaign is going to be about. It’s going to be about who can bring this country together,” he said.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that Trump “doesn’t need to get into a tit-for-tat” with Biden on the issue and that his record demonstrates that he does not support white supremacists.
“So many people in this country think that anti-Semitism started in this country on January 21, 2017,” Brooks said, referring to Trump’s first full day in office.
“The reality is we have a very serious problem of anti-Semitism in the United States. It existed before Donald Trump. It will exist after Donald Trump. . . . To lay this somehow at the doorstep of this president is unfair and it’s offensive,” he said.
Not everyone heard condemnation in Trump’s explanation of his Charlottesville remarks, however.
Jonathan M. Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, was holding a discussion on his recently published book, “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland,” at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington on Saturday when a handful of self-proclaimed white nationalists entered and disrupted the event.
Metzl said that while “there are always going to be people with horrific, racist views,” usually those types of sentiments have been largely condemned — but Trump’s remarks on Charlottesville have muddied the waters.
“Part of what was frightening was this was happening and those usual checks and balances may or may not have been there, because the president was doubling down on his Charlottesville comments. . . . Historically, this is the role of government,” he said. “And we have a very different government right now.”