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How Trump has attempted to recast his response to Charlottesville

President Trump's continuing comments about the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., have been widely criticized over the past two years. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Hours after Joe Biden launched his 2020 campaign by attacking President Trump for his response to a deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the president began to spin a yarn.

The August 2017 demonstration was actually just a group of “neighborhood” folks from the local University of Virginia community who simply “wanted to protest the fact that they want to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said in an interview with conservative radio host Mark Levin in late April.

Trump himself had merely been supporting those same purportedly peaceful protesters when he said there were “very fine people on both sides,” he continued.

In fact, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — which left one woman dead and 19 injured — was explicitly organized by a group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis as a celebration of white nationalism. The official event was presaged by a nighttime parade in which rallygoers held tiki torches aloft while chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil,” a reference to a nationalist slogan used in Nazi Germany.

“It is a misrepresentation of what was happening in Charlottesville to say it was a statue protest that went wrong,” said Nicole Hemmer, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center who lives in Charlottesville and attended the rally as an observer. “Anyone who was there that day would have walked into a park of people waving Nazi flags and people who were Klansmen. It was not a secret who put that rally on that day.” 

For Trump, his recasting of Charlottesville is just the latest version of a story he has been altering and embellishing over the past 21 months in defense of one of the lowest points of his presidency, when he attracted bipartisan opprobrium for his seeming reluctance to forcefully condemn white supremacy. Even in his revisionist retelling, the president’s decision to lavish praise on Lee — a slave owner who led Confederate troops in defense of human bondage — leaves in place a level of ambiguity for those in his political base sympathetic to alt-right causes.

His approach to Charlottesville highlights a number of recurring themes in Trump’s responses to controversy: his refusal to apologize or admit error; his defiance in the face of critics; his willingness to view facts as malleable in the service of self-preservation; and his ability to speak abstrusely in a way that provides fodder for defenders and detractors alike. 

White House officials reject any suggestion that Trump has been equivocal on white supremacists.

“President Trump and the entire Administration have and will continue to condemn racism, bigotry, and violence in all forms — and any claim to the contrary is false, disgusting, and a slanderous attempt to sow division in America,” spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement, citing the administration’s relationship with Israel and historically low unemployment rates for blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans.

But Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, said Trump’s continued reticence to confront white supremacists “is not a dog whistle picked up by the alt-right — it’s a bullhorn the whole country can hear.”

According to the ADL’s most recent annual report, white supremacists were responsible for 39 of the 50 extremist-related murders the group counted in 2018, an increase from the previous year, when 18 of 34 such crimes were committed by white supremacists.

A report in February by the Southern Poverty Law Center identified a record 1,020 hate groups operating across the country in 2018. It also found that the number of deaths linked to the radical right had increased: In the United States and Canada, at least 40 people have been killed by white supremacists.

 “It has emboldened extremists,” Greenblatt said of Trump’s ambivalent posturing. “How do we know this? Because they say so. It’s spurred this new, nativistic nationalism that’s playing out on college campuses and social media and now cities across the country.”

'Very fine people on both sides'

The president’s response to the Charlottesville rally — three whiplash statements over four days — seemed to encapsulate his uncertainty over how strongly to condemn the white-supremacist groups behind the event.

On Aug. 12, 2017, after an avowed neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, Trump offered a brief initial statement from his private golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. He denounced “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” — repeating “on many sides” a second time for emphasis. 

The statement was widely condemned as creating a false equivalency between the two groups and for not going far enough. Back at the White House two days later — urged on by worried aides — the president delivered a more forceful, scripted statement in a hastily arranged news conference. 

“Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups,” he said. 

Those remarks, however, left Trump frustrated. The president told aides in the stately Diplomatic Reception Room that his mea culpa was the “worst speech I’ve ever given” and “the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made,” according to accounts the journalist Bob Woodward provided in his book “Fear,” about the Trump presidency.

The next day, during a news conference ostensibly about infrastructure at Trump Tower in New York, the president unleashed a freewheeling riff on the violence at the rally.

In one breath, he said, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis or the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally” — a statement his allies have latched on to in defense of his handling of the issue to claim the president was always clear in his denunciations of bigotry and hate-fueled violence.

Yet, in the next breath, Trump asserted, “there’s blame on both sides . . . very fine people on both sides.”

The last of his three statements was classic Trump — raw, visceral, unfiltered — and, in the eyes of many, his most honest response. The tableau of Trump blaming both sides as John F. Kelly, his chief of staff at the time, stood by grim-faced, was a reflection of “a president who is very frustrated at being told what to say, and who reverts back to his genuine reaction, that there were very fine people on both sides,” Hemmer said.

In his initial remarks about Charlottesville, and his recent ones praising Lee, Trump was relying on the rhetorical tools he frequently deploys during controversy — making contradictory or murky statements that allow him and his defenders to claim whatever benefits them in the moment. 

Despite his brief condemnation of neo-Nazis and white nationalists, for example, members of those same groups heard in Trump’s comments support for their ideology when he blamed both sides.

“What he’s signaling to his base — including those that are explicitly racist or with implicit racial bias — is: ‘I’m your guy,’ ” said C. Shawn McGuffey, a sociology professor and the director of African diaspora studies at Boston College. “He can say all he wants that, ‘I’m not a racist, I’m not a white nationalist,’ but when white nationalists call you a white nationalist, you’re clearly signaling something.” 

David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, illustrates the president’s Rorschach messaging. The day of the rally, Duke praised Trump, enthusing that the march represented “a turning point for the people of this country.”

“We are determined to take our country back,” he said. “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”

But after Trump disavowed hatred and violence in a tweet, Duke responded angrily on social media, writing, “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.”

An unsuccessful presidential candidate who endorsed Trump in 2016, Duke’s feelings toward the president now are mixed. “He’s still giving some decent rhetoric, but he’s not keeping his promises,” Duke said in an interview last week , citing Trump’s tough talk on immigration and his vow to enact middle-class tax relief. 

At the same time, Duke expressed an appreciation for some of Trump’s language on Charlottesville.

“He was the only person in the entirety of the U.S. government who pointed out that all the fault was not with the people who came there to defend the Robert E. Lee statue, and those who came to defend the right and heritage of white people,” Duke said.

'Concocting a phony story'

The launch of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign on April 25 brought the white-supremacist rally back into the national discussion and immediately put Trump on the defensive. The president had largely avoided commentary on Charlottesville over the past year, save for an anniversary statement in August condemning the “riots,” which made no mention of white supremacists.

The former vice president’s announcement video featured footage of the rallygoers, dressed in makeshift riot gear, as he described “their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging and bearing the fangs of racism.”

Calling Charlottesville “a defining moment for this nation in the last few years,” Biden criticized Trump for praising the “very fine people on both sides” and portrayed his candidacy as part of a moral battle for the soul of the nation. 

Leon Panetta, a former secretary of defense, CIA director and White House chief of staff, said delving back into Charlottesville is perilous territory for the president. “It brings attention to probably one of his worst failings, which is his inability to acknowledge when he says something stupid,” Panetta said. “It’s probably one of the worst things he has said during his presidency.”

But Trump couldn’t help but respond, and he did so by distorting his initial reaction. He repeatedly praised Lee — a line of defense largely absent from his rhetoric in the aftermath of the 2017 event. He said he was never condoning white supremacy but simply defending the rights of peaceful protesters who did not want the Lee statue taken down. 

The defense left many unconvinced. Biden accused Trump of “concocting a phony story.”

“The very rally was advertised — advertised — as a white-supremacist rally,” Biden told a crowd April 30, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Anti-Semitic chants were clear. Hatred was on the march, and he knew it.”

McGuffey said in an era of news micro-cycles, Trump is “trying to rewrite history, he’s trying to clean it up.” 

“He’s had almost two years now to do that, and this is his latest version,” he said. 

Trump’s defenders, however, argue the president has been consistent in his outspokenness about hatred since the beginning. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on April 28, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Trump’s response to Charlottesville “was twisted for many years” and was “darn near perfection.”

“I think anytime a president is willing to condemn people who hate other people based on their race of their religion it’s a great day for America, and that’s what he did,” Conway said.

Another White House official also argued that it is unfair to suggest Trump is sympathetic toward neo-Nazis or other extremists given his record on condemning anti-Semitism, including after the shooting last month at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California.

In focusing on Lee, Trump also managed to plunge the nation into a semi-academic debate about the legacy of the Confederate general while obscuring his original response. On ABC’s “This Week” on April 28, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a veteran civil rights activist, called Lee “a great tactician” before excoriating him as “a brutal slave master” and a “loser.”

Greenblatt said the discussion about Lee allows Trump to defend himself while signaling to the alt-right members of his base that he tacitly agrees with them. 

“When you say you’re against white supremacy but then you praise Robert E. Lee, the general who led us in the war in favor of white supremacy, I think it’s safe to say these are contradictory messages,” he said. 

Trump’s latest remarks, Greenblatt added, should be viewed as part of a troubling broader arc, from Charlottesville to the white-supremacist shootings at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at the Poway, Calif., synagogue.

“These aren’t outliers on a scatter plot,” Greenblatt said. “These are data points on a trend line.”