President Trump has become more isolated than ever from the Republican Party, world leaders and the business community that once cautiously embraced him — a fissure that was growing for weeks but turned into a chasm following his response to the racist violence in Charlottesville last weekend.
Trump had to disband two corporate advisory councils after a slew of chief executives resigned from the panels. They criticized the president for blaming both white supremacists and counterprotesters for the melees that led to the death of a 32-year-old woman. Republicans continue to distance themselves from Trump as they call on him to more forcefully condemn the racist groups that gathered for the Unite the Right rally. And foreign officials lined up this week to make clear that they strongly disagree with Trump’s view of the events in Charlottesville.
Trump already had stoked tensions in recent weeks as he repeatedly attacked congressional GOP leaders for his stalled legislative agenda, and alarmed allies at home and abroad with threats of military force against North Korea and Venezuela.
But his reaction to last weekend’s violence, which roiled the nation at a time when a president typically provides comfort and guidance, has created deep uncertainty about whether he can effectively lead his party and focus on urgent tasks in the fall, including avoiding a government debt default and moving forward on the tax cuts he promised during the campaign.
“This has done irreparable damage in some ways,” said Joshua Holmes, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who remains close to him. “There have been lingering tension between the president and Capitol Hill here for months. This clearly made it significantly worse. I don’t know of any Republican who is comfortable with where we’re at right now based on the president’s comments.”
On Thursday, Trump tried to focus the debate about whether Confederate statues should be removed nationwide, an issue that is less controversial than his reaction to Charlottesville, but still divisive.
Trump’s troubles began Saturday, when he delivered a statement condemning hatred and bigotry after the chaos in Charlottesville. He faced criticism for blaming “many sides” while not specifically calling out the white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Then on Monday, he issued a more forceful statement, which eased the controversy even if it didn’t satisfy his critics.
But by Tuesday, after returning to New York and Trump Tower for the first time since becoming president, Trump reverted back to his original posture. In a freewheeling, heated news conference that was supposed to highlight a new infrastructure proposal, he again condemned white supremacists but defended some “fine people” who gathered at their rally in Charlottesville and questioned why the “alt-left” had not been similarly criticized for the violent confrontations.
As his aides watched silently, Trump appeared to be in his element: shutting down questions from the “fake news” media, touting the praise he had received from the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in the violence, and touting his winery in Charlottesville.
Among Republicans in Washington, the spectacle seemed to confirm a growing feeling that Trump’s presidency is unlikely to get on track, leaving the party’s leaders in Congress feeling “demoralized,” according to one Republican with close ties to GOP leadership.
“It think it’s fair to say that many of my colleagues are frustrated by the lack of focus on the issues at hand,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). “To the extent that we’re all having to answer questions on these other matters is unhelpful and is distracting, frustrating, and it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to the American people, too.”
Trump already had been picking fights with party leaders, criticizing McConnell in sharply worded tweets for the Senate’s inability to pass health-care legislation. But even if health-care reform is no longer likely to pass, Trump still needs to work closely with Congress if he is to have any hope of advancing legislative priorities such as taxes or infrastructure.
“His agenda was put at tremendous risk by being critical of Senator McConnell and alienating McConnell and McConnell’s entire operation,” said one Republican who is in frequent touch with the White House. “He’s now alienated a majority of rank-and-file members in the House and Senate.”
On Thursday, Trump continued to take aim at members of his party, targeting Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), both of whom have been critical of the president, and suggesting that voters in their states get rid of them.
“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!” Trump tweeted, referring to Flake’s primary opponent.
The consternation over Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville spread beyond the U.S. borders with world leaders, many of whom were already wary of Trump, seeking this week to distance themselves from the president’s comments.
“I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement, without naming Trump. “I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views wherever we hear them.”
As Trump’s standing among voters sank lower this week, reaching a nadir of 34 percent, according to a new Gallup survey, he has increasingly turned inward to his base. His allies have followed his lead in blaming the media for ginning up controversy and holding Trump to a higher standard after Charlottesville.
“What I have seen sharply increase is a sense that he is not being treated fairly,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
Kaufmann said he is not very concerned that Trump’s sinking approval ratings will be a problem for him.
“If you would have asked me this question two years ago, I would have answered an unequivocal yes,” he said. “On the other hand, we’ve seen his poll numbers at low levels in the campaign and during his time as president. I don’t think conventional rules and analysis fit this president.”
Other Republican officials said that there is frustration about the lack of progress in Washington but that much of the anger is being directed at Congress, with the president’s supporters more willing to give him some leeway — for now.
“I think people are generally displeased, and they tend to be focused on the lack of progress on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act,” noted Jeff Hays, chairman of the Republican Party of Colorado. “A lot of the people I talk to, they wish they would have gotten this right in the beginning of January, but they’re tolerant and they understand.”
He added that Trump has created problems for himself.
“He does give his detractors, and he gives the larger media, ample opportunities to focus on things that really are not governance-related,” Hays added.
Trump has yet to see any member of his administration quit in protest over his remarks about the violence in Charlottesville, a move that could escalate his problems quickly, even while some in his Cabinet have gone out of their way to more forcefully condemn white-supremacist groups.
“The racism, bigotry, and hate perpetrated by violent white supremacist groups has no place in America,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. “It does not represent what I spent 23 years defending in the United States military and what millions of people around the globe have died for. We must respond to hate with love, unity and justice. I fully support President Trump and Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions in uniting our communities and prosecuting the criminals to the fullest extent of the law.”
But on an issue on which Trump had previously been given a wide berth — the economy — wide cracks are appearing in his coalition.
Corporate executives who once thought it was in their best interest to stay close to the White House to help shape the president’s agenda condemned Trump’s comments about Charlottesville this week, and eight corporate leaders quit his advisory councils.
Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon called out Trump for missing an opportunity to unite the country.
“As we watched the events and the response from President Trump over the weekend, we too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists,” he wrote.
The business world had been optimistic that a Republican president and Congress would produce comprehensive tax reform. But the executives’ exodus from the president’s circle signals that they are unwilling to associate their brands with Trump.
“It’s going to be treated as a blow because it is a blow,” said David Gergen, a former White House adviser to presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “It darkens the shadows over his legislative agenda.”
He noted that Trump’s remarks Tuesday came at an event meant to highlight a proposal to make it easier to complete infrastructure projects, a top priority for the business community.
“It’s not lost on anybody that they were trying to push through infrastructure and they wandered over into the swamp of racial division,” Gergen said.
Ashley Parker contributed to this report.