When President Trump’s supporters rail against efforts to rein in his unpredictable, provocative behavior, they often call on White House aides, news reporters and Republicans in Congress to “let Trump be Trump.”
But from Capitol Hill to the American heartland Tuesday night, the question was posed over and over again, “Which Trump?”
Was it the Trump who responded to calls from senators and ordinary citizens to “call evil by its name,” as Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) put it? Or was it the Trump who believes that he got where he is today by sticking to his guns and saying what no one else in public life would dare say?
The president’s rhetorical ricochet — from declining on Saturday to name the bad guys in the violent confrontation in Charlottesville to his muted acknowledgment Monday that neo-Nazis and white supremacists “are criminals and thugs” and then Tuesday to a classic doubling down on his original remarks — seemed almost perfectly designed to highlight some basic truths about Donald Trump: He does not like to be told what to say. He will always find a way to pull the conversation back to himself. And he is preternaturally inclined to dance with the ones who brought him.
As his top aides stood behind him in the lobby of Trump Tower Tuesday, looking like they were wondering whether it was possible to slide right into the pink marble, the president fielded questions about the aftermath of the Charlottesville confrontation between far-right marchers and those who protested against them.
Trump’s language and demeanor were about as different as possible from his formal White House statement the day before. In his remarks Monday, Trump stood stiffly and spoke in complete sentences, using measured, calm rhetoric of the sort that he’d never come up with himself: “Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America,” he said. “In times such as these, America has always shown its true character — responding to hate with love, division with unity, and violence with an unwavering resolve for justice.”
One day later, without teleprompter or script, Trump reverted to the kind of brash refusal to say what the establishment politicians demanding of him all weekend.
“The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement,” he said. Then, the man who takes deep pride in never backing off from anything, the man who believes that one must never show weakness by retreating from one’s words, went right back to where he’d started on Saturday.
Speaking about his Monday speech, he said that “second statement was made with knowledge, with great knowledge. There’s still things — excuse me,” he admonished a reporter who was interrupting him — “there’s still things that people don’t know.”
Just as he had on Saturday when he condemned violence “on many sides,” repeating that phrase for emphasis, Trump now used his Tuesday exchange with reporters to double down on the idea that blame should be directed at the left as well as the right.
“Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at — excuse me! — what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right,” he said “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
This was Trump unleashed, the Trump of the rallies, not the Trump of those stiff, scripted, stifling appearances with foreign leaders, those sessions where the president sits hunched over, his hands between his legs, puckering his lips, looking mightily uncomfortable, stuck with the lines put together for him by diplomats and aides who worry over every word.
Now, he was in his element, on his own, putting it right in the face of those who pester him constantly and poke fun at him on TV. “I’m not finished, fake news,” he told another interrupting reporter.
Trump has a long history of using phrases such as “on many sides” to deflect blame or to splinter any notion that he faces a united opposition. He likes to position himself as one solid, clear force lined up against a noisy, messy, unfocused opposition. In this case, although he had briefly characterized the offending party in the Virginia violence as far-right groups, he was now returning to his more typical construction, in which there was no reason to bash all of the marchers as right-wing extremists because some of them had a reasonable cause.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis,” Trump said. “I’ve condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch … Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.”
But there were no chants about Gen. Lee on Friday night, when the far-right marchers carried their torches through the University of Virginia campus. The chants were about Jews and others who the marchers blame for their diminished role in American society.
The president said he’d now had the chance to take a very close look at what happened on the streets of Charlottesville, and so he would assume the role he most relishes — the truthteller who will say things that no one else will: “I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it, and you have — you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.”
Trump said Tuesday that Saturday’s confrontation “was a horrible day.” And he made clear again that “the driver of the car” that plowed into pedestrians in Charlottesville “is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country.” But then the president turned to one of his favorite rhetorical tools, using casual language to strip away any definite blame, any clear moral stand, and instead send the message that nothing is certain, that everything is negotiable, that ethics are always situational.
“You can call it terrorism,” he said. “You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.”