Donald Trump under fire after failing to denounce Virginia white supremacists

President laments ‘hatred, bigotry and violence from many sides’ but senior Republicans and Democrats demand condemnation of far-right extremists

Donald Trump has faced bipartisan criticism after failing to explicitly condemn the role of white supremacists in clashes with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, that culminated in a car running into a crowd, killing at least one person.

The president said he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” on Saturday. He then repeated the phrase “on many sides” for emphasis. A White House spokesperson later amplified the president’s remarks, telling the Guardian: “The president was condemning hatred, bigotry and violence from all sources and all sides. There was violence between protesters and counter-protesters today.”

But there was strong reaction to Trump’s refusal to denounce far-right extremists who had marched through the streets carrying flaming torches, screaming racial epithets and setting upon their opponents.

One dead after car rams into anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville

The clashes started after white nationalists planned a rally around a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee that is slated to be removed, and culminated in a car being deliberately driven into a group of people peacefully protesting the far right rally, killing one person and injuring at least 19. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, described the car ramming as an act of “domestic terrorism”.

Speaking at a previously scheduled event in Bedminster, New Jersey, to discuss healthcare for veterans, Trump said: “I should put out a comment as to what’s going on in Charlottesville.”

After stopping to shake the hands of the assembled veterans, the president said: “We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Trump added that this had been “going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. A long, long time.” Trump added: “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order.”

Trump urged Americans to “love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together. So important. We have to respect each other. Ideally, we have to love each other.”

However, Trump’s remarks met condemnation for being inadequate – not just from Democrats but many members of his own party as well.

The Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio was among those calling for a straightforward condemnation:

Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017

The Republican senator Cory Gardner of Colorado tweeted: “Mr President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” This was echoed by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah who lost a brother in the second world war. “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,” said Hatch on Twitter.

These calls for specific condemnation were echoed by a number of Democrats. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said in a statement: “The march and rally in Charlottesville goes against everything the American flag stands for. President Trump must condemn this in the strongest terms immediately.” The Hawaii senator Brian Schatz offered a pointed comment on Twitter,: “It is not too much to ask to have a president who explicitly condemns nazis.” Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, tweeted at Trump: “No, Mr. President. This is a provocative effort by Neo-Nazis to foment racism and hatred and create violence. Call it out for what it is.”

Before Trump’s remarks, Republican congressional leaders issued strong statements about the events in Virginia.

The Republican House speaker, Paul Ryan, tweeted: “The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant. Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry.”

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, tweeted: “The hate and bigotry witnessed in #Charlottesville does not reflect American values. I wholeheartedly oppose their actions.”

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and father of the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, issued a strident tweet about white nationalism. “‘White supremacy’ crap is worst kind of racism – it’s EVIL and perversion of God’s truth to ever think our Creator values some above others,” Huckabee said on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, the initial White House response came from the Twitter account of the first lady, Melania Trump, not the president: “Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville” at 12:36 on Saturday.

The president did not issue a statement until 40 minutes later, when he said on Twitter: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”

David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan who was the subject of controversy during the 2016 campaign when Trump did not immediately condemn his endorsement, pushed back on this initial tweet. “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,” responded Duke, who was in Charlottesville.

Trump did not specifically mention Charlottesville until a following statement on Twitter, in which he described the clashes as “Sad!” Trump tweeted: “Am in Bedminster for meetings & press conference on V.A. & all that we have done, and are doing, to make it better-but Charlottesville sad!”

The president, in his responses, bemoaned that the clashes were happening when “our country is doing so well in so many ways”, citing low unemployment and the renegotiation of trade deals. He noted: “We have so many incredible things happening in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”

The White House response also included a since deleted tweet from the homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, in which he condemned “the violence and hate in Charlotte”. The city of Charlotte is in North Carolina.


Ben Jacobs and Warren Murray

The GuardianTramp

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