One day after President Trump conspicuously claimed that “many sides” were to blame for the violence that occurred at a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, White House officials have been trying to clarify or expand on the meaning of his remarks. A 32-year-old woman was killed on Saturday when a white nationalist drove his car into a group of protestors in what many are now calling a domestic terror attack. That driver now faces a second-degree murder charge over the hit-and-run.
In response to these events, the bipartisan denunciation of white supremacists has become all-the-justified-rage among American politicians, and even Republicans are taking the opportunity to rebuke the president’s ambiguity.
Inundated with media requests to explain what Trump meant when he attributed the violence to “many sides,” an unnamed White House spokesperson released the following statement on Sunday morning:
The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.
If that statement seems like it stops short of Trump specifically and directly condemning white supremacists, that’s because he hasn’t. The president had the opportunity to do that on Saturday, and again on Sunday, but did not. The only peep he made on Sunday was to retweet an Axios article reporting that the Department of Justice was opening a civil-rights investigation into the hit-and-run in Charlottesville, which is a retweet Trump presumably meant as an endorsement.
And so, with Trump silently standing by his original statement, it was thus left to others — like anonymous White House spokespeople — to try to shift the meaning of the president’s remarks on Saturday. A few of Trump’s cabinet members tried their best on the Sunday shows, as well, but the results weren’t pretty.
Tom Bossert, the president’s Homeland Security advisor, offered up the weakest defense of the three Trump administration officials who hit the airwaves on Sunday. In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union, Bossert essentially repeated what the president said, and added that he was proud of Trump for saying it. For instance, Bossert blamed both the “protestors and counterprotestors” that showed up on Saturday, noting that:
These were people who showed up intentionally looking for trouble. These weren’t people that showed up to protest a statue. I’m sure there were good people in the group that had various opinions on the removal or — or maintenance of the statue. But what they found when they showed up were groups from outside that showed up on both sides looking for trouble, dressed in riot gear, prepared for violence.
Bossert then tried to elevate Trump above the other politicians who actually did denounce the white supremacists at the rally, asserting that, “I think you saw the president stand up very clearly, and not only denounce it, but rise to a presidential level of calling for a countermessage of love and dignity and respect for fellow human beings.”
Of course, in addition to his “countermessage of love,” the other presidential level that Trump rose to on Saturday was to call, in a response to white supremacists rallying against “white genocide” and the removal of a Confederate general’s statue, for Americans to “cherish our history.”
Bossert also worked to shift the blame to Fields, the accused murderer, adding that, “I don’t assign blame or assuage blame or try to press blame to different groups.”
“I believe that the subset of all the groups and all the people who might justify their insanity or violence are covered by the president’s clear denunciation yesterday,” he said. “And I think declaring racial bigotry unacceptable was a very smart and calming thing for the president to do. It was a leadership decision that he took.”
The Homeland Security advisor also praised local authorities for their efforts to prepare for the rally, repeatedly singling out the work of the mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer. But Signer, a Democrat, blamed President Trump on Sunday — directly — for the atmosphere in the country which led to Saturday’s violence. Trump “made a choice in his presidential campaign and the folks around with him to go right to the gutter, to play on our worst prejudices, and I think you’re seeing a direct line from what happened here this weekend to those choices,” Signer said, and indicated that he hoped Fields would be prosecuted as a terrorist.
In an appearance on ABC’s This Week, White House national security advisor H.R. McMaster agreed — speaking for himself — that Fields’s hit-and-run should be considered a terrorist attack. He also claimed, like Bossert, the president was “very clear” in his remarks about Charlottesville:
[T]he president’s been very clear. We cannot tolerate this kind of bigotry, this kind of hatred. And what he did is he called on all Americans to take a firm stand against it […] What the president did is he called out anyone, anyone who is responsible for fomenting this kind of bigotry, hatred, racism, and violence. And I think the president was very clear on that.
And CIA director Mike Pompeo offered an unshockingly similar framing in an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation:
I think the president was, frankly, pretty unambiguous about what his Justice Department is going to do, the way he views how utterly inappropriate it is for this hatred and bigotry. I think the president’s remarks were very clear … [W]hen someone marches with a Nazi flag, that is unacceptable. And I think that’s what the president said yesterday. I think he was speaking very directly to the incident there. We’ve all seen the videotape. And I think he was speaking directly to that and condemning the hatred and the bigotry that was on display yesterday.
Of course, when numerous people have to come out and talk about how unambiguous or “very clear” something is, that is typically pretty definitive proof that clarity has been hard to find. We already expect this White House to have mysterious answers for how they plan to pay for massive tax cuts or end the war in Afghanistan, but when it comes to something as painfully obvious and easy like, “Nazis are bad,” the lack of clarity, especially from the president himself, is all the more revealing.