The White House on Sunday sought to quell criticism of President Trump’s failure to denounce by name the white supremacists behind a spate of violence in Charlottesville, a response that associates said was based largely on Trump’s own read of the hate-fueled melee with counterprotesters.
In a statement, and through aides appearing on Sunday talk shows, the White House defended Trump’s general public condemnation Saturday of the events that led to three deaths and dozens of injuries in the picturesque college town in Virginia.
“Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups,” the White House said in a brief statement, elaborating on Trump’s remarks from his golf club here Saturday in which he decried an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” but did not explicitly call out any party for blame.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, faced continuing questions Sunday about why it took Attorney General Jeff Sessions as long as it did Saturday to announce a hate-crime investigation and why the FBI has not labeled a deadly car-ramming incident Saturday as an act of “domestic terrorism.”
Sessions did not announce that the department would open a civil rights investigation until nearly 11 p.m. Saturday night, after Democratic and Republican lawmakers called for the action. It gave no indication of how broad that investigation will be.
Sessions is scheduled to appear on three network morning shows Monday to talk about his department’s response.
Sunday’s White House efforts did little to tamp down criticism, including from many Republicans, who said Trump had missed an opportunity for moral leadership and to distance himself from white nationalist groups that embraced his presidency.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump needs to “correct the record here.”
“These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House, and I would urge the president to dissuade that,” Graham said.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster, among the Trump officials to fan out on the public affairs shows, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Trump was committed “to bring all Americans together.”
“I’m sure you will hear more from the president about this,” McMaster said.
Aides said Trump would continue to get updates on events in Charlottesville, but it was unclear what other steps the White House might take. Trump stayed out of public view and remained uncharacteristically silent on Twitter through Sunday afternoon.
The president plans to return to Washington on Monday for part of the day and could face additional reporter questions if he conducts a promised news conference.
The development of Trump’s statement Saturday afternoon offered a revealing window into how the White House works in such situations, according to two people familiar with the response. They said that when Trump was first briefed on Charlottesville, he was told that various groups had entered the city and were protesting.
That early context – that many groups were involved in violence and not just white nationalists – quickly colored his thinking and prompted him to comment to others in broad terms about the crisis, the people said, requesting anonymity to describe private conversations with White House officials.
Trump’s approach Saturday – trusting his instincts, averting talk of white nationalism and feeling no obligation to grapple with its consequences – echoed how the president responded last year to an endorsement from David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who appeared in Charlottesville, the people said.
During the Duke episode and over the weekend, Trump relied almost entirely on his own read of the controversy and responded in his own way rather than reading from talking points from communications aides, the people said.
Trump disavowed hate but did not delve into details. He shrugged off calls from Republicans and others to do so as a politically correct distraction that would not give him credit for his original statement.
The backlash over Trump’s public statement Saturday also posed an early test for new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. But Trump associates played down Kelly’s role, saying the retired Marine general was brought in to bring discipline to the staff and wasn’t a driving force behind Trump’s choice of words.
Few of the president’s top aides were with him in Bedminster as he composed the Charlottesville statement Saturday.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders left the area Friday morning, and reporters who tried to email her received an “out of office” response.
The president delivered his statement during an awkward bill-signing ceremony on veterans health-care legislation in a club ballroom at his golf club. As he started to leave, reporters shouted questions at him, asking if he would condemn white supremacy. Trump realized he had yet to sign the legislation, so he returned to a small desk to do so. He then left a second time, again ignoring questions.
On Sunday night, protesters gathered on a busy corner here near the public library and a community garden to protest the president, who was staying down the road. One woman held an orange sign that read: “Say it: Domestic terrorism.” Other signs read: “Impeach Trump,” “No hate,” and “Make America Kind Again.”
Civil rights leaders and other activist groups not only urged Trump to speak out more forcefully Sunday but also to fire White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and others whom they accused of having connections to the white national groups. Bannon formerly ran the right-wing Breitbart News and advocated for what he calls the “alt-right” movement.
Bannon was not in New Jersey as events unfolded Saturday. Instead, he was in Washington over the weekend, working at the White House on the rollout of new trade measures that would punish China for intellectual property violations, according to a longtime Bannon associate.
While Bannon has harsh critics within the West Wing who disagree with his hard-line nationalism and have urged Trump to remove him, he has purposefully kept a lower profile in recent months that has helped him hold on to his post, the associate said. In an awkward exchange, McMaster deflected multiple questions during a “Meet the Press” interview Sunday to say whether he can continue to work with Bannon.
On Sunday morning, Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a top White House adviser, offered a more direct condemnation of the white nationalist groups than her father, writing on Twitter: “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”
While the White House elaborated on Trump’s remarks in the Sunday statement, three of Trump’s top advisers went on television to offer defenses of the president.
Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, who has been in direct contact with Charlottesville authorities, repeatedly praised the president on CNN for not naming the groups involved and instead focusing on an overarching call for Americans to love one another.
Bossert said that people “on both sides” showed up in Charlottesville “looking for trouble” and that he wouldn’t assign blame for the death of a counterprotester on either group, although he said the president would like to see “swift justice” for the victim.
McMaster said on ABC’s “This Week” that the president was “very clear” in his statement and “called out anyone, anyone who is responsible for fomenting this kind of bigotry, hatred, racism and violence.”
Later in the morning, McMaster added on “Meet the Press” that it “ought to be clear to all Americans” that Trump’s comments about bigotry and hatred included white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He also said that he considers the death of a counterprotester in Charlottesville on Saturday an act of terrorism.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said on CBS News that the president was “frankly, pretty unambiguous” in responding to the violence. He added: “When someone marches with a Nazi flag, that is unacceptable, but I think that’s what the president’s saying.”
Among those critical of Trump on Sunday morning was Anthony Scaramucci, the president’s short-lived former communications director, who said on ABC’s “This Week” that he believed Trump “needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists and the nature of that.” Scaramucci’s White House stint lasted only 10 days.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., among the growing number of lawmakers critical of Trump’s statement, appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” and urged the president to speak out directly on the issue and “call this white supremacism, white nationalism evil.” He said the president should do so with the same kind of conviction that he has had in “naming terrorism around the globe as evil.”
Throughout the day Saturday, former Justice Department officials –including former Manhattan U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, former attorney general Eric Holder and former head of the civil rights division Vanita Gupta – called for Sessions to announce that the department would conduct a federal investigation into the Charlottesville violence.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called not only for a federal investigation but also for the Justice Department to designate the car-ramming incident an act of “domestic terrorism.” The department has not done so.
Late Saturday night, Holder sent out two tweets. Among them: “If ISIS rammed a car into a crowd this would be labeled quickly & logically. Charlottesville – call it what it is, domestic terrorism.”
At about 11 p.m., the Justice Department announced that a federal civil rights investigation had been opened “into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident that occurred earlier Saturday morning.”
A person familiar with the probe said the investigation is not limited to the car’s driver, and agents will investigate whether others were involved in planning the episode.
The investigation will be conducted by the Richmond FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia, headed by acting U.S. attorney Rick Mountcastle.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · John Wagner, Jenna Johnson, Robert Costa, Sari Horwitz