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A Year After Charlottesville, Not Much Has Changed For Trump

22 hours ago
Originally published on August 12, 2018 1:24 am

Updated at 1:14 a.m. ET Sunday

It's not uncommon for President Donald Trump to make statements that draw controversy.

But the backlash he faced a year ago over his response to a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., was unusual even for him.

Ahead of Sunday's anniversary, Trump tried to strike a conciliatory tone on Twitter Saturday morning: "The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division. We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!"

A year ago, Trump faced real pushback for the first time as president over his rhetoric from Republican leaders and even members of his own administration.

There were questions about whether this would be a turning point for the Trump presidency, but ultimately the furor died down.

In the 12 months since that Charlottesville rally, not a lot has changed for Trump. But, the comments may have helped to harden opinions about Trump's approach to race.

"While the president may have scored political points among parts of his base, he's also let loose significant opposition that past Republican presidents have not faced with this level of intensity," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political studies professor at the University of Minnesota.

Now on Sunday, one year after the march in Charlottesville, the white nationalist organizers of the original event are planning to hold another rally in a park near the White House.

"On many sides"

On the day of last year's Charlottesville rally where a counter protester was killed, Trump made brief public remarks about the incident.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," Trump said.

Trump's decision to mention violence on "many sides" immediately drew scrutiny.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado was among those who argued that Trump needed to be more clear about who he was condemning.

"This is not a time for vagaries. This isn't a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines. This is a time to lay blame ... on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred," Gardner said on CNN the day after Trump's initial statement.

In response to the criticism, Trump delivered a statement at the White House that explicitly called out racist groups.

"Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans," Trump said.

But, that walk back did not last long.

The next day during an infrastructure event at Trump Tower, Trump held an impromptu press conference where he seemed to double down on his original comment. He said there was blame on both sides and seemed to equate the actions of the counter protesters with those of the white nationalists.

"You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides," Trump said.

After that press conference, the outrage at Trump from both sides of the aisle intensified.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who until that time had not been very critical of Trump as president, said Trump "messed up."

"It sounded like a moral equivocation or at the very least moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity," Ryan said on CNN.

Corporate executives pulled out of two White House business advisory panels as they attempted to distance themselves from Trump. The two panels ended up disbanding.

There was speculation that some White House officials might leave, as well. Trump's top economic adviser at the time, Gary Cohn, acknowledged to the Financial Times that month that he faced enormous pressure to quit over the comments.

Ultimately, he said he decided to stay. And there were no resignations in the top ranks of the Trump administration. Outside of some harsh statements, most Republicans in Congress also continued to enthusiastically back Trump.

The White House was able to eventually move past the crisis and focus on other items on its agenda, like tax cuts and trade policy.

Controversial rhetoric continues

Trump, for his part, has not been hesitant about making provocative statements around issues of race since the events in Charlottesville.

He has repeatedly attacked NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black Americans.

He has also questioned the intelligence of prominent black figures, including NBA superstar LeBron James and Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

His comments about illegal immigration have also drawn rebuke from some opponents, who argue he uses dehumanizing language.

In June, Trump tweeted that Democrats want to allow illegal immigrants to "infest our country" no matter how bad they are.

Trump says his harsh language is aimed at gang members and dangerous criminals.

The White House defends Trump against charges of racism, saying he has been clear that he condemns white supremacy.

Jacobs argued that Trump's incendiary language may be turning off moderate voters who view the president's rhetoric as divisive.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll released earlier this week found 55 percent of voters say race relations have worsened under Trump.

In a Quinnipiac University poll last month, voters were split on whether Trump was a racist, with 49 percent saying he is and 47 percent saying he is not. But, that same poll found that 55 percent of voters said that Trump has emboldened people who hold racist beliefs to express those beliefs publicly.

"He has taken a political hit. And it shows up in polls that describe the president as being harmful to race relations. It also is factoring I think to the voting that we're going to see this fall in which we're seeing white suburban communities deserting the president," Jacobs said.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A year ago, President Trump's remarks about a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville sparked outrage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.

SIMON: The backlash was intense. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports now on what has not changed for President Trump in the year after the violence in Virginia.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: On the day of the rally, President Trump seemed to equate the actions of counterprotesters with those of the marching white nationalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.

RASCOE: Criticism of the president's words came from all sides. Members of his own party immediately condemned his reaction to the rally. It was the first time as president that Trump faced a rebellion in his own ranks. At first, Trump tried to clarify his comment by calling racism evil and white supremacy repugnant. But in a subsequent statement at Trump Tower, he seemed to double down on his original comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

RASCOE: Those words, fine people on both sides, went too far for Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who up to that point had been hesitant to criticize President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: I do believe that he messed up. It sounded like a moral equivocation or, at the very least, moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity.

RASCOE: After the Trump Tower statement, there was speculation that members of Trump's Cabinet might resign. His top economic adviser at the time, Gary Cohn, acknowledged to the Financial Times that he faced enormous pressure to quit. But there were resignations from two White House business advisory groups; the groups later disbanded. The Trump Cabinet, though, remained intact. And soon, it was back to business as usual. Lawrence Jacobs is a political studies professor at the University of Minnesota. He says Republican leaders did not back up their complaints, and that sent a message.

LAWRENCE JACOBS: The message to Donald Trump is, we're going to slap you on the wrist, but we're not going to take further action. In effect, it's been a spiral of silence in which Republicans see that, no, their leaders are not going to take real action.

RASCOE: The White House defends Trump's response to Charlottesville. His staff says he's been clear that he condemns violence and white supremacy. Since Charlottesville, Trump has not stopped making provocative statements on race, whether on immigration or about black athletes taking a knee in the NFL.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn't be playing. You shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country.

RASCOE: Comments like that one on "Fox & Friends" may not do immediate damage to Trump. His supporters at rallies seem to relish Trump's most strident speeches. But Jacobs says they may ultimately turn off some voters.

JACOBS: While the president may have scored political points among parts of his base, he's also let loose significant opposition that past Republican presidents have not faced with this level of intensity.

RASCOE: A recent Politico poll found that 55 percent of voters say race relations have worsened under Trump. We have yet to see whether concerns about his comments on race will outweigh the strong support of his base. The true test will be at the ballot box this November. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.