BRIDGEWATER, New Jersey (NYTIMES) - White House officials, under siege over President Donald Trump’s reluctance to condemn white supremacists for the weekend’s bloody rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, tried to clarify his comments as critics in both parties intensified demands that he adopt a stronger, more unifying message.
A statement on Sunday (Aug 13) – issued more than 36 hours after the protests began – did not single out “white supremacists” alone, but instead included criticism of “all extremist groups” for the violence that led to one death. It came in an e-mail sent to reporters in the president’s travelling press pool, and was attributed to an unnamed representative.
It was not attributed directly to Trump, who often uses Twitter to communicate directly on controversial topics.
The e-mail was sent “in response” to questions about Trump’s remarks, in which he blamed the unrest “on many sides” while speaking on Saturday before an event for military veterans at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, where the president is on vacation.
"The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together," the White House statement on Sunday said.
Thomas P Bossert, the White House homeland security adviser, in an interview Sunday on CNN's State of the Union, dismissed any suggestion that the president had failed to adequately condemn white supremacists.
Bossert praised the statement the president made on Saturday - which denounced the "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides" - saying that Trump had appropriately criticised an event that "turned into an unacceptable level of violence at all levels".
Trump consulted a broad range of advisers before speaking on Saturday, most of whom told him to sharply criticise the white nationalist protesters. The president listened attentively, according to a person familiar with the discussions, but repeatedly steered the conversation back to the breakdown of "law and order", and the responsibility of local officials to stem the violence.
Two Virginia state troopers who were involved in the response to the violence died when their helicopter crashed in a wooded area near the campus on Saturday.
As the gravity of the events on Saturday became clearer, the pressure on Trump to make a stronger statement came from his innermost circle of advisers and family.
“With the moral authority of the presidency, you have to call that stuff out,” Anthony Scaramucci, an ally of Trump who served briefly as White House communications director last month, told George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“I wouldn’t have recommended that statement,” added Scaramucci, whose abbreviated tenure was characterised by a pledge to let Trump express himself without interference from staff members.
“I think he would have needed to have been much harsher.”
Scaramucci, a New York hedge fund executive, blamed the influence of Trump’s embattled chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who ran Breitbart News, a website that attracted a substantial following among white nationalists.
Scaramucci said there was a “sort of Bannon-bart influence” that “is a snag on the president.”
Still, the tone and tenor of the president’s comments on Saturday – noticeably less fiery than what he has had to say on Twitter and in public settings about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell – reflected Trump’s own thinking.
And the episode again proved the limitations of Trump’s family, which was once expected to exert a moderating influence on his presidency.
Ivanka Trump, a senior adviser to her father, used Twitter early Sunday to denounce the violence in Charlottesville, becoming the highest-ranking administration official to condemn the protesters on the record.
“There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis,” she wrote on Sunday.