Poll shows strong disapproval of Trump's response to Charlottesville violence

US President Donald Trump speaks following a meeting at the Trump Tower in New York City, on Aug 15, 2017.
US President Donald Trump speaks following a meeting at the Trump Tower in New York City, on Aug 15, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Twice as many Americans disapprove than approve of  United States President Donald Trump's response to the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, protests led by white supremacists, although a majority of Republicans offer at least tepid support in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Mr Trump's handling of the racially charged clashes at the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug 12 erupted into a major flashpoint in his administration and earned him rebukes from members of Congress, military leaders and major business executives.

The President equivocated in denouncing the hate groups and cast blame on "both sides" for the deadly violence, prompting criticism that he was fanning racial tensions.

The Post-ABC survey finds overwhelming majorities across party lines, saying it is unacceptable to hold white supremacist views, while 9 per cent say such views are acceptable.

The public is less united on a central criticism of  Mr Trump's remarks following the protests, with 42 per cent saying he is putting white supremacists on equal standing with those who oppose these groups. Thirty-five per cent say he is not equating the two, while the rest surveyed - 23 per cent - offer no opinion.

The poll underscores the degree to which Mr Trump's base has largely stuck with him during the most tumultuous week of his presidency, in which few Republicans in Washington defended his response to the protests and many criticised him for not pinning blame clearly on the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

His overall approval rating of 37 per cent in the latest survey is little different from his 36 per cent mark in July and other polling prior to the protests, although it is still lower than that for his recent predecessors in the White House this early in their tenures.

The President offered a shifting series of responses to the mayhem in which James Fields Jr, 20, an Ohio man who had reportedly espoused neo-Nazi views, allegedly slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others.

After initially condemning violence "on many sides", Mr Trump waited two days amid mounting political pressure before denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis in prepared remarks at the White House.

A day later, however, Mr Trump reversed course and again blamed "both sides", criticising liberal-leaning counterprotesters for acting "very, very violently" during a defiant news conference at Trump Tower in New York.

Those remarks provoked a widespread backlash, including the resignation of several members of two presidential business advisory councils that were promptly dissolved.

Mr Trump followed up by tweeting a defence of Confederate statues, saying their removal would be "foolish" and amounted to a revisionist attack on the history and culture of southern states after the Civil War. In doing so, he equated Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The "Unite the Right" rally had been organised as a protest against the Charlottesville city council's decision to remove a Lee statue on public land.

A majority of self-identified Republicans - more than six in 10 - approve of  Mr Trump's response to the protests, according to the Post-ABC poll, while about two in 10 disapprove and the same share offer no opinion.

Overall, Mr Trump maintains an 80 per cent job approval rating among Republicans, a number little changed from recent surveys. But the percentage that approves "strongly" - just about half of the GOP - is down 10 percentage points from last month.

Some Trump allies voiced concerns that his efforts to bring more discipline and better messaging to the White House with the addition of new Chief of Staff John Kelly three weeks ago was already failing due to the President's unwillingness to change.

Mr Trump's response to the Charlottesville protests disappointed top aides, though none offered public criticism or resigned in protest. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is Jewish, denounced the white supremacist groups, but said he supported Trump's response.

The departure of Trump's chief strategist, Mr Stephen Bannon, late last week offered hope to some moderates that the White House would move away from some of its most divisive rhetoric and extreme policy positions. Mr Bannon has returned to the helm of Breitbart News, which he once called a platform for the alt-right - a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.

Mr Bannon, who clashed with other Trump advisers, was one of the few to enthusiastically endorse Mr Trump's rhetoric after Charlottesville.

The Post-ABC survey found that roughly one in six Americans either support the alt-right or say it is acceptable to hold white supremacist or neo-Nazi views. This subgroup splits evenly in approving and disapproving of Mr Trump's response to protests - and approves of his overall job performance by 54 to 43 per cent.

Beyond these groups, reactions to Mr Trump's rhetoric is far more negative. Nearly twice as many political independents disapprove as approve of his response to the protests, 55 to 28 per cent, while 84 per cent of Democrats say they disapprove.

The poll found broad disapproval of Mr Trump's Charlottesville reaction among racial minority groups. More than eight in 10 African Americans and nearly two-thirds of Hispanics disapprove. Among whites, 49 per cent disapprove, while 35 per cent approve.

The partisan divide extends to whether Mr Trump's response has put neo-Nazi and white supremacist views on equal footing with opponents of these groups. Democrats say he has done this by a roughly two to one margin, while Republicans are a mirror reverse.

Independents lean narrowly towards saying Mr Trump has put white supremacists on equal footing with their opponents, by 42 to 36 per cent.

The survey is among the first to measure support for the alt-right. About 10 per cent of adults support the movement, including similar shares of Democrats and Republicans. While it has gained greater attention after Charlottesville protests alongside Nazi and Ku Klux Klan demonstrators, just about four in 10 Americans think the alt-right holds neo-Nazi or white supremacist views. About two in 10 say it does not, while another four in 10 have no opinion on the movement.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted from Aug 16 to 20 among a random national sample of 1,014 adults reached on mobile and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.