NEW YORK (AFP) — Barely 200 days into his already chaotic presidency, Donald Trump found himself an isolated figure on Wednesday after his extraordinary defense of white nationalist protesters sent business leaders and political allies scurrying for cover.
Trump upended the norms of American political discourse on Tuesday when, in a ferocious back-and-forth with reporters, he declared there had been “very fine people, on both sides” at a clash between anti-fascists and white supremacists.
A violent fracas broke out in the Virginia college town of Charlottesville Saturday at a rally attended by members of organized neo-Nazi and so-called “Alt-Right” groups protesting the removal of a Confederate statue, and one counter-protester was killed when a suspected Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd.
Trump’s initial response was seen as mealy-mouthed by those demanding a full-throated condemnation of racism and violence, but his further remarks on Tuesday — when he doubled down on his claim that there had been “blame on both sides” — set off a political firestorm that may come to be seen as a turning point in his presidency.
Republican lawmakers, advisers to the president and even senior members of his own administration have sought to distance themselves from the comments.
Addressing reporters as he welcomed Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to trade talks on Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he wanted to “comment on the recent events in Virginia and our condemnation of that kind of hate and violence.”
“There is just simply no place for that in our public discourse. And I want to add our own condemnation to that,” Tillerson said.
Almost immediately after the Tuesday press conference, senior business executives began dropping out of White House economic advisory councils. Trump tried to save face on Wednesday by abolishing two of the bodies, but not before it had become clear that America’s captains of industry could no longer risk the damage to their brands and reputation.
Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said the members of Trump’s now defunct Strategic and Policy Forum had “agreed to disband.”
“I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days. Racism, intolerance and violence are always wrong,” he wrote.
The chorus of criticism from the political left was as loud as it was predictable — but few in the Republican camp were willing to speak up publicly to defend the president. Two of his predecessors — George Bush and his son George W. Bush — issued a statement urging Americans to “reject racial bigotry… in all its forms.”
‘He has to fix this’
And, while Trump’s critics included some of the most respected figures in public life, the background of his most vocal supporters did not do him any favors — he was hailed by David Duke, a former KKK leader and avowed racist and anti-Semite, for his “courage” in standing up for the white nationalist protesters.
On Trump’s favored news network, Fox, an anchor complained that he had struggled to find Republicans to come on a show to defend the president and many observers concluded that the unscripted Trump of Tuesday was the more authentic version of the man who delivered a more measured statement from the White House on Monday in which he denounced “racist violence.”
Those Republican lawmakers and party bosses who did speak criticized their leader.
Senator Lindsey Graham said many Republicans would “fight back against the idea that the party of Lincoln has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world.”
“He has to fix this and Republicans have to speak out. Plain and simple,” Ohio governor John Kasich, who fought and lost to Trump in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination last year, told NBC’s “Today” show.
Obama tweet makes history
Trump had triggered a first wave of indignation immediately after Saturday’s events, when critics said his comments were too vague and did not go far enough to denounce those who had turned up in neo-Nazi regalia and bearing shields and burning torches to defend a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee — a hero of the slave-holding Confederacy.
Former president Barack Obama, Trump’s immediate predecessor, caught the public mood better when he reacted by tweeting a quote from South African leader Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…" pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
The tweet is now the most “liked” ever sent on the social network, Twitter said.
According to a report from insider news platform Axios, Trump’s controversial strategy chief Steve Bannon was delighted by the press conference — dubbing it a victory for the nationalist camp in the White House over the “globalists” he fears are trying to drag the president towards a conventional line.
And Trump’s comments do, indeed, seem to have ruffled the national security establishment. The heads of military service branches took the unprecedented step of issuing statements defending inclusion and racial unity, and those cabinet members who spoke emphasized Trump’s early denunciation of racism.
Vice President Mike Pence announced he was cutting short a trip to Latin America to meet with Trump on Friday to review US strategy in the war in Afghanistan, while Attorney General Jeff Sessions said: “We cannot and in no way can we accept or apologize for racism, bigotry, hatred, violence and those kind of things that too often arise in our country.”