A series of White House aides on Sunday looked to explain President Donald Trump’s statement the day before that failed to condemn white supremacists or the “alt-right” for violence that left three people dead in Charlottesville, Virginia.
One White House official who didn’t lend his voice to that effort: Trump himself.
A White House official, who requested anonymity and ignored attempts to go on the record, told reporters Sunday that it was obvious the President condemned “white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups” despite Trump not mentioning those groups during an event at his private golf club Saturday and instead blaming the violence on “many sides.”
“The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred, and, of course, that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups,” the official said. “He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
Additional questions to multiple White House aides about Trump’s statement went unanswered.
The President’s vagueness on white supremacists stood in stark contrast to the bluntness, bombast and outspokenness Trump has built his career on. The President for decades has slammed his opponents – by name – on Twitter and in the media, never missing an opportunity to castigate a person or group that he thinks has slighted him. And he campaigned as a businessman-turned-politician who promised to be blunt when it came to terrorism.
But on Saturday, as the nation watched white nationalists carrying Nazi flags scuffle in an idyllic American city, Trump ignored reporters who asked him directly whether he condemned white nationalist groups or whether he considered the murder of a woman in Charlottesville a terrorist attack.
Vice President Mike Pence, however, delivered a “no tolerance” message during brief comments Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia.
“We have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK,” said Pence, calling them “dangerous fringe groups.”
While he named the groups not mentioned by Trump, Pence defended the President’s comment, saying he “clearly and unambiguously condemned” the “bigotry and hatred.” In Colombia as a stop on his tour of Latin America, Pence told reporters the President’s “call for unity” was “from the heart … a sincere call,” and he criticized media scrutiny of Trump’s comments.
Those White House aides who appeared on television Sunday morning tried to walk the line between condemning a terrorist attack at the hands of a suspected white nationalist and denying that the President failed to go far enough on Saturday.
Asked directly on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether he conceded that Trump wasn’t clear enough in his statement, Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, said: “No, the words of the ignorant bear little with me and should bear less with you in the media.”
Bossert went on to urge people to “focus for just a moment on the rest of the statement that he did say.”
“I condemn white supremacists and racists and white Nazi groups and all the other groups that espouse this kind of hatred and exclusion,” Bossert added, going further than the President ever had. “I can’t be clearer.”
National security adviser H.R. McMaster also condemned the violence and labeled it terrorism.
“The President has been very clear. We cannot tolerate this kind of bigotry, this kind of hatred,” he said. “And what he did is, he called on all Americans to take a firm stance against it.”
When pressed on why Trump didn’t call out white supremacists, but has – in the past – argued you can’t solve terrorism if you don’t name the movements behind it, McMaster said Trump called out “anyone responsible for this kind of bigotry and violence.”
And Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and senior aide, tweeted on Sunday, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”
At no point, though, did the normally loquacious Trump personally expand on his Saturday statement with a condemnation of the alt right, a hodgepodge of groups that drafted off the President’s 2016 campaign to rise to national prominence.
Trump’s silence spoke volumes to some Republicans, too.
“He should use this opportunity today to say this is terrorism, this is domestic terrorism, this is white nationalism, and it has to stop,” Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, said on “State of the Union.” “And I encourage the President to do so. He has a chance to do that.”
Even Trump’s now outside adviser, Anthony Scaramucci, told ABC’s “This Week” that he felt Trump “needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists.”
Scaramucci was ousted as Trump’s communications director late last month. He told ABC that he spoke with Trump this week.
Trump’s relationship with the alt-right has been a complicated saga ever since the racist groups latched onto his campaign for President, with movement leaders like David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacist Richard Spencer endorsing the Trump campaign.
Trump struggled to distance himself from these groups as a candidate, especially after he hired Steve Bannon, the former head of the conservative news site Breitbart, to help win him the White House. Bannon has said in the past that Breitbart was “the platform for the alt-right.”
The problem has persisted, too. Earlier this week, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the President, spoke about terrorism with Breitbart and said white supremacists were not the problem.
“It’s this constant, ‘Oh, it’s the white man. It’s the white supremacists. That’s the problem,’” Gorka said. “No, it isn’t.”
Gorka ignored repeated attempts by CNN to ask him questions about Saturday’s violence in Virginia.
It was unclear Sunday what the President did during the day. White House aides who were asked about the President’s schedule ignored repeated phone calls and emails.
Asked directly whether Trump planned to play golf on Sunday, White House aides failed to respond.