(CNN)After the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday, controversy erupted over what President Donald Trump did not say. Last year, in another incident involving white nationalists, the focus became what he did say.
Trump's words matter, on the stump and in court
"Get 'em out of here," then-candidate Trump said, referring to protesters at a March 1, 2016, campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky. Trump's words roused members of the Traditionalist Worker Party to attack the protesters, according to a lawsuit that recently reached a US appeals court.
All around, Trump's words matter.
His failure over the weekend to name immediately the white supremacists or alt-right groups involved in Charlottesville was broadly criticized, including by fellow Republicans. Trump tried to remedy that two days later, on Monday afternoon, when he referred to the white supremacists who organized the protests where one woman was killed.
This is only the latest incident in a pattern since the campaign days of controversy over the message and intentions of Trump's rhetoric: Does the man who is now President of the United States realize how people take his words? What action does he hope to inspire?
A key question in the dispute over his Louisville "get 'em out of here" statement is whether Trump was inciting people to violence or, as his lawyers contend, simply exercising his right to free speech.
The three victims of attacks at the Louisville rally have sued Trump, his campaign and two assailants for damages. Last week, US District Court Judge David Hale sent the case to the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to resolve whether Trump's statement would be protected by First Amendment speech rights or whether it would constitute an incitement to riot.
Two men blamed in the rally attack say they were acting on the orders of candidate Trump. One of the men, white nationalist Matthew Heimbach, attended the Charlottesville demonstrations, according to press reports.
When President Trump first spoke on Saturday about the Charlottesville violence, he complained vaguely about the "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides." He declined to denounce the white supremacists who marched at the scene with Nazi flags. They were protesting the city's plan to remove a memorial to Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Trump's refusal to condemn the neo-Nazi or Ku Klux Klan instigators recalled his reluctance early in his campaign to disavow former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who has long supported Trump and was also in Charlottesville on Saturday.
On Monday, after nearly 48 hours and continuing reproach, Trump decided to call out the extremist groups by name.
"Racism is evil -- and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans," he said.
In the meantime, before he elaborated, other administration officials said that his first comments were aimed at white supremacists and that critics were making too much of his failure to be explicit.
This, too, is part of the pattern of Trump's provocations. He leaves the explaining to others. Often, White House officials have asserted that the President was misunderstood or even speaking in jest, as happened after Trump appeared to support police brutality in a Long Island speech to law enforcement officers.
"Please don't be too nice," Trump told police at Suffolk County Community College event, encouraging officers not to protect suspects heads as they are putting them into squad cars. "You can take the hand away, OK?"
Now-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later he was "making a joke at the time."
Police chiefs nationwide criticized Trump for sending the wrong message about the handling of criminal suspects. Suffolk County police said they had strict rules for the treatment of prisoners and do not tolerate "roughing up prisoners."
The Louisville case arose from a Trump rally at the Kentucky International Convention Center in March 2016. When the candidate saw the three protesters, one holding up a sign depicting his face on the body of a pig, he called for them to be removed.
"Get 'em out of here," Trump said, which prompted Heimbach, Alvin Bamberger and other Trump loyalists to begin attacking the three protesters: Kashiya Nwanguma, Molly Shah and Henry Brousseau.
Judge Hale wrote, "Nwanguma, who is African-American, was shoved first by Heimbach and then by Bamberger, who also struck her. Shah was likewise shoved by Heimbach and other audience members. Brousseau, a 17-year-old high school student, was punched in the stomach by an unknown defendant believed to be a member of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist group Heimbach was representing at the rally."
Hale noted that it was an open question how Trump's words affected those who began the attack.
"The words 'get 'em out of here' are not objectively violent, of course," Hale wrote in the August 9 order sending the case to the 6th Circuit. "But speech may be sanctioned as incitement if it explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action."
Context matters, Hale said.
"For example, the exclamation 'shoot!' might constitute incitement if directed to a crowd of angry armed individuals, but shouted by a basketball fan or muttered in disappointment, it has no violent connotations. In short, the mere absence of overtly violent language in Trump's statement does not appear fatal to plaintiffs' incitement claim."
Michael Carvin, Trump's lead lawyer in the case, has argued in filings that the lawsuit is politically motivated and, in seeking its dismissal, contends the three anti-Trump protesters will not be able to meet the tough First Amendment standard for incitement at a campaign speech. He stressed in his filing that Trump did not advocate the use of force.
In a brief email on Monday, Carvin said he did not believe the Charlottesville controversy would be relevant to the Louisville lawsuit.
Gregory Belzley, lead lawyer for the protesters who have sued Trump, said the President's initial Charlottesville remarks declining to single out the white supremacists may suggest a broader approach that is oblivious to the possible dangers of his language.
Said Belzley, "This is not an individual whose thinking or conduct appears to indicate any reflection on the consequences of his words."