Shortly after noon on Monday, President Donald Trump delivered scripted remarks in which he condemned the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who had stoked deadly demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.
“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 are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said. “Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”
Which is good and right. But, let’s be wary of giving Trump too much credit for saying, essentially, racism is bad. In fact, a closer look at Trump’s words reveal three mistakes he made even in trying to clean up his comments from Saturday.
1. Trump said this on Monday, not Saturday
With scenes of Nazi flags waving and a car driven by a white supremacist allegedly being plowed on purpose into a group of counter-protesters, Trump delivered a speech in which he blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville. He also pre-emptively absolved himself of blame by insisting these sorts of incidents happened when Barack Obama was president, too.
Then, for the next 36 hours, he – the most talkative (or tweet-ative) politician in the country – went silent. His White House released a statement from an anonymous official insisting that of course Trump meant to condemn white supremacists. Even if he didn’t, you know, say it.
But, that’s the point. He didn’t say it. It matters how you act in moments when the whole country – and the whole world – are watching. Do-overs aren’t really a thing in politics – particularly in a situation so fraught as the one in Charlottesville and with a politician with as spotty a record as Trump on condemning intolerance.
That Trump’s instincts – and those of his White House – were so off at the start of all of this speaks to a deep misunderstanding of what the role of president is and should be. Leaders lead in moments when the country turns to them. That moment was Saturday. Today feels like a half-hearted attempt to step into the leadership void Trump himself created.
2. Trump opened his remarks by talking about the economy
When Trump spoke about Charlottesville on Saturday, it was clear that he had shoe-horned a few paragraphs about it into a speech he was already planning to give about all of the great things that were happening in the country under his leadership. It felt off for the moment. What was required was a simple formula: Sympathy for the victims, condemnation for the attackers, the end.
And yet, Trump repeated that mistake Monday. He opened his remarks with this:
“Our economy is now strong. The stock market continues to hit record highs, unemployment is at a 16-year low and businesses are more optimistic than ever before. Companies are moving back to the United States and bringing many thousands of jobs with them. We have already created over one million jobs since I took office.”
Why? Because it’s against Trump’s nature to acknowledge – even without acknowledging it – that he may have done something less than perfectly the first time around. So, he touts his unrelated accomplishments before he gets to what he should have said two days earlier. It’s his little way of asserting himself amid what he undoubtedly believes is trumped-up overreaction to his initial remarks on Saturday.
3. “As I said on Saturday…”
Per No. 2, Trump almost certainly didn’t feel like he needed to give the follow-up remarks that he gave Monday because he had already said it just fine on Saturday. This phrase captures that frustration. I already said all of this, Trump is saying, but I will say it again because, well, someone(s) told me I have to.
It suggests that Trump doesn’t really understand the shortcomings of his first statement on Charlottesville and believes this is all just a bow to the news cycle rather than a moral imperative to speak out clearly against hate and evil.
Which bodes poorly for his ability to handle the next incident – and, sadly, we know there will be a next incident – any better.