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People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. The nationalists were holding the rally to protest plans by the city of Charlottesville to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. There were several hundred protesters marching in a long line when the car drove into a group of them. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP)
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(CNN) —  

Donald Trump’s presidency has been marked by low moments. The false assertions regarding the size of his inauguration crowd. The testy phone calls with longtime allies. The false claim that Barack Obama wire-tapped Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign. The botched rollout of the so-called “travel ban.” Tweets attacking everyone from his attorney general to Mika Brzezinksi.

But, even amid all of that chaos and controversy, what Trump said – and didn’t say – on Saturday in the wake of the violent protests by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, marks the nadir of his presidency to date.

A reminder of what Trump said:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.”

“On many sides.”

With those three words, Trump effectively abdicated one of the essential jobs of a president: To lead us to the high(er) ground, to our better angels, to progress.

He tried to clean up the mess he caused on Saturday with another statement on Monday just before 1 p.m. ET. Trump began touting the success of his policies on the economy before turning to Charlottesville and saying what he should have said two days ago. “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, & White Supremacists,” Trump said.

It was a necessary course correction by the President. Here’s the problem: It came two days too late.

In painting this as a “both sides do it” situation in his initial reaction – it wasn’t and isn’t – Trump effectively threw his hands up in the face of a moment of morality. Simply put: There is a right and a wrong answer when it comes to dealing with bigots.

The right answer is to condemn them and their belief system loudly and completely, leaving no room for ambiguity. The wrong answer is to not name them, to cast the events in Charlottesville as an example of both-sides-do-it-ism and make your statement vague enough that it can be interpreted in any way shape or form as condoning this sort of behavior.

Trump did all three of those bad things. And, to make matter worse, this most outspoken of presidents on, well, everything, went silent regarding Charlottesville – saying nothing between his statement in the mid-afternoon on Saturday until right now. He did take to Twitter Monday morning to lash out at Kenneth Frazier, the African-American CEO of Merck after Frazier announced he would quit Trump’s manufacturing council after Trump did not condemn racism after the Charlottesville violence.

On Sunday, a White House spokesman – speaking on background, meaning there was no name attached to the quote, said this:

“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 extremists groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”

First of all, why was this quote not on the record? Is there anything in it that is even the least bit controversial or debatable? Second, you can’t say “of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi, and all extremists group.” Because if the president doesn’t say those names – and chooses to use the phrase “on many sides” – then there is a not-tiny chance that people misunderstand what he was trying to actually say. Third, why isn’t the President of the United States saying this? Why does this sentiment have to be expressed through a spokesman?

As I noted in a piece on Saturday, there are moments in every presidency in which the President needs to act like we expect our leaders to act. To stand up to hatred and intolerance – whether in the form of white supremacists or ISIS militants – and say: Enough! This is not who we are or who we are going to be. These views are abhorrent and have no place in civil society. I will work for the remainder of my presidency to combat those who turn us against each other.

Trump didn’t do that. Didn’t say those words. And, the words he did say were ones larded with just the sort of ambiguity that he has long dabbled in but which threatens to tear the social fabric even further. You can’t leave any room for interpretation in a statement on a white supremacist rally that left 1 person dead and dozens injured. This was an act of hate. We condemn hate and those who act on it. The end.

Trump’s words on Monday matter – in that we need the President to be on the record saying that the hate that we all witnessed on Saturday is not us, is not what we aspire to be as a society.

But, it is inexcusable for a president to miss the mark so badly on Saturday and then to compound the problem over the next 36 hours – seemingly not understanding that the stakes here are much higher than who wins or who loses in a campaign.

Saturday was the worst day for the Trump presidency. And a moment of low ebb for the country too.