Story highlights

The controversy over Trump's response to the Charlottesville attack has lasted through the week

Business leaders and now fellow Republicans have begun to distance themselves from Trump

Trump is scheduled to hold a rally next week in Arizona, where he's feuding with a senator and hinted about a controversial pardon

Washington CNN —  

More than most men who’ve had his job, President Donald Trump is familiar with the feel of a controversy, its life cycles, how it grows, how it goes out. Instead of climbing the political ladder as a state legislator or US House member before becoming a senator or governor to audition for the top role in politics, he worked in show business, first as a brash tabloid real estate tycoon, later a reality show host, and most recently, the leader of the debunked “birther” movement. Controversies are like fires, and he’s played with them before.

The attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the spark. Trump responded differently than some thought he would have if the suspect had been a “radical Islamic extremist” – a phrase he’s said was must-use. “To solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name,” he said during a presidential debate.

But Trump didn’t say the name this time. His response Saturday did not mention the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists or the so-called “alt-right.” But it did include the phrase “on many sides.” The white supremacists viewed it as tacit support. A statement Monday seemed to be damage control, calling out the enemies by name, calling them “repugnant,” and leaving no wiggle room: “Racism is evil,” Trump said.

But by Tuesday, he’d reversed course. “I think there is blame on both sides,” he said from a lectern in front of the elevator bank at Trump Tower. As a man who proudly champions winning and winners, he defended the losers of a war that ended more than a century-and-a-half ago, opposing the removal of Confederate monuments and equating them with the country’s founders. “So, this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

It was the political equivalent of adding more kindling to the fire and blowing on it, giving it air, letting it grow. You can tell how big a controversy is by how many people it gets too hot for. It started with business leaders. One by one, CEOs resigned from Trump’s manufacturing council. There was Merck, Under Armour and Intel. Before the trickle of defections could become a flood, Trump disbanded the council. You can’t break up with me if I break up with you first.

A Murdoch bailed. James, son of Rupert, the executive chairman of Fox News. “There are no good Nazis,” he wrote in an email. He pledged to donate $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League. Down in Palm Beach, organizations like the American Cancer Society canceled their events at Mar-a-Lago, after holding them there for years. A trickle of Republicans came out in condemnation – Sens. Bob Corker and Tim Scott and the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney.

As Trump watches the coverage while on his “working vacation” in New Jersey, he has a choice: Does he kill the fire or pour gasoline on it? Weekends can be useful to killing a controversy. People step away from their phones and TVs, depriving a story of oxygen. New stories bubble up that become front-page news by Monday. And Trump’s firing Friday of Steve Bannon, his top White House strategist, could further quiet things.

But the stage is set for a raging blaze in Arizona. On Monday morning, Sen. Jeff Flake, another outspoken Republican critic of Trump, will hold an event in Gilbert, and on Tuesday, Trump will hold a campaign rally in Phoenix. If his Twitter account is any indication of where his head is at, Trump is itching for a fight. He tweeted an attack on Flake Thursday, and on Tuesday, retweeted a @foxandfriends tweet that he was “seriously considering” pardoning Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona sheriff who late last month was found guilty of criminal contempt for violating a court order in a racial profiling case by continuing patrols that targeted immigrants.

The bar for Trump controversies is the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording from 2005, in which Trump had a lewd conversation with television host Billy Bush and said vulgar things about women. The fire got too hot, with many Republicans calling for him to get off the ticket after the story broke last October. But he didn’t, and he won anyway. At what point do the flames of Charlottesville become a 10-alarm fire? And can Trump make it through anyway? These things can spiral out of control. Rallies this weekend across the country could get violent. An unexpected shoe could drop in the Russia investigation. Or nothing could happen at all. But the President of the United States of America stands over it with lighter fluid and a choice.