When President Donald Trump declared a year ago that “very fine people” were among the Nazi mobs descending upon Charlottesville, Virginia, the reaction was swift.
John Kelly, his newly installed chief of staff, crossed his arms and hung his head as his boss uttered the fateful words in the marble lobby of Trump Tower. The President’s top economic adviser Gary Cohn considered quitting. The corporate titans who comprised his business advisory council stepped down.
Twelve months later, Kelly remains in his job, recently telling staff he plans to stay at least until 2020. Cohn reconciled with the President, resigning only months later after losing an internal battle over tariffs. And on Tuesday, many of the CEOs who rushed to condemn the President dined with him at his New Jersey golf club.
If the President’s equivocal reaction to Charlottesville felt like an inflection point a year ago, it’s now become one in a string of controversies for the White House that appears to have had few consequences.
The staff exodus predicted by some insiders never materialized, at least not immediately. Aides returned to work disheartened, in their own telling, but determined to stick it out. Republicans in Congress took few concrete steps to chasten the President.
Trump himself made only feeble attempts at clean up before the furor faded. He took days to publicly acknowledge 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed while protesting against the white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The rapid pace of ensuing scandals – over an aide’s domestic abuse allegations, children separated from their parents at the border and Cabinet secretaries’ ethics transgressions – obscured the moment.
A year later, Charlottesville is again girding for violence. States of emergency were declared this week in Virginia that enable law enforcement to access state resources, including the National Guard, if unrest breaks out at anniversary rallies.
Learning – or not – from mistakes
Presidents in their first term often find their missteps are magnified by a new glaring spotlight. Barack Obama weathered a controversy over the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer, acknowledging he wasn’t careful in how he worded his response. George W. Bush conceded it was an error to stand before a “Mission Accomplished” banner only a month after US troops were deployed to Iraq.
Both of those leaders later admitted to learning from their mistakes and calibrating their actions later on.
“I regret saying some things I shouldn’t have said,” Bush told CNN as his term wound down. “My wife reminded me that, hey, as president of the United States, be careful what you say.”
For Trump, growth in the job has been hard to detect. If anything, the lack of real consequences after Charlottesville only emboldened the President to voice his controversial opinions louder.
That was in evidence here this week as Trump returned to his New Jersey golf club a year after weathering the Charlottesville episode from inside his ivy-coated clubhouse. Instead of tempering his language surrounding race, Trump dug in, lobbing insults directed toward African-Americans that were swiftly denounced.
He lashed out at the basketball star LeBron James and CNN host Don Lemon after an interview in which James detailed the school he is opening for at-risk children in his hometown. In the interview, James also denounced the President for attempting to divide the country using sports.
“Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon,” Trump wrote. “He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
The attack came amid a sustained assault on Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who has been outspoken in her opposition to Trump. During the raucous political rallies the President now holds multiple times per week, Trump routinely terms Waters as a “low IQ individual.”
Stoking tension for political points
As football preseason games began on Thursday, the President renewed his censure of NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and other racial inequities.
“The NFL players are at it again - taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem,” he wrote. “Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define.”
Trump has reliably used the NFL issue to excite his white working-class political base at moments of political peril; he’s told advisers he believes the issue can galvanize his supporters. He told attendees of a private dinner last year, “It’s really caught on. It’s really caught on.”
“He has made it a strategy to mine these differences, mine these divisions, mine this issue of race, which has coursed through our politics and our society from the beginning if our history, but is a galvanizing issue for a portion of his base,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and CNN commentator. “He’s decided to play base politics, and wherever he can he seems to want to light that fuse. And that has emboldened others to voice racist views.”
There have been few, if any, Republicans who have spoken out against Trump’s broadsides against NFL players. Most GOP members of Congress who spoke out against his remarks after Charlottesville eventually returned to the fold as the President pushed through tax cuts and health care changes.
Now, as Trump faces similar blowback for his equivocal performance alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin last month in Finland, few expect a change in his behavior.
“His presidency will be defined by at least two moments, Helsinki and Charlottesville, when he refused to stand against Putin and when he refused to stand against Nazis and fascists in the streets of Charlottesville,” said Cornell Brooks, the former president and CEO of the NAACP.
“This is the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer. Has the President spoken about that? Has he expressed outrage or sympathy or empathy? This is an indictment of him,” he said.
Trump addressed the anniversary in a tweet over the weekend, saying he condemns “all types of racism and acts of violence.”