President Donald Trump’s assertion there was blame “on both sides” during a 2017 rally organized by white supremacists that turned deadly caused a multi-day controversy at the time about whether he was signaling support for an evil ideology.
Now, with his reelection campaign looming, Trump and his aides are again confronting allegations the President isn’t doing enough to condemn and prevent white nationalist attacks.
Trump’s potential Democratic rivals have signaled they plan to use his stance if they run against him, none more explicitly than former Vice President Joe Biden, whose entire campaign announcement video was centered on Trump’s response to the Charlottesville violence.
That, in turn, has prompted a forceful defense of Trump’s almost two-year-old remarks, both from the President and his advisers, that has sought to frame Democrats as using the issue to distract from thin records or unpopular policies.
It’s a debate that underscores Trump’s fraught record on white nationalism, which he said last month was not a growing global threat despite data that show otherwise. Democrats believe the issue embodies Trump’s divisive tenure, one of their core arguments against a president presiding over a strong economy.
“We’re reminded again that we are in a battle. We are in a battle for America’s soul,” Biden said after ticking off recent anti-Semitic attacks during his announcement speech Monday in Pittsburgh. “I really believe that. And we have to restore it.”
Experts who track the matter insist the President do more, both to renounce white nationalism and to improve discourse in a country where vicious and angry rhetoric has become commonplace.
“We’re living in this charged, polarized environment today and we have a kind of degradation of the public conversation,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization focused on tracking extremist activity. “From the White House to the House of Representatives, we have people trivializing and politicizing anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance. It’s unconscionable. The lack of decorum deteriorates the conversation to the detriment of all of us.”
Trump’s advisers have long insisted he is doing what he can to prevent white nationalist violence, and chafe at allegations his words and actions inspire racist or xenophobic sentiments in his supporters. They have pointed to his condemnation of anti-Semitic or anti-Christian attacks as examples of him using his platform to denounce hate.
“I think one of the most important things we can do is use the bully pulpit of the President and call out this hatred by name,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Monday when asked what Trump and his administration are doing to prevent future hate attacks.
“I think the most important thing he’s done is to embrace the people of these communities that have been impacted and to condemn this behavior and call it out by name. I think that’s something that can’t be missed or ignored throughout the process,” she said.
Trump spoke Sunday with Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, whose synagogue near San Diego was attacked Saturday leaving one person dead. Trump was “exceedingly comforting to me, to my community, and he spoke to me like a friend, like a buddy,” Goldstein said later on MSNBC.
Still, even as Trump has offered forceful denouncements of individual attacks – as he did on Saturday, calling the synagogue shooting in California a “hate crime” and telling a rally crowd “we forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate” – his response to others has been scrutinized as insufficient.
His administration has been criticized for its handling of domestic extremism prevention programs, including steps to cut grant money to some organizations working to counter violent extremism, a move that took place under then-Homeland Security secretary John Kelly.
Earlier this month, the administration took steps to bolster its efforts to prevent domestic terrorism, announcing a new “Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention” within the Department of Homeland Security that will widen the scope of previous efforts to “ensure that all forms of violence, regardless of the ideological motivation, are being addressed,” according to a department press release.
The move is an effort to “make sure it has the right home, so it has the right support,” a Homeland Security official said. One of its missions is to coordinate across the department to leverage already-existing efforts, according to the official, who said it’s a “rebranding effort and a realignment effort.”
Yet neither Trump nor the White House were involved in the public announcement, and the President is not considering any broader efforts to place himself at the forefront of confronting white nationalist threats, according to an administration official. Advisers believe Trump has already sufficiently denounced white supremacist ideology, and will continue to call out hate crimes when they occur, the official said.
For those tracking a rise in white nationalist crimes, that response appears lackluster.
“It is time for the White House, for Congress, to apply the resources to this problem that we applied to the problem of Islamic jihadist terrorism since 9/11,” Greenblatt said.
On the Democratic campaign trail, the issue emerged as a talking point for several candidates even before Biden entered the race last week with a video entirely focused on Trump’s Charlottesville response.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, has asked crowds whether Americans would define themselves “by calling Nazis and Klansman very fine people?”
And Sen. Kamala Harris told a Democratic dinner in Cleveland on Sunday that attacks like the California synagogue shooting were “born out of hate, hate that has received new fuel in these last two years.”
After Biden entered the race last week with the Charlottesville-centric video, Trump denied his comments after the episode had proven unsatisfactory.
“If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly,” he said, explaining he was referring to supporters of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose statue was being removed at the time, when he described “very fine people.”
A Trump campaign spokesman said Monday that Democrats were “fear mongering” by highlighting Trump’s comments from 2017.
“The liberal media and swamp-bred Democrats need to stop trying to twist President Trump’s clear message of anti-hate and anti-Semitism to fit whatever their Trump-bashing narrative is at the moment. Since the 2020 socialist Democrat field does not have a real platform to run on, they continue to spread fake news,” said deputy communications director Erin Perrine.
Yet even after Trump’s comments on Charlottesville drew widespread condemnation, Trump has continued to downplay a recorded growth of white nationalism over the past several years, despite figures showing a spike.
Trump, asked after last month’s mosque shootings in New Zealand whether he saw white nationalism as a global rising threat, said he viewed the issue more narrowly. “I don’t really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
The ADL found last year that white supremacist murders in the US “more than doubled in 2017,” with far-right extremist groups and white supremacists “responsible for 59% of all extremist-related fatalities in the U.S. in 2017.” They were responsible for 20% of these fatalities the year before. And Trump’s own administration has tracked an increase in hate crimes over the past four years, from 5,479 in 2014 to 7,175 in 2017.
Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted Trump did view white nationalism as a threat, albeit one that hasn’t necessary become worse in recent years.
“He does think it’s a threat. And there’s no question it’s a threat,” she said.
And she endorsed Trump’s view, expressed two days earlier, that his comments in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally were flawless.
“When President Trump condemned racism, bigotry, evil violence, and then took it many steps further and called out neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK, that is – that is darn near perfection,” she said.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand and Sarah Westwood contributed to this report.