For President Donald Trump, this was the week when the real world began to intrude upon his presidency. The violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white nationalists and counter-protesters confronted Trump with perhaps the first true domestic crisis of his young administration. And to some, even within his own Republican Party, he came up short. It followed days of blustery threats toward North Korea that rattled some Americans and unnerved allies. Both are the kinds of white-knuckle challenges that define presidents – and which Trump largely has avoided during the first months of his tenure.
As images of rising tensions and a deadly car rampage in Charlottesville filled TV screens nationwide, the president was criticized first for waiting too long to address the violence and then, when he did so, failing to explicitly condemn the white-supremacist marchers who ignited the melee. Marco Rubio, a Republican senator who was Trump’s rival for the presidential nomination, quickly suggested Trump’s initial response was inadequate. On Twitter, Rubio wrote that it was, “Very important for the nation to hear describe events in Charlottesville for what they are: a terror attack by #whitesupremacists.”
While Trump has had to deal with the pressures of the federal probe into Russian meddling in last year’s election, disarray in his White House, and conflicts with Congress over his stalled agenda, there are have been few external crises that have tested his presidential mettle. By contrast, his predecessor, Barack Obama, inherited a severe economic downturn during his first year in office, and would go on to face, among other tests, a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Middle East upheaval, terror attacks in Boston, Orlando, and elsewhere, and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland.
Trump has spent this week at his tony golf club in New Jersey, attempting to show the American public that he is indeed working and not vacationing. He held one event after the other, while answering media questions with an approachability he hasn’t shown for months. Yet, when news of the situation in Charlottesville first started filtering out on Friday, Trump was silent. He first addressed the matter — through a tweet — on Saturday afternoon, after a planned white-supremacist rally had been dispersed, fights had broken out, and a state of emergency declared.
By the time Trump finally appeared before reporters at a staged bill-signing event at his club, footage of a car speeding up and slamming into a crowd of protesters had swamped social media and cable networks, raising the specter of domestic terrorism. At least one woman in the car’s path died and several people suffered critical injuries. At a podium, Trump read a statement rebuking the violence, but without specifically mentioning or faulting the role of white nationalists. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides,” Trump said.
He also took the occasion to boast about declining unemployment and new corporate investment in the United States. Afterwards, he ignored shouted questions from reporters as to whether he would denounce white supremacism and whether the car incident constituted terrorism.
REPUBLICAN SENATORS QUESTION RESPONSE
Beyond Rubio, Trump’s response apparently also was not enough for Senator Cory Gardner, who chairs the Republican Party’s Senate-election effort. “Mr. President, we must call evil by its name,” he tweeted. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” Republican Orrin Hatch, who has served as a senator for 40 years, referenced his brother, who was killed in World War II.
“We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home,” he said on Twitter. Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said that Trump had not demonstrated moral leadership. “There are NOT many sides to this,” he wrote. Trump tweeted several more times after the press event, offering support to the city of Charlottesville and the police but still declining to critique the violence in more explicit terms.
Both as a candidate and as president, Trump has met with charges that he has courted the support of white supremacists and nationalists, the so-called “alt-right,” as a key part of his passionate voter base. He was forced at one point last year to publicly denounce the Ku Klux Klan and one of its leaders, David Duke. After Trump was elected, he installed Steve Bannon, a trusted figure in nationalist circles and former chairman of the hard-right outlet Breitbart News, as a top adviser in the White House.