As I watched President Trump’s initial reaction to the violence in Charlottesville from Bedminster, New Jersey, I felt proud of our nation’s new leader. At 3:36 p.m. on Saturday, he appeared for a press conference and after thanking our nation’s veterans, he addressed “the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
His opening line, I thought at the time, was perfectly phrased: “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 a long time in our country….”
With “hatred” and “bigotry,” the president made it clear he rejected the motives of white nationalists, the KKK, and the neo-nazis, who were among the “Unite the Right” marchers.
And with “violence,” he rejected those on both sides who started throwing punches, hurling rocks, and, tragically, drove a car into the crowd, killing a 32-year-old paralegal, Heather Heyer.
To anyone who heard him speak these words and saw his face, the president’s emotion was palpable, his concern for our nation’s unity unmistakable.
However, President Trump had not been notified of the talking points to be followed when commenting on the violence in Charlottesville as heard three hours later in Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s press statement: “I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Our message is plain and simple. Go home. . . .You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you.”
All of a sudden, as CBS reported it, President Trump “declined to name white supremacists or any specific group….” While it’s clear that Trump did not specially name any group, there’s no evidence that he “declined” to use those names. A veritable media explosion soon followed berating the president for not naming names. Calling out hatred, bigotry, and violence was not enough.
No doubt, Trump’s willingness to recognize the participation—“on many sides”—in the debacle of the counter-protesters, including Antifa and Black Lives Matter, helped spark the media fury.
Before making his statement, President Trump had reached out to McAuliffe by phone and reported, “We agreed that the hate and the division must stop, it must stop, right now.” Little did he know the Virginia governor would use his platform to condemn only one side—which, of course, leads to the kind of division he told the president should end.
President Trump spoke as a national leader, not a partisan one, when he said, “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. . . . No citizen should ever fear for his safety and security in our society.”
Then, repeating the message, from his earlier 1:19 pm tweet, he called for national unity: “We must come together as Americans with love for our nation, true affection, and I say this so strongly, true affection for each other.”
But, perhaps, the most remarkable comment of all came just before the end of his statement when President Trump spoke of the need to “study” the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville, saying, “we want to see what we are doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen.”
How many times in recent memory has a U.S. president admitted to wanting to see “what we are doing wrong as country”? How many people would have thought Donald Trump capable of saying such a thing, even having such a thought? Well, he said it, but no one seems to have noticed it, or given him credit for the humility behind it.
In concluding, the president issued a challenge to all those involved in this breakdown of law and order. His administration would be in committed to “restoring the sacred bonds of trust between this nation and its citizens, but our our citizens must also restore the bonds of trust and loyalty between one another.”
That won’t happen when protesters from any part of the spectrum arrive at a rally with clubs in their hands, as was evident on the videos taken at the march.
Just as important is the role of the media in helping to restore national unity. The only upside of the Charlottesville incident is that we will get a break from hearing about Russia, which had been the preferred whipping post for the president over the past months. Now he is accused of having “declined,” consciously, that is, of publicly naming the White Nationalists, KKK, and neo-nazis at the rally.
Yes, the White House was forced to make amends the next day by explaining “of course” the president’s remarks included “white supremacists, KKK Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
Early in the 2016, the media tried tarring Trump with the KKK brush, but the candidate sharply disavowed David Duke as a “bad person.”
But when, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the question was put to him again, Trump responded, “I disavowed him. I disavowed the KKK. . . . Do you want me to do it again for the 12th time? I disavowed him in the past, I disavow him now.” The media and the Democrats continue to disregard what the president has said, ignored his repeated call to national unity, and, now, dismissed his genuine self-reflection on a national tragedy.