On Saturday afternoon, when a vehicle plowed into demonstrators protesting what was an already violent, tense white-nationalist and counter-protest confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Donald Trump was scheduled for an unrelated bill signing in Bedminster, New Jersey.
It was supposed to be a fairly modest, ceremonial affair, coming smack in the middle of a lengthy working vacation at what is being dubbed the “Summer White House.” But as news trickled in of the number injured, and as video emerged of the gruesome aftermath, that bill signing became a news conference; and that news conference became a test of Trump’s presidential timber.
Facing one of the first crisis points of his presidency that was not explicitly of his own making, Trump seemed unsure of his footing. There was no forceful, targeted admonishment of racist demagogues and street fighters. Instead, Trump spent almost as much time touting U.S. jobs numbers under his watch as he did condemning any violent acts. And he made sure to hedge his words carefully, never specifically calling out white-supremacist terror or the neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and white nationalism that dominated the news this weekend.
“We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville," President Trump said in a televised speech on Saturday afternoon. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.”
On many sides, he emphasized, implicitly putting the pro-Nazi demonstrators and the counter-protesters on the same level. It struck many watching as oddly detached what-about-ism. But, as White House officials later confirmed, it was absolutely intentional in its phrasing and delivery.
"It's been going on for a long time in our country," Trump continued. "Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It's been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America."
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump was dogged by criticism that he catered to openly to the fringe right, whether it be in his failures to promptly distance himself from former KKK leader David Duke, or his speeches and statements that bashed immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans. But the stakes changed once he won the election. And his handling of the immediate aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville underscores his inability -- or unwillingness -- to actually pivot from his election footing.
Trump, at times, seemed more eager to make political points than to diffuse the tense situation unfolding in Virginia. Barely a few minutes into his speech, he discussed just how great he thought things had been going so far under his young presidency. He made sure to stress the “record employment” for which he has repeatedly claimed credit and even spoke of a factory opening in Wisconsin.
There were also the rhetorical plays to the framing adopted by his base. The president made a point of assuring the American people that in the face of casualties and open shows of neo-fascism, “we love our flag.” He also stressed the need for the “swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.”
This too was by design. White House officials told The Daily Beast that Trump had specifically told aides crafting his speech that he wanted to underscore the need for “law and order,” a favorite theme of his from the presidential campaign.
“That was a primary concern [of the president’s],” one senior Trump aide said. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss internal deliberations.
The president may have thought he had covered his bases. But as his remarks wrapped, reporters at Bedminister shouted questions regarding whether the president thought the violent incident today was an act of terrorism, and whether he would condemn his white-nationalist fanboys this week.
Trump shuffled off the stage and out of the room, not bothering to answer.
The Trump administration has faced charges of being soft, even indifferent, on alleged hate crimes before. Earlier this week, in fact, White House official Sebastian Gorka told MSNBC hosts that Trump hadn’t weighed in on a recent attack on a Minnesota mosque because it could have been an example of “fake hate crimes,” or, in other words, a false-flag attack perpetrated by leftists.
When asked why the president hadn’t simply tweeted that attacking mosques is bad or un-American -- certainly after having commented so quickly on news of attacks when it seemed clear that Islamist terror was the culprit -- Trump’s aide shot back. "I'm not going to give social media advice" to Trump. "Just hold your horses, count to ten," Gorka said.
The tensions that culminated in at least one death on Saturday afternoon had more evident origins than the mosque attack. It began on Friday night, when white supremacists, led in part by professional agitator Richard Spencer, rallied with tiki torches around a monument of Thomas Jefferson. By Saturday morning, crowds had gathered again, with more counter-protesters arriving on the scene to demonstrate, too.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued a state of emergency, urging residents to “stay away” from the Charlottesville area and attendees at Saturday’s planned march, including Spencer and David Duke, were told to disperse. Though there were multiple skirmishes, violence was comparatively minimal before the car plowed into the crowd of anti-Nazi counter-protesters.
Trump offered vague condemnations in a set of tweets before speaking out to denounce the “many sides.”
Not everyone in Trump’s party was comfortable with the tone and content of those remarks. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, called out the president, tweeting, "Mr. President - we must call evil by its name.”
"These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism," the senator concluded.