NEW YORK: Donald Trump found himself in the eye of a political storm on Wednesday after his stunning remarks on the unrest in Charlottesville, which sparked unease within his own camp and could be a turning point in his already chaotic presidency.
Just about 200 days into his term, the US leader crossed a red line in saying there was “blame on both sides” for the melee, which began when a rally by white supremacists over the removal of a Confederate statue turned violent, as they clashed with counter-protesters.
The violent fracas in the Virginia college town ended in tragedy when a 20-year-old suspected Nazi sympathizer, James Fields, plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, leaving one woman dead and 19 others injured.
Trump’s defiant statements, delivered in a caustic way at Trump Tower and immediately hailed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan for their “courage,” left many lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, speechless.
Many observers were left with the impression that the unscripted Trump of Tuesday was the real Trump — rather than the man who delivered a more measured statement from the White House on Monday in which he firmly denounced racism.
In a clear sign of embarrassment, Republican lawmakers did not line up to defend the real estate mogul-turned-president, as they have repeatedly done since he took office in January. Those who did speak criticized him.
“In Charlottesville, the blame lays squarely on the KKK and white supremacists,” the leader of the Republican National Committee, Ronna Romney McDaniel, told ABC News.
“He has to fix this and Republicans have to speak out. Plain and simple,” Ohio governor John Kasich, who battled Trump for the Republican presidential nomination last year, told NBC’s “Today” show.
“President Trump needs to listen to the people before he takes this presidency in a place that is not acceptable for our country.”
Obama tweet makes history
Trump’s remarks — made at an impromptu press conference that was expected to focus on infrastructure reforms — put the white supremacists and counter-demonstrators on equal moral ground.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said, as his new chief of staff, former Marine general John Kelly, stood rigidly near him.
“You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now,” Trump continued.
“What about the alt-left that came charging… at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? (…) There are two sides to a story.”
He also said there were “very fine people, on both sides.”
“Why are we surprised that a @POTUS, who began his campaign with appeals to bigotry, would give comfort to bigots?” said David Axelrod, a former top aide to Barack Obama.
Some observers noted that for years, Trump fomented a conspiracy theory with racial overtones that Obama was not born in the United States, before making an about-face at the end of his White House campaign.
Trump had suffered a first wave of indignation immediately after Saturday’s events, when critics said his comments were too vague and did not go far enough to denounce neo-Nazis and KKK members at the Charlottesville rally.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
Obama, his predecessor, had reacted by tweeting a quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”
The tweet is now the most “liked” ever sent on the social network, Twitter said Wednesday.
In an editorial, The New York Times said Trump’s behavior “has become distressingly unsurprising.”
“Washington politicians had hoped the recent appointment of John Kelly, a retired Marine general, as his chief of staff would instill some discipline in his chaotic administration,” the paper said.
“But the root of the problem is not the personnel; it is the man at the top.”