Donald Trump on Charlottesville Anniversary. Trump's Charlottesville Remarks. Lesson Trump Learned From Charlottesville

President Donald Trump on Saturday acknowledged the grim anniversary of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly last year – and is regarded as one of the worst weeks in his presidency. 

Ahead of Sunday's anniversary, Trump tried to strike a conciliatory tone on Twitter Saturday morning: 

A year ago, Trump faced real pushback for the first time as president over his rhetoric from Republican leaders and even members of his own administration.

There were questions about whether this would be a turning point for the Trump presidency, but ultimately the furor died down.

In the 12 months since that Charlottesville rally, not a lot has changed for Trump. But, the comments may have helped to harden opinions about Trump's approach to race.

"While the president may have scored political points among parts of his base, he's also let loose significant opposition that past Republican presidents have not faced with this level of intensity," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political studies professor at the University of Minnesota.

Now on Sunday, one year after the march in Charlottesville, the white nationalist organizers of the original event are planning to hold another rally in a park near the White House.

The remarks swayed from his comments after last year's "Unite the Right" rally in the city, which led to violence and several deaths, when Neo-Nazi sympathizers and counterprotesters clashed during demonstrations. But some critics jumped on the president's wording of "all types of racism," saying this was just another version of Trump's claim last year that "both sides" were responsible for the violence. 

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old legal assistant, was struck and killed when a white supremacist slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. And two Virginia state troopers died when their surveillance helicopter crashed near the protests.

At that time, Trump argued there was blame on both sides and equated the actions of white nationalists, who carried Nazi flags and chanted "Jews will not replace us," to that of counterprotesters. 

"You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides," Trump said.

He continued: "What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right,' do they have any semblance of guilt?," he said. "What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do."

Trump's comments were met with a firestorm of criticism on "both sides" of the aisle. He tried to clarify his comments later, specifically calling out Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in a prepared statement. 

Later, he again blamed "both sides." The back and forth comments and criticism that followed led to what is regarded as one of the worst weeks for Trump since he took office.

Some of Trump's critics argued Saturday that his comment to "condemn all types of racism" was just an offshoot of blaming "both sides." 

"'All types.' 'Both sides.' Continuing to advance a narrative of moral equivalency between racists and those opposed to racism, so as not to tick of his white supremacist supporters," Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, posted on Twitter. 

Others, including some reporters, also said Trump's words had a double meaning. 

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told USA TODAY that Trump's comments on Saturday seemed to be forced and noted the wording was suspicious. 

"The problem is context," Cohen said. "White people think they're the ones being targeted for racism and a lot of these people are Trump supporters so when the president makes a comment like this with 'all types' it's hard to not be suspicious." 

He said the president's call for peace and rhetoric condemning racism was "hollow." 

White nationalists are again planning to rally – this year outside the president's home in Washington, D.C. 

The "Unite the Right" rally is scheduled for Sunday in Lafayette Park, just across from the White House. A large counterprotest is also scheduled. 

Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado was among those who argued that Trump needed to be more clear about who he was condemning.

"This is not a time for vagaries. This isn't a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines. This is a time to lay blame ... on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred," Gardner said on CNN the day after Trump's initial statement.

In response to the criticism, Trump delivered a statement at the White House that explicitly called out racist groups.

"Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans," Trump said.

But, that walk back did not last long.

The next day during an infrastructure event at Trump Tower, Trump held an impromptu press conference where he seemed to double down on his original comment. He said there was blame on both sides and seemed to equate the actions of the counter protesters with those of the white nationalists.

"You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides," Trump said.

After that press conference, the outrage at Trump from both sides of the aisle intensified.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who until that time had not been very critical of Trump as president, said Trump "messed up."

"It sounded like a moral equivocation or at the very least moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity," Ryan said on CNN.

In Trump's White House, Charlottesville was a moment that wasn't

When President Donald Trump declared a year ago that "very fine people" were among the Nazi mobs descending upon Charlottesville, Virginia, the reaction was swift.

John Kelly, his newly installed chief of staff, crossed his arms and hung his head as his boss uttered the fateful words in the marble lobby of Trump Tower. The President's top economic adviser Gary Cohn considered quitting. The corporate titans who comprised his business advisory council stepped down.
Twelve months later, Kelly remains in his job, recently telling staff he plans to stay at least until 2020. Cohn reconciled with the President, resigning only months later after losing an internal battle over tariffs. And on Tuesday, many of the CEOs who rushed to condemn the President dined with him at his New Jersey golf club.
If the President's equivocal reaction to Charlottesville felt like an inflection point a year ago, it's now become one in a string of controversies for the White House that appears to have had few consequences.

Presidents in their first term often find their missteps are magnified by a new glaring spotlight. Barack Obama weathered a controversy over the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer, acknowledging he wasn't careful in how he worded his response. George W. Bush conceded it was an error to stand before a "Mission Accomplished" banner only a month after US troops were deployed to Iraq.

Both of those leaders later admitted to learning from their mistakes and calibrating their actions later on.

"I regret saying some things I shouldn't have said," Bush told CNN as his term wound down. "My wife reminded me that, hey, as president of the United States, be careful what you say."

For Trump, growth in the job has been hard to detect. If anything, the lack of real consequences after Charlottesville only emboldened the President to voice his controversial opinions louder.

That was in evidence here this week as Trump returned to his New Jersey golf club a year after weathering the Charlottesville episode from inside his ivy-coated clubhouse. Instead of tempering his language surrounding race, Trump dug in, lobbing insults directed toward African-Americans that were swiftly denounced.

Meanwhile, Trump himself is less constrained than he was after Charlottesville. At his campaign rallies and on Twitter, he has become more unadulterated in his critiques of what he calls the “fake news” media. The advisers who tried to serve as a check on his rash impulses have since left the administration and have been replaced with people more likely to let Trump set his own agenda. And, as he did on Friday, the president has continued to inflame racial tensions — something Democrats and Republicans alike see as fundamental to his power.

The tweet fueled a new round of critics accusing Trump of being racist, and hearkened back to last August, when Trump stubbornly refused to call out the hate groups that had gathered to protest the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, instead making a moral equivalency argument between them and a small group of counterprotesters, and blaming “both sides” for the violence.

“There are certain times in the presidency when you have to stand up to tell the nation who we are as individuals, and to be a moral leader,” Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic former governor of Virginia, said in an interview on Saturday. “He failed at that.” A year after the event itself, McAuliffe said he still believes that the incident would “go down as one of the worst moments of his presidency.”

But in some ways, the experience of Charlottesville, as well as his ability to recover from any short-term crisis, has been empowering for Trump and his allies. Three former aides said the takeaway from Charlottesville is the nihilistic notion that nothing matters except for how things play.

“The lesson of the Trump presidency is that no short-term crisis matters long term,” said one former White House official who worked in the administration last year during the racial crisis.

Another senior former administration official dismissed the entire episode as nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction that shouldn’t have been taken so seriously. “I don’t believe for a second that the president harbors any racist views,” the official said. “It was poorly handled from a press perspective, and he doubles down when he sees the press attacking him.”

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment for this story.

Even Trump’s critics admit that it had little effect in the short term. At this point, it is conventional wisdom among them that no single event will ever seal his fate — and that the only impact they might have on him, politically, is in the aggregate.

“It didn’t hurt him, in the contemporary sense,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is planning to preach at the largest black church in Charlottesville on the Aug. 11 anniversary. “Many that claimed moral outrage at the time then found a way to accommodate him shortly after. But I think it hurt him historically. We have to remind people what he said.”

References:

[1] Statement by President Trump | The White House https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-trump/

[2] Remarks by President Trump on Infrastructure | The White House https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-infrastructure/

[3] Charlottesville | Governor Andrew M. Cuomo https://www.governor.ny.gov/content/charlottesville

[4] Statement on President Trump's Remarks on Charlottesville https://schneider.house.gov/media/press-releases/statement-president-trumps-remarks-charlottesville

[5] Shea-Porter: President Trump's Charlottesville Comments “A Disgrace https://shea-porter.house.gov/media/press-releases/shea-porter-president-trump-s-charlottesville-comments-disgrace-our-nation

[6] WHITEHOUSE STATEMENT ON PRESIDENT TRUMP’S REMARKS REGARDING VIOLENCE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE https://www.whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release/whitehouse-statement-on-president-trumps-remarks-regarding-violence-in-charlottesville

[7] One Year After Charlottesville Rally, Warner & Kaine Press DOJ for Updates on Combating Racial Hate https://www.kaine.senate.gov/press-releases/one-year-after-charlottesville-rally-warner-and-kaine-press-doj-for-updates-on-combating-racial-hate