Two Bush presidents slam ‘bigotry’ as Trump reignites race row
US president criticised for blaming both sides for violence at demonstration in Virginia
Several leading members of Donald Trump’s Republican Party and key ally Britain sharply rebuked the US president on Wednesday after he insisted that white nationalists and protesters opposed to them were both to blame for deadly violence in the Virginia city of Charlottesville.
Mr Trump’s remarks on Tuesday, a more vehement reprisal of what had been widely seen as his inadequate initial response to Saturday’s bloodshed around a white nationalist rally, reignited a storm of criticism and strained ties with his own party.
Republican former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were among those to join the debate.
Without mentioning Mr Trump, they said in a joint statement on Wednesday: “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms.”
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, issued a statement that also did not mention Trump by name but said “messages of hate and bigotry” from white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups should not be welcome anywhere in the United States.
“We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred. There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head,” McConnell said.
Mr Trump last week lambasted Mr McConnell for the Senate’s failure to pass healthcare legislation backed by the president, and did not dismiss the idea of Mr McConnell stepping down.
In his comments at a heated news conference in New York on Tuesday, Mr Trump said “there is blame on both sides” of the violence in Charlottesville, and that there were “very fine people” on both sides.
Ohio Governor John Kasich said there was no moral equivalency between the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and anybody else. “This is terrible. The president of the United States needs to condemn these kind of hate groups,” Mr Kasich said on NBC’s “Today” show.
A 20-year-old Ohio man said to have harbored Nazi sympathies was charged with murder after the car he was driving plowed into counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. Heyer was being remembered on Wednesday at a memorial service in Charlottesville.
In a gesture toward reconciliation,Mr Trump said in a tweet Wednesday, “Memorial service today for beautiful and incredible Heather Heyer, a truly special young woman. She will be long remembered by all!”
On Tuesday, appearing angry and irritated, Mr Trump maintained that his original reaction was based on the facts he had at the time. Blame, he said, belonged on both sides.
“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,” Mr Trump said, referring to right and left-wing protesters.
From there, the back and forth with reporters turned tense.
“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch,” Mr Trump said of the participants in the protest. “There was a group on this side. You can call them the left . . . that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”
The violence erupted on Saturday after white nationalists converged in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally in protest of plans to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, commander of the pro-slavery Confederate army during the US Civil War.
Many of the rally participants were seen carrying firearms, sticks and shields. Some also wore helmets. Counter-protesters likewise came equipped with sticks, helmets and shields.
The two sides clashed in scattered street brawls before a car drove into the rally opponents, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.
Two state police officers also were killed that day in the fiery crash of the helicopter they were flying in as part of crowd-control operations.
Responding to the violence on Tuesday, United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres said “racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia” were “poisoning our societies”.
“We must stand up against them. Every time. Everywhere,” he tweeted,
Hatred and violence
Addressing the melee for the first time on Saturday, Mr Trump denounced hatred and violence “on many sides.” The comment drew sharp criticism across the political spectrum for not explicitly condemning the white nationalists whose presence in the Southern college town was widely seen as having provoked the unrest.
Critics said Mr Trump’s remarks then belied his reluctance to alienate extreme right-wing organisations, whose followers constitute a devoted segment of his political base despite his disavowal of them.
Yielding two days later to mounting political criticism over his initial response, Mr Trump delivered a follow-up message expressly referring to the “KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups” as “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
His remarks on Tuesday inflamed the controversy further. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke immediately applauded Mr Trump on Twitter.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” Duke wrote, referring to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and anti-fascists.
Democrats seized on Mr Trump’s latest words as evidence that he saw white nationalists and those protesting against them as morally equivalent.
“By saying he is not taking sides, Donald Trump clearly is,” Democrat Senate leader Chuck Schumer of New York, said. “When David Duke and white supremacists cheer your remarks, you’re doing it very, very wrong.”
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labour federation representing 12.5 million workers, became the latest member of Mr Trump’s advisory American Manufacturing Council to resign in protest, saying, “We cannot sit on a council for a president who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism.”
“President Trump’s remarks today repudiate his forced remarks yesterday about the KKK and neo-Nazis.”
Three other members of the council - the chief executives of pharmaceutical maker Merck & Co Inc, sportswear company Under Armour Inc and computer chipmaker Intel Corp - resigned on Monday.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr Trump also sympathized with protesters seeking to keep Lee’s statue in place but offered no equivalent remarks for those who favoured its removal.
“You had people in that group . . . that were there to protest the taking down of a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E Lee to another name,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump also grouped former presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two of the nation’s founding fathers, together with Confederate leaders such as Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, who fought to separate Southern states from the Union, noting that all were slave owners.
“Was George Washington a slave owner? Will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? . . . Because he was a major slave owner,” Mr Trump said.