Virtually every U.S. president since the 1940s has known that when you condemn Nazis, you stick to the script and do not equivocate. On Tuesday, President Donald J. Trump, for the second time in four days, proved unwilling to uphold that standard.
Instead, he criticized the “alt-left” for violence at a bloody white-supremacist gathering over the weekend, reversing the minimal damage control done by his statement denouncing neo-Nazis on Monday. He also pitched his winery in Virginia, at what quickly became one of the most shambolic public events of his entire political career—a tall order, to be sure.
“When you say alt-right, define alt-right for me—what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” Trump exclaimed toward the reporters gathered for his press conference at Trump Tower. “You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side.”
For a White House that has careened from crisis point to crisis point, Trump’s performance on Tuesday was a uniquely chaotic crescendo. He had gathered the press to talk about infrastructure regulations only to find himself defending a portion of the white supremacists who had marched with tiki-torches on Friday while shouting anti-Semitic epithets.
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides,” he claimed. “You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, to them, of a very, very important statue, and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
The scene was jarring, and not just to onlookers. Some top advisers were also shocked. To the side, newly installed chief of staff John Kelly looked on with despondence, his head hanging solemnly on his chest.
And it just kept going. President Trump then attempted to impart a history lesson—something likely cribbed directly from Fox News.
“These people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee,” he continued. “And you take a look at some of the groups … But many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Trump often can serve as his own worst enemy. One White House official conceded to The Daily Beast that Tuesday’s presser was a continuation of a pattern that the president follows, in which he will “extend the shelf life” of a controversy because he somehow cannot help himself from talking about it.
The president’s first statement on Charlottesville evoked howls of protest for its equivocation and failure to denounce the white supremacists responsible for organizing the rally. He tried his hand at cleaning up on Monday with remarks at the White House that specifically called out Nazism and the KKK only to undo what little good he’d done roughly 24 hours later at Trump Tower.
“It was the president’s decision to do this,” another White House official told The Daily Beast of Trump’s free-wheeling at the press conference. Asked for a mini-review of Trump’s press conference performance, the official would only respond, “clean-up on aisle Trump.”
White House officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
Trump had a tidy explanation for why he had taken three swats at the same response. It was prudence, he explained, to wait for more information to come in about the incident before making a statement on it.
“I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement,” said the president, who once deemed a violent incident in Manila a terrorist attack before authorities determined it was likely a robbery. “I want to know the facts.”
Early reviews from members of Trump’s own party were not great. Many Republicans have looked the other way during previous Trump crisis points, with the argument that the president was there not to calm the waters but to sign into law the Republican agenda. But frustration and embarrassment are mounting, even if the disaffected remain unwilling to go on the record.
“The president can't constantly play to the most fringe elements of his base,” a Republican aide on Capitol Hill told The Daily Beast. “In doing so, he forgets that the conservative base that propelled him to victory is comprised of people of various races, creeds, and religions and that they find the displays in Charlottesville abhorrent. He’s gravely mistaken if he thinks the opinions shown over the weekend are representative of the majority of those who supported him. They’re not, and he risks alienating the many for the few.”
As of Monday, Trump and his team had no plans to visit Charlottesville, senior aides told The Daily Beast. One of the big reasons why is because administration officials know that it would very likely be an unmitigated disaster if Trump were to go.
“Why the hell would we do that?” one White House official bluntly said, stating that whatever the president did in Charlottesville at this stage would be “used against” him by critics. Trump, the fear went, could potentially worsen matters by being there and opening his mouth.
On Tuesday afternoon, the president proved that official’s point. At the end of his appearance, he was asked about making a stop in the grieving city. He used the opportunity to instead plug his business empire.
“I own one of the largest wineries in the United States, and it's in Charlottesville,” Trump said with a straight face.