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White House defends Trump's response to Charlottesville violence as criticism intensifies

 (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

White House officials on Sunday defended President Trump’s failure to explicitly condemn white supremacist groups over deadly violence a day earlier in Charlottesville, Va., suggesting his implicit denunciation of them was clear in his remarks Saturday.

Yet as criticism of the president poured in for a second day, including from some GOP allies, his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, suggested Trump would have more to say on the subject.

"I’m sure you will hear from the president more about this," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The comments came a day after a car plowed into a crowd, killing a woman, and a state police helicopter crashed, causing two deaths, as white supremacists rallied over two days in the historic Virginia college town to protest the planned removal of a statue of a Confederate general. 

Another senior administration official, though, suggested that the president's omission had not been accidental.

When White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert was asked about Trump’s emphatic assertion that “many sides” were to blame, suggesting equal culpability for the white supremacist groups and the counter-protestors, Bossert said the president had opted not to “dignify the names” of white nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations.

"This isn't about President Trump,” Bossert said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “This is about a level of violence and hatred that could not be tolerated in this country.”

After a lengthy back-and-forth with host Jake Tapper, Bossert eventually made specific reference to white nationalist groups, without suggesting his views were those of the president.

"I think you've belabored it, so let me say I condemn white supremacists, and Nazis, and groups that favor this type of exclusion," he said.

Trump's aides are often forced to clarify for the president when he declines to address some controversy, or does so in a way that raises additional questions, and McMaster tried to do so on another Sunday program. He suggested on ABC’s “This Week,” that Trump's Saturday statement from his New Jersey golf club did stand as a condemnation of the white supremacist movement.

“The president’s been very clear,” McMaster said. “We cannot tolerate this kind of bigotry, this kind of hatred.”

The seeming contradiction between that contention and McMaster's suggestion in the NBC interview — that Trump may have failed to fully articulate his repudiation of specific hate groups — illustrated the frequent difficulty that administration officials have in trying to interpret the president's controversial remarks or tweets.

“He condemned hatred and bigotry on all sides, and that includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” the national security advisor said on NBC. “I think it’s clear — I know it’s clear in his mind.”

Trump himself remained silent, but the White House also took the position that he had already delivered sufficient condemnation of the right-wing hate groups.

"The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups," said the statement, given to reporters covering Trump as he vacations in Bedminster, N.J. "He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together." 

McMaster also said that the car attack on a crowd of counter-protesters that killed a 32-year-old woman should be considered an act of domestic terrorism. Trump has publicly made no such suggestion, although the Justice Department said late Saturday that it was opening a civil rights investigation.

A full investigation of the ramming episode, which also left 19 people injured and an Ohio man, the suspected driver, under arrest, needed to run its course, McMaster said on NBC. But he added: “I think we can confidently call it a form of terrorism.”

Reflecting the divisions among Trump’s top advisors, McMaster responded only in general terms to repeated queries as to whether he could work with strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who has promoted hardline nationalist views. The provocatively conservative website that Bannon formerly ran, Breitbart.com, has promoted efforts on the right to oust McMaster.

“I am ready to work with anybody who will help advance the president’s agenda and advance the security, prosperity of the American people,” McMaster said.

Asked whether Bannon did so, he replied that everyone working in the White House “should be motivated by that goal.” 

Meanwhile, the mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer, offered fresh criticism of the president, saying Trump's campaign had courted the support of white-nationalist groups.

“It’s now on the president, and all of us, to say ‘Enough is enough — this movement has run its course,’” he said on “Meet the Press.”

"Look at the campaign he ran,” Signer said in a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Look at the intentional courting, both on the one hand all of these white supremacist, white nationalist groups like that, anti-Semitic groups, and then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up and condemn, denounce, silence, put to bed, all of those different efforts just like we saw yesterday.”

Republican allies advised Trump to actively repudiate white supremacists who describe themselves as his supporters. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said: “I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he’s their friend.”

Another Republican senator, Cory Gardner of Colorado, repeated calls for Trump to specifically denounce hate groups.

“They shouldn’t be claimed as part of a base,” he said. “Call it for what it is — it’s evil; it’s white nationalism.”

Even disgraced former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci weighed in with advice to Trump to be more explicit in his condemnation.

"I think he needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists and the nature of that," he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who is a White House advisor, used language more specific than that of her father in condemning the Charlottesville violence. In her first response, a tweet on Sunday morning, she declared that there should be “no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”

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