By Lesley Clark & David Goldstein
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Rather than soothing racial tension, an increasingly isolated President Donald Trump reverted to the rage that fueled his campaign, playing to the core of his supporters who still adore him.
With bluster and defiance, Trump on Tuesday spread blame for the violence in Virginia not just on the torch-wielding white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members who gathered to bemoan the removal of a Confederate monument, but on the counterprotesters — black and white — who came to denounce them.
“There’s blame on both sides,” Trump said of Charlottesville. “You look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it and you don’t have any doubt about it either.”
The Donald Trump on display was not the scripted version who appeared in the White House Diplomatic Room the day before to revise, after intense bipartisan political pressure, his initial remarks about Charlottesville. Those first comments were found wanting. But to Trump, as he told reporters in the gold-plated lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday, his first statement — which failed to denounce white supremacists — was “excellent.”
Tuesday was vintage Trump, back home at Trump Tower. It was Trump: the campaign edition, the buccaneer businessman-turned-political folk hero to an angry electorate hoping for simple answers, which he has always been happy to provide.
He’s much more at home slinging tweets, devoid of civility or nuance.
Newly installed White House chief of staff John Kelly knew he had his hands full when he took the job. He stood off to the side, his hands clasped and looking down, as Trump spoke.
And spoke. And spoke. He even managed a few zingers at Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an animus that goes back to the 2016 campaign when he attacked the former Navy pilot for ending up as a prisoner during the Vietnam War.
On Charlottesville, Trump went even further Tuesday, adopting the arguments of the so-called alt-right confederation of white nationalists and anti-Semites as he decried the push to rid the country of Confederate statues, saying it was “changing culture.”
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down,” Trump said. “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’s core supporters have sought to blame Black Lives Matters activists and anti-fascist protesters known by the far-right as “antifa,” for the violence, and Trump delivered with relish.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?” Trump said. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
His far-right base, which has stuck with him even as his poll numbers have plummeted, responded with appreciation.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” tweeted David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader whose support Trump was slow to reject during the presidential campaign.
The outburst came as elected Republicans are becoming increasingly comfortable in distancing themselves from Trump and as Republican strategists agonize at his behavior. He spent much of last week torching Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a head-scratching political strategy, especially with so much more on his legislative agenda yet to do.
“Blaming ‘both sides’ for #Charlottesville?! No,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., shot at Trump on Twitter. “Back to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists? Just no.”
“This was genuinely appalling,” said Charlie Sykes, formerly a longtime conservative radio host in Wisconsin.
Sykes was a vocal Republican Trump critic during the campaign, when the then-candidate had a tendency to play to his nationalist, populist base rather than focus on the general electorate. It worked for Trump last time — and his display on Tuesday fit that pattern again.
“He was undisciplined and reckless and frankly morally indefensible, but I have to tell you, if you spend five minutes listening to conservative talk radio, you will know this will play well with his base,” Sykes said. “His base has been conditioned to accept this what-aboutism, ‘let’s not talk about Nazis and white supremacists, what about the alt-left? What about Antifa?’ That was the theme of conservative radio all day.
“It’s going to be a huge political backlash,” Sykes continued. “But it will play well with his base.”