White House defends Trump's response to Virginia violence

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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BEDMINSTER, United States (AFP) — The White House on Sunday struggled to defuse the growing criticism of President Donald Trump's initial failure to explicitly condemn white supremacists for their role in the violent protest Saturday in Virginia, insisting that his condemnation included all such groups.

A young woman died and 19 people were injured in the city of Charlottesville when a car plowed into a crowd of people after a rally by Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists turned violent. Two state police officers died in a helicopter crash near the embattled area.

A full day after the violence erupted, and after an initial statement in which Trump made no mention of white extremism, a White House spokesperson issued a statement saying, "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."

In an appearance Saturday at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump had vaguely faulted "many sides" for the violence -- a phrase he then repeated. He made no mention of the far-right militia groups involved in the Charlottesville melee, some of whom arrived armed, in camouflage and wearing Trump hats or T-shirts.

Amid growing bipartisan criticism of his initial response, White House advisers appearing Sunday on talk shows strove to defend the president.

White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told Fox News Sunday that "I think you saw the president stand up very clearly and not only denounce it, but rise to a presidential level of calling for a countermessage of love and dignity and respect for fellow human beings."

But the Charlottesville mayor, Michael Signer, laid much of the blame for the violence directly at the president's feet, saying, in an impassioned appearance on CBS, that Trump had created an atmosphere of "coarseness, cynicism (and) bullying."

"He made a choice in his presidential campaign, the folks around him, to go to the gutter, to play on our worst prejudices," Signer, a Democrat, said. "I think you're seeing a direct line from what happened this weekend to those choices."

Many Republicans joined in the criticism of Trump, including former presidential aspirants Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Another Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, told Fox News Sunday that "I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he's their friend."

"Their cause is hate."

Even the man who was briefly the White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, had critical words for Trump's original response.

"I wouldn't have recommended that statement," he said on ABC. "I think he needed to be much harsher as it related to the white supremacists."

He added, "It's actually terrorism."

Scaramucci was fired only 10 days into his job as communications director after the New Yorker published an obscenity-laced interview he had with a reporter.

Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, issued a tweet early Sunday that included the sort of language some people said her father should have used on Saturday.

"There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis," she tweeted.

When Trump was asked on Saturday in Bedminster whether he wanted the support of white nationalists, he ignored the question.

He is expected to hold a news conference Monday in Washington at which the question is certain to arise.

The New York billionaire faced harsh criticism during last year's presidential campaign for failing to quickly reject a vow of support from a former Klan leader, David Duke, though he eventually did so. Duke took part in Saturday's rally.

The president has long had a following among white supremacist groups attracted to his nationalist rhetoric on immigration and other hot-button issues.

Mayor Signer was among those making a plea on Sunday for the country to rise above its recent troubles.

"We're going to work on civility and listening, deliberation, First Amendment, religious toleration, pluralism."

As for the violence and hateful rhetoric, he said, "That has to stop. It has to stop now."

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