Senior Republicans have lambasted Donald Trump after he once again drew a moral equivalency between the far right and counter-demonstrators during the deadly violence in Charlottesville on Saturday.
But some elected Republican officials responded to an extraordinary press conference in Trump Tower on Tuesday night by denouncing bigotry, in signs of a possible rift in the party.
No elected Republican officials went so far as to defend Trump outright after he insisted that not all of those participating in a Unite the Right protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee were neo-Nazis or white supremacists.
After giving an apparently reluctant statement denouncing racism as evil on Monday, the US president reverted to his original response to the clashes on Tuesday, blaming both sides for the violence, during which a civil rights activist died.
“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” Trump said. “You had a group on one side and group on the other and they came at each other with clubs – there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. You had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
The divide between those willing to condemn Trump by name and those who did not mirrored the Republican response to the president’s infamous comments on the Access Hollywood tape, far more than other controversies that have swarmed around the president.
John McCain was among those to criticize Trump by name. The Arizona senator tweeted:
His sentiments were echoed by one of Trump’s rival Republican presidential candidates, Jeb Bush, who said: “This is a time for moral clarity, not ambivalence. I urge President Trump to unite the country, not parse the assignment of blame for the events in Charlottesville.
“For the sake of our country, he must leave no room for doubt that racism and hatred will not be tolerated or ignored by his White House.”
Mitt Romney, the party’s nominee in 2012, said the president was wrong to blame “many sides”, tweeting:
Steve Stivers of Ohio, head of the national Republican congressional committee, which is responsible for keeping Republican control of the House, vented:
His Senate counterpart, Cory Gardner of Colorado, said of Trump at a town hall: “What he did today goes back on what he said yesterday and that’s unacceptable. The president was wrong to do that.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida also called out Trump, tweeting: “Mr President, you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame. They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain.”
Congressmen Pat Tiberi of Ohio and Justin Amash of Michigan were among others who tweeted their disapproval, and congressman Will Hurd of Texas told CNN Trump should apologise for his statements.
However, many in Trump’s party restrained themselves from criticizing the president by name. The two top Republicans in the House of Representatives offered broad criticisms of bigotry. Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted:
Majority leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted: “Saturday’s violence and tragic loss of life was a direct consequence of the hateful rhetoric & action from white supremacists demonstrating.”
Ryan has been critical of Trump in the past. During the 2016 election he said comments Trump made about federal judge Gustavo Curiel were “the textbook definition of a racist comment”. But the Wisconsin Republican said he would still vote for Trump at the time.
Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York went further, telling Newsday: “These two sides are not equal. They are different. I would add, though, that it is not right to suggest that President Trump is wrong for acknowledging the fact that criminals on both sides showed up for the purpose of being violent. That particular observation is completely true.”
Three UN human rights experts issued a statement on Wednesday seeking an independent investigation into the deadly events in Charlottesville. The experts said they were “deeply concerned at the proliferation and increasing prominence of organized hate and racist groups” in the US, insisting that racist hate speech “must be unequivocally condemned.”
There was one GOP defender of the president. Former professional pundit and RNC spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany tweeted:
Trump’s press conference also drew praise from David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who was one of the protesters in Charlottesville on Saturday. Duke tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
The president’s remarks were, according to senior aides who spoke anonymously to CNN and NBC, not planned, and surprised members of his staff who had hoped he would stick to the topic of infrastructure.
At the site where the civil rights activist Heather Heyer died in downtown Charlottesville, mounds of flowers and chalked messages of remembrance now fan out on the road. Many who had gathered on Tuesday night said they had come to expect such divisive, off the cuff remarks.
Diane Townes, a 62-year-old African American working in education, said the comments were another example of Trump “shaming the victims”. “Pouting and blaming is not the way to show an example to young people,” she said. “He opened the gateway to this with his own gestures during the campaign.”
Mike Townes, Diane’s son, had heard the comments on the radio minutes before arriving at the memorial site. “I’m actually glad he’s saying it,” he said. “It is showing this country who he truly is. He represents the people who came to my community as supremacists. David Duke was right about him.”
Eric Gilchrist, another mourner at the memorial, said: “We know that he is selfish and vain, but now I worry he is a sociopath, too. He needs to leave office.”
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