On Saturday, President Trump reacted to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the murder of an innocent counterprotester by pinning blame “for this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence” on “many sides.” His failure to specifically denounce white supremacist violence was roundly condemned, including by Republican members of Congress and a former Trump administration staffer.
But Trump’s statement won praise from white supremacist groups. Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, called Trump’s remarks “really good,” noting he “didn’t attack us.” The site commended Trump for ignoring questions from reporters about whether he’ll disavow the support of right-wing extremist groups.
On Sunday, Vanity Fair reporter Gabriel Sherman asked an unnamed senior White House official why Trump didn’t specifically condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who flooded the streets of Charlottesville. The official responded by asserting that “the leftist mob” was “just as violent if not more so.”
When I asked senior WH official why Trump didn't condemn Cville Nazis, he said: "What about the leftist mob. Just as violent if not more so"
— Gabriel Sherman (@gabrielsherman) August 13, 2017
During TV interviews Monday morning, both Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended Trump’s “many sides” statement. Ignoring data about violence perpetrated by right-wing extremists of the sort that took to the streets in Charlottesville over the weekend, they did so by comparing the murder of Heather Heyer with the actions of groups who have protested police violence in recent years.
On the Today show, Sessions said that Trump — who pushed for less federal scrutiny of white supremacist groups during the early weeks of his administration — “has been firm on this from the beginning, he’s appalled by this.” Pushed about why Trump talked about “many sides” instead of denouncing white supremacists specifically, Sessions cited unspecified “violence around the country in any number of ways over decades.”
“We’ve had these spasms of violence that are unacceptable in America,” he said. “[Trump] did say he isn’t just talking about Donald Trump or Barack Obama. He said these problems have been going on for a long time.”
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) August 14, 2017
Pence struck a similar note during his interview on Today. After he claimed that Trump “spoke into a national moment words that the American peopled needed to hear” with his statement on Saturday, interviewer Peter Alexander pushed back.
“[Trump] said, ‘On many sides.’ Name those sides. What are those sides?” Alexander said.
“Well, look, as I said today, we condemn in the strongest terms the hate and violence advocated by groups like white supremacists and neo-Nazis and their ilk,” the vice president said.
But Alexander followed up by pointing out that Pence was still just talking about one side. He asked, “What’s the other side when he says ‘on many sides?'”
Pence responded to referring to unspecified cases of violence of against police officers.
“Well, as you look throughout the course of recent years, we’ve seen protests turn violent, we’ve seen fringe groups use peaceful protest environment[s] to bring violence, in some case against police officers, to tragic results,” he said.
Alexander again pushed back.
“With respect, only one group [on Saturday] killed an American,” he said.
Pence dodged, saying the administration is “bringing the full weight of the federal government to bare on investigating and and prosecuting that individual for that heinous act that took the life of that innocent woman.”
The vice president then took a shot at the media, saying, “I take issue with the fact that many in the media are spending more time” criticizing Trump instead of “those who brought that hatred and violence to the streets of Charlottesville.” But Alexander pointed out that Trump is being criticized by Republican senators like Orrin Hatch and Cory Gardner.
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) August 14, 2017
Though Trump hasn’t publicly commented on Charlottesville since making his “many sides” statement to the media and posting similarly vague tweets on Saturday, an anonymous White House official released a statement that attempted to do damage control on Sunday.
“The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred, and, of course, that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups,” the official said. “He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
But during their interviews on Monday, both Sessions and Pence dodged questions about why Trump won’t make such a statement himself.