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Trump's Charlottesville Response Was a Failure of Presidential Leadership

All the latest on Donald Trump's response to the events in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend
Image: People participate in a candlelight vigil at the White House
People participate in a candlelight vigil outside the White House on Aug. 13 to show solidarity with the victims of the violence that took place this weekend at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.Michael Reynolds / EPA

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

A failure of presidential leadership

WASHINGTON — A basic task for any modern American president — Democrat or Republican — is to bring the country together during difficult times. “When the nation was wounded, shocked, or shamed, [presidents try] to rise to their responsibility as leaders of a whole people,” as journalist and former Carter speechwriter James Fallows observed.

Bill Clinton did it after the Oklahoma City bombing. George W. Bush did it after 9/11. And Barack Obama did it after the Charleston church shooting. But Donald Trump failed that presidential-leadership test after a white nationalist protest turned violent over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va.

Trump’s first response — in the form of a tweet — started out fine. “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” he said.

In remarks a couple hours later, however, the president appeared to blame BOTH white nationalists and counter-protestors, and he refused to explicitly condemn the white nationalists. “We condemn in strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence — on many sides.” And then after Trump walked away without taking questions, reporters shouted, “Mr. President, do you want the support of these white nationalists?” “Do you call that terrorism, sir?”

Trump didn’t answer.

So far Monday morning, the president fired off three tweets: One: "Heading to Washington this morning. Much work to do. Focus on trade and military." Two: “Luther Strange of the Great State of Alabama has my endorsement. He is strong on Border & Wall, the military, tax cuts & law enforcement.” Three: “The Obstructionist Democrats have given us (or not fixed) some of the worst trade deals in World History. I am changing that fast!”

But nothing on Charlottesville and the white nationalists.

Fellow Republicans have criticized Trump’s response

In an interview with NBC’s Peter Alexander, Vice President Mike Pence – who said on Sunday, "We have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo Nazis or the KKK” – criticized the media for focusing on what Trump said (and didn’t say). “I take issue with the fact that many in the media are spending more time criticizing how the president addressed the issue yesterday.”

But as Alexander noted, it’s not just the media who have taken issue with Trump’s response. “Mr. President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., tweeted. “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, added. And here was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: “[Trump] missed an opportunity to be very explicit here. These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House.”

Trump’s history “of engaging in high-profile, racially fraught battles,” per the AP

It would be one thing if Trump’s response to Charlottesville was in a vacuum; it’s another when you consider his past controversies when it comes to matters of race.

“Early in his career as a developer, Trump fought charges of bias against blacks seeking to rent at his family-owned apartment complexes,” the AP writes. “He long promoted the lie that the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was not born in the United States. As a candidate, he proposed temporarily banning Muslims from the United States. He retweeted a post from accounts that appeared to have ties to white nationalist groups. And he was slow to reject the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke.”

Here are some other examples:

  • Mexico’s “rapists”: “When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
  • Judge Curiel: “Let me just tell you, I have had horrible rulings I've been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I'm building a wall, OK? I'm building a wall.”
  • Central Park Five: “Donald J. Trump rarely apologizes. When it comes to the case of the Central Park Five, he has never even come close,” the New York Times wrote. “In 1989, after these black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were accused of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park, Mr. Trump spent $85,000 placing full-page ads in the four daily papers in New York City, calling for the return of the death penalty... Incredibly, 14 years after their sentences were vacated based on DNA evidence and the detailed and accurate confession of a serial rapist named Matias Reyes, Mr. Trump has doubled down.”

Ed Gillespie’s “Corey Stewart” problem

In Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, GOP nominee Ed Gillespie denounced the white nationalists. “Having a right to spew vile hate does not make it right. It is painful to see these ugly events in Charlottesville,” he said in a statement. But Gillespie’s defeated primary opponent and (2018 Senate candidate) Corey Stewart took a different tack. "Democrats and the media never denounce the violence perpetrated by the unhinged left," Stewart said. "Antifa is simply answering the call for violence in the streets by Loretta Lynch."

Gillespie will have to make a choice: Denounce Stewart and call for him to leave the Republican Party, or have Stewart’s comments get tied to him (Stewart has said he’s supporting Gillespie in November).

McMaster refuses to answer — three times — if he and Steve Bannon can work together

From yesterday’s “Meet the Press”:

CHUCK TODD: Can you and Steve Bannon still work together in this White House or not?LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I get to work together with a broad range of talented people and it is a privilege every day to enable the national security team.CHUCK TODD: You didn't answer can you and Steve Bannon work in that same White House?LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I am, I am ready to work with anybody who will help advance the president's agenda and advance the security, prosperity of the American people.CHUCK TODD: Do you believe Steve Bannon does that?LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I believe that everyone who works in the White House who has the privilege, the great privilege every day of serving their nation should be motivated by that goal.

Strange’s struggles in Alabama

One day before tomorrow’s Alabama Senate primary, the New York Times writes about incumbent Sen. Luther Strange’s struggles. “Senator Luther Strange of Alabama wields an endorsement from the president of the United States, is the beneficiary of a multimillion-dollar campaign from allies of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and has the backing of influential conservative interest groups like the National Rifle Association. But Mr. Strange is wheezing into Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary here..

More: “He is grasping to secure a second-place finish and a slot in a September runoff with Roy S. Moore, the twice-deposed former State Supreme Court justice and evangelical-voter favorite who is expected to be the top vote-getter but may fall short of the majority needed to win outright. Mr. Strange is in a political vise, pinched by his links to a pair of Republicans, one local and one national, held in low esteem by many in the party here: the disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, who appointed Mr. Strange, and Mr. McConnell.”