The Republican base is fiercely defending Donald Trump’s response to a violent white nationalist rally, arguing that the president’s dayslong refusal to explicitly condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis is a matter of splitting hairs.
Trump has faced enormous backlash from his own party’s leaders for being slow to condemn the neo-Nazis and white-power groups who recently gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, suggesting an increased willingness among Washington Republicans to break with an administration whose support among base voters has so far kept lawmakers in line.
But interviews with GOP strategists and local officials from across the country reveal that many Republicans outside of Washington think Trump addressed the situation adequately. His approach certainly has not prompted these conservatives to reconsider their support.
“The president’s statements were unequivocal in opposing hatred, and so his statements were in line with the Republican base on this,” said Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck. “I don’t see any scenario where grassroots conservatives are sitting there picking apart the president’s every word and rethinking support for him.”
The guy can’t win with the media, no matter what he does.
Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck
Added Carter Wrenn, a veteran North Carolina-based Republican strategist: “I’m not a Trump fan, but I didn’t see any problem with what he said. I thought he made it pretty clear he disapproved of what happened.”
The white nationalist rally in Virginia this weekend resulted in the deaths of two law enforcement officers and of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car rammed a gathering of counter-protesters. Trump spent the weekend tweeting and speaking generically about condemning hate and lamenting violence from “many sides,” even as a significant number of Republican senators offered much sharper, more explicit criticism and called on Trump to do the same.
The president’s perceived reluctance to specifically condemn the white supremacists at the center of the protests prompted National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner to urge Trump to “call evil by its name.” Trump didn’t do so directly until Monday — three days after protests began, and hours after he publicly jabbed the CEO of Merck pharmaceuticals for leaving a White House advisory council amid the protest controversy.
Many Republican operatives and strategists saw the whole situation as grossly mishandled, the latest White House flub of a sensitive issue.
"Republicans have no tolerance for white supremacists and have no patience for Republican leaders who aren't quick to condemn that," said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who served as a top communications adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail. "There is real concern that the way they've handled this has the potential to deliver real damage to the Republican Party, long term."
But GOP activists and officials around the country felt that Trump’s critics were drawing a distinction without a difference.
“I saw a ton of comments and statements regarding this, condemning it,” said Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. “So I thought everybody has done a very good job of stepping up and telling people these actions are wrong.”
Whitbeck, whose state was the scene of the protests, said he wished the focus would be on “stopping the violence” rather than “picking apart the president’s words.”
“Of course when he said, ‘we condemn hatred and violence,’ of course he meant white supremacists,” Whitbeck said. “The guy can’t win with the media, no matter what he does.”
Trump’s supporters largely blamed the media for its coverage of Trump’s response, picking up on Vice President Mike Pence’s critique.
I'm getting fed up to the top of my head with some of these pontificating Republican senators.
Steve Scheffler, the Iowa Republican national committeeman
But Steve Scheffler, the Iowa Republican national committeeman who also heads the state’s socially conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition, said he was troubled by the criticism leveled at Trump by members of his own party in Washington, specifically U.S. senators.
“Why don't these senators go and have a private conversation with him instead of making a public statement,” said Scheffler, who stressed that he supported condemning the white supremacist groups themselves “in the strongest terms.” “I suspect that a lot of it has to do with politics.”
“I'm getting fed up to the top of my head with some of these pontificating Republican senators in particular, who seem to try and find every opportunity just to take a dig at the president,” he said.
Others, however, acknowledged that in the past, Republicans have placed a premium on using precise, forceful language when identifying adversaries. President Barack Obama was pilloried by the right — including by Trump himself—for not using the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” for example. But while Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that the “evil attack” met the agency's definition of domestic terrorism, Trump did not use the word “terrorism.”
“In the primary we made this huge big deal about calling it ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ ‘we’ve got to call terrorism by its name’—does that not apply here?” asked Joseph Brannan, the chairman of the Republican Party of the second congressional district of Georgia, which includes Columbus and Macon, Georgia. “But I have not seen a lot of traction, other than folks expressing outrage at the folks marching.”
This is hardly the first time Trump has found himself in racially or religiously charged trouble. During the presidential campaign, he mocked a Muslim Gold Star military family. He questioned the impartiality of an American-born judge of Mexican descent. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, his White House statement omitted a reference to Jewish suffering.
In each instance, Republican lawmakers and GOP groups have distanced themselves, expressing disapproval or frustration. And in each instance, they have generally rallied back to Trump, a reflection of the base’s continued support for the president and his focus on slashing regulations and appointing conservative Supreme Court justices.
The incident in Charlottesville looks poised to play out the same way, some operatives say, arguing that both sides are entrenched in their views on Trump, and people in the middle are tuning out.
“Last week there was the threat of nuclear war, this weekend there were violent riots, a person was killed, a couple of police officers were killed,” said Mark Weaver, an Ohio Republican strategist. “Every week, you could go back to January, and see cataclysmic, dramatic events of some sort. They have not affected the numbers much. I don’t know why last weekend would be different.”
Indeed, while Trump’s job approval numbers are sinking—they hit the lowest point of his presidency, 34 percent, on Monday—he has remained generally steady with Republican voters, with support staying in the 80s (though it slipped to 79 percent on Monday).
“I don’t see someone in this neck of the woods getting upset about a delayed tweet or getting riled up over specific language,” Brannan said. “They’ve never gotten riled up about it before.”