WASHINGTON – Senior Trump administration officials on Sunday characterized the killing of a 32 year-old woman at a white supremacist rally in Virginia as an act of domestic terrorism, and the event precipitating her death as one motivated by hatred and bigotry, amid questions from Republican lawmakers over the president’s refusal to address the racist nature of the event.
Neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups seeking to preserve Confederate iconography and “Christian heritage” in the American South organized a march on the college town of Charlottesville over the weekend, where roughly 6,000 participants – virtually all white, and mostly male – chanted antisemitic slogans, hailed Hitler and flew flags with swastikas, stars and bars. The targets of their signs and slogans were Jews, African-Americans and immigrants of color.
Clashes turned violent once counterprotesters encountered the hateful gang. At least 34 were reported injured by the end of the day, including 19 maimed after a man marching with one of the inequality advocacy groups rammed his car at high speed into the counterprotesting crowd.
That act – which led to one death – is now being treated as a terrorist incident by federal law enforcement officials.
“Of course it’s terrorism,” said President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster speaking on several Sunday morning television shows.
But Trump himself kept silent after making a statement on Saturday that drew widespread criticism across the political aisle. The president condemned, “in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides,” he said, seemingly drawing equivalence between neo-Nazi groups and those in its crosshairs.
More than half of the Republican caucus in the Senate, elder GOP statesmen and several party governors called on Trump to be more specific in his condemnation: “Call evil by its name,” said Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.
But clarification was left to his surrogates, who at once said his statement applied to the Ku Klux Klan members marching on Saturday, while defending the vagueness of his on-camera remarks.
“The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred,” said one White House spokesman. “Of course, that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
Yet another White House official told local US press to look closely at the counterprotesters, some of whom came with helmets and chemical irritants prepared for a fight.
Administration officials conceded that the president ad-libbed the most controversial part of his otherwise prepared remarks: That hatred was coming from both sides of the protest, named by its organizers as an effort to “Unite the Right” behind white nationalist principles.
The most influential presidential surrogate to call out protesters by their names was Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who is Jewish and was observing the Sabbath as the violence played out on national television.
“There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis,” Ivanka wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “We must all come together as Americans.”
Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency as the protests grew, and the National Guard was called in to assist in containing the event. Charlottesville’s Mayor Michael Signer insisted that the city is “progressive, modern and tolerant” – and for that very reason a target of those throughout the region seeking to maintain white supremacy in its governance.
Signer – who himself is Jewish – said the president’s “repeated failure to step up, to condemn, denounce” white nationalists, antisemites and racial bigots was a dog whistle for groups to rally in the public square.
“I hung my head – it was more of a lot of the same that we’ve seen,” Signer told CNN. “Look at the campaign he ran.”
Indeed, one popular neo-Nazi Internet forum, called the Daily Stormer, ran a statement on Saturday that it considers Trump’s silence to be permissive.
“Trump comments were good,” wrote the Nazi website. “He didn’t attack us… no condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good.”
Trump has doggedly avoided condemning his white supremacist, white nationalist and neo-Nazi supporters ever since entering politics a mere two years ago. After receiving an endorsement during his 2016 presidential campaign from David Duke, a former congressman and KKK member, Trump claimed not to know about him, about the organization or about like-minded groups that have rallied around him as their standard-bearer.
In an interview last year with The Jerusalem Post, Duke – who attended the Charlottesville rally – said white nationalists are attracted to Trump because they believe he factors his own racial identity into his politics.
“I don’t really use the term white nationalism, but I do want to preserve my heritage – just like Jews do,” said Duke. “And I think deep down inside, Donald Trump knows where his roots are. He’s concerned about the general heritage of this country.”
“The fact that some of his family is intermarried doesn’t really change that,” he added, in reference to Ivanka Trump.
In Virginia on Saturday, Duke told local media the event was in effect a rally for Trump’s base, encouraging the president to follow through on his campaign promises.
Israeli leaders took notice of the sight of Nazi flags flying in Old Dominion. The right-wing Bayit Yehudi’s leader, Naftali Bennett, said on Sunday: “Nazi symbols and flags waving freely in the US do not only harm the Jewish community and other minorities, they disrespect the American soldiers who gave their lives to protect the US and the world from the Nazis.”
Bennett then called on “American leaders to condemn and reject the antisemitism that was displayed in recent days.”
Trump offered no comment on Twitter throughout the day on Sunday and had no public events.