CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia – Israeli and Jewish American leaders expressed panic, dismay and a sense of helplessness over President Donald Trump’s extraordinary defense on Tuesday of the white nationalist rally here over the weekend, where torch wielders flew swastikas and Confederate flags to the shock of the nation.
An angered Trump shouted at reporters in the lobby of his Manhattan tower on Tuesday afternoon, defending those who organized a rally meant to project white power and target a conspiracy of global Jewish influence. His press conference caught White House staff off-guard, and deepened a crisis surrounding the president’s moral credibility, already polling among Americans at historic lows.
The Charlottesville rally has been roundly condemned by Democrats and Republicans as antisemitic, evil, fascist and fundamentally un-American. Jewish leaders have repeatedly called on the president to unambiguously condemn its organization. But Trump initially declined to name those responsible for the event – groups that self-identify as white supremacist, white nationalist and neo-Nazi together rallying to “Unite the Right” around their racist cause – until, faced with tremendous pressure from his own party, he caved in on Monday to issue a more detailed statement.
Less than a day later, Trump backtracked, furiously disputing criticism that he failed to denounce racism in the first place, while defending those seeking to preserve Confederate and proto-fascist iconography, including statues of Southern generals who fought in the Civil War to defend slavery and secession.
He equated the hate groups behind the rally with those in their crosshairs, some of which counterprotested the event with messages of equality.
One counterprotester, Heather Heyer, 32, was murdered when 20-yearold James Fields – who reportedly has neo-Nazi ties – intentionally rammed his car into a crowd. Dozens more were wounded.
“I think there’s blame on both sides,” Trump charged. “And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Trump went on to compare those who led the 1860s Southern secessionist movement to the US’s founding fathers, who devised the American union in the first place.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” he said, referring to the Confederate commander and one of his most prominent generals, respectively. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
“You’re changing history,” he added. “You’re changing culture.”
It was an exceptional defense of the lost Confederate cause from an American president leading the party of Abraham Lincoln, who fought the nation’s bloodiest war against Lee and Jackson to keep the union together. But it was also a defense of those who marched under Nazi banners, chanting “Jews will not replace us” at a rally with the stated purpose of exerting white power as a matter of cultural preservation.
The president’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, stood on the sidelines in the Trump Tower lobby with his arms crossed and his head down, appearing despondent. The former general was soon to face a repudiation from his former colleagues: The heads of the army, navy, air force and Marines all issued exceptional statements in defense of the American pluralistic way, breaking with longstanding US tradition separating military brass from political affairs.
“The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism or hatred in our ranks,” wrote the US Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, on Twitter. “It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.”
Gary Cohn, the president’s National Economic Council chairman who is Jewish, was “disgusted and upset” by Trump’s comments on white nationalists, reported The New York Times. A group of CEOs who were to advise Trump as part of a “strategic and policy council” disbanded in protest, as members of his manufacturing council continued to exit in a steady stream, dismembering that group as well.
Remotely from their vacation, the president’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, reportedly urged him to climb down from the crisis by publicly distancing himself from the alt-right.
Yet criticism of the president on Tuesday – from both sides of the aisle, and from local, national and international leaders and civil rights icons – seemed to move past the hope that his quiet alliance with his racist base was simply a marriage of political convenience. Many began to express fear that Trump actually holds the view that the grievances of those seeking to “preserve white Christian heritage” may have some merit.
“We must be clear,” said Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
His counterpart in the Senate, Majority Mitch McConnell, also offered a condemnatory statement, saying it was the “responsibility” of American leaders to stand up unequivocally against those marching for racial division.
“We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred,” said McConnell, who is facing the prospect of a white power rally in his home state of Kentucky. “There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms.”
Indeed, mayors and governors across the South are now racing to take down Confederate statues with haste and as little attention as possible. The mayor of Lexington said he would expedite the removal of two statues in the county courthouse, and Baltimore authorities without prior announcement removed several statues across the city under moonlight.
Former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush issued a joint statement characterizing bigotry and antisemitism as fundamentally un-American, and a message from Barack Obama quoting Nelson Mandela on the equality of all peoples and the importance of love became the most “liked” message on Twitter of all time.
Meanwhile, foreign dignitaries in free nations that have long turned to the US for democratic and moral leadership expressed disgust at the president’s remarks, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
President Reuven Rivlin sent a message of “strength” and solidarity to American Jews, calling on them to have faith in humanity, democracy and justice.
“The very idea that in our time we would see a Nazi flag – perhaps the most vicious symbol of antisemitism – paraded in the streets of the world’s greatest democracy, and Israel’s most cherished and greatest ally, is almost beyond belief,” Rivlin said. “I know that the great nation of the United States of America and its leaders will know how to face this difficult challenge, and prove to the world the robustness and strength of democracy and freedom.”
But the leaders of Jewish organizations were less measured.
“There are no two sides,” wrote the Anti-Defamation League, which directly condemned the president for his response. The ADL has published a guide for parents trying to steer their children through periods when “hate makes headlines.”
“We have a history in this country of presidents standing up to bigotry and hate,” said the ADL’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt. “Today, for the second time in four days, President Trump did the opposite.”
The American Jewish Committee questioned Trump’s effort to equate hate groups with those they target. “There were perpetrators – white supremacists and neo-Nazis – who came itching for a fight,” the AJC wrote on Twitter. “Why is it so hard to see?”
Jewish members of Congress also expressed outrage, and pain, over the idea that antisemitic forces had been given a boost from the Oval Office.
“Will [Trump] look into the eyes of a Holocaust survivor,” asked Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat and Jewish member of Congress, “and tell her that even one Nazi swastika flag is okay?”
Several Jewish members of the Senate, including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, expressed revulsion over the president’s apparent endorsement of the white power event.
“As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment,” wrote Brian Schatz, another Jewish member serving as senator from Hawaii. “This is not my president.”
There were those who praised the president, however.
David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, thanked Trump for showing “honesty and courage” in condemning far-left groups that attended the Charlottesville rally in counterprotest against racist forces. And Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who coined the phrase “alt-right,” also offered his gratitude.
“I’m proud of him,” Spencer said, “for speaking the truth.”