Nazi rallies are like the big, fat hanging curveball of American politics -- the sort of pitch any minimally competent public figure can put in the cheap seats without even thinking about it. But when Donald Trump saw one floating over the plate on Saturday, he kept his bat on his shoulder.
Then, on Sunday, his aides were dispatched to the talk shows to explain that he actually hit a home run.
Trump was slammed by friend and foe alike on Saturday, after a gathering of white-supremacists, Nazis, and their fellow travelers descended on Charlottesville, Virginia for a rally that ended in violence and death. In a statement delivered Saturday afternoon, Trump notably avoided criticizing the explicitly racist event, spreading blame for the violence on “many sides” of the conflict.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” Trump said in an appearance at his golf club in New Jersey, which followed tweets that also failed to note the presence of people dedicated to an ideology that holds some people as inferior to others.
White supremacists immediately rejoiced. “God bless him,” the Nazi website Daily Stormer wrote, noting that Trump had not only failed to call out white supremacy but that he had ignored shouted questions from reporters asking him to do so.
Friend and foe alike reacted with anger that Trump refused to specifically call out the marchers who showed up in the college town with swastika flags and racist signs, and who marched through the streets shouting epithets about African Americans, Jews, and other groups they hate.
Predictably, Democrats slammed the president’s statement for not going far enough. But they were not alone. A long list of the president’s fellow Republicans criticized the president, either explicitly or implicitly, for allowing self-described Nazis to believe that they have a supporter in the Oval Office.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, in one of the more forceful statements, wrote on Twitter, “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.” (Hatch’s older brother, Jesse, died in 1945 when the plane he served on as a tail-gunner was shot down.)
But then, on Sunday morning, a troika of administration officials, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, fanned out across the Sunday shows to claim that virtually everybody was wildly wrong and that Trump really had denounced Nazis.
In an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, Pompeo agreed that Naziism is unacceptable in the United States and said, “When someone marches with a Nazi flag, that is unacceptable. And I think that's what the president said yesterday. I think he was speaking very directly to the incident there. We've all seen the videotape. And I think he was speaking directly to that and condemning the hatred and the bigotry that was on display yesterday.”
Bossert, in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, said, “I, for one, was with the president yesterday and proud of the fact that he stood up and calmly looked into the camera and condemned this violence and bigotry in all its forms. This racial intolerance and racial bigotry cannot be condoned.”
Asked to concede that may not have been “clear enough in specifically condemning white supremacy” Bossert refused.
“What I would say is that the president not only condemned the violence and stood up at a time and a moment when calm was necessary, and didn't dignify the names of these groups of people, but rather addressed the fundamental issue.”
On NBC’s Meet the Press, McMaster also claimed that Trump had “condemned bigotry and hatred on all sides, that includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis; and I think it’s clear -- I know it’s clear in his mind -- and it ought to be clear to all Americans, we cannot tolerate obviously that bigotry, that hatred that is rooted in ignorance, ignorance of what American stands for, what America is.”
McMaster also appeared on ABC’s This Week and insisted, “What the president did is he called out anyone, anyone who is responsible for fomenting this kind of bigotry, hatred, racism, and violence. And I think the president was very clear on that.”
When host George Stephanopoulos asked if the president was creating the moral equivalence between self-described Nazis and the people who came to protest them, McMaster objected.
“Maybe to you, George, but not to me. I think the president was very clear.”
Also on Sunday, the White House released a statement, not attributable to anyone specifically, claiming that the president was “of course” denouncing white supremacists.
“The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred. Of course, that includes white supremacists, K.K.K. neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together,” the statement said.
But no statements to the contrary from administration personnel can change the fact that it was not at all obvious to many people -- maybe even most of them -- that Trump’s statement on Saturday was meant to be seen as a repudiation of white supremacists.
And to a large degree that’s Trump’s own fault. During his campaign, he was slow to denounce avowed racists who voiced support for him, and in some cases, appears not have to denounced them at all. He also made space in his White House for some leading figures from the so-called “Alt-right” -- a group very much in the thick of the march on Charlottesville on Saturday.
All this might be easily solved if Trump, who is never shy about using social media to explain his position on things -- and even to correct misimpressions -- were to grab his phone and tweet out a clarification.
But as of mid-afternoon Sunday, the president’s Twitter account had been virtually silent all day.