How Donald Trump Decided to go Soft on White Supremacists

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Illustration by James L. Seward

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville riot and the tragic deaths of Heather Heyer and two state troopers (who died in a helicopter accident during the chaos of the day), President Donald Trump's statement about the clash became a large part of the news itself.

He has been widely criticized for inflaming the situation by not unequivocally condemning the actions of the white supremacists at the rally and mentioning fine people "on many sides" of the issue; in a later press conference he did walk that back by saying, "I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally," but it was seen as too little, too late.

In this excerpt from Beyond Charlottesville, former Governor Terry McAuliffe describes his reaction to Trump's news conference.

Donald Trump said he would be going in front of the cameras right after our call to address the tragedy of what happened in Charlottesville.

I would hold off on making any statement until after the president had spoken. He was going to come out against these white supremacists brandishing Confederate flags and neo-Nazis with swastikas on their shields. This should not have been a hard choice to make. Trump was going to take a clear stand. I thanked the president for his support in our time of crisis and said, "Mr. President, let's you and I work together to heal these wounds."

Then something happened. I don't know what, but something.

I kept waiting, and still there was no Trump press conference. An hour later, still no Trump. I had given him updated information from all the relevant law enforcement on the ground in Charlottesville. The nation was waiting. Who else did he need to consult? I can't say. I can't account for the missing hours. I just know that when Trump finally stepped up to the podium, he let America down.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence," he began, but then added, looking up from his notes, "on many sides, on many sides."

What was he talking about? On many sides? The president and I had only talked about one side, the side with the heavily armed white supremacists and neo-Nazis on a mission of hate and violence, not the other side with peaceful protesters taking a stand against hate and division. I was flabbergasted to hear Trump pulling his all-sides-are-to-blame nonsense. I was shocked, I felt our nation had just been sucker punched. How could he not even utter the words "white supremacist" or "neo-Nazi" in describing what had happened in Charlottesville?

READ MORE: The inside story of Charlottesville—and how the violence could have been avoided

Talk about throwing a lit match into a pool of gasoline. In Virginia we were doing everything we could to keep people safe and turn the temperature down on this volatile mess, and here was the president of the United States egging on these hate-filled extremists and infuriating everyone else. The only way to deal with this situation was to state the stark truth of what had happened and what it meant.

You know the really sad part? Parts of Trump's short speech that day were actually on point. "I just got off the phone with the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and we agree that the hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now," he said. "We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and true affection—really, I say this so strongly, true affection for each other."

It's hard to believe those words actually came out of Donald Trump's mouth.

"We have so many incredible things happening in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville, to me it's very, very sad," Trump said. "Above all else, we must remember this truth: No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first."

His staff had given him the words to sound presidential, the words to bring the country together.

Instead, Donald Trump chose that day to come out as a white supremacist. He chose that day to come out as a dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetic racist. It was his coming-out party that day; no more room for any doubt that this man was at heart a racist and a hater.

Excerpt adapted from Beyond Charlottesville by Terry McAuliffe, published by Thomas Dunne Books.

READ MORE: Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe on Charlottesville, racism and Donald Trump