WASHINGTON — Pushback from Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and two past presidents, intensified Wednesday following President Donald Trump’s comment that “very fine people” were among the white nationalists and counterprotesters who clashed last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.
McConnell (R-Ky.) did not directly mention Trump but appeared to seize on the president’s description of white supremacists.
“There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms,” McConnell said. “We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head.”
Trump at a combative news conference Tuesday at Trump Tower in Manhattan said blame for the deadly unrest could be pinned on “both sides.” It was a return to the language of his initial statement Saturday, although he later disavowed right-wing hate groups by name under bipartisan pressure.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had criticized Trump’s original response Saturday, then applauded him for calling out white nationalists on Monday.
On Wednesday, Graham again had harsh words for the president.
“Mr. President, I encourage you to try to bring us together as a nation after this horrific event in Charlottesville. Your words are dividing Americans, not healing them,” he said.
Graham said Trump was wrong to suggest there is “moral equivalency between the white supremacist, neo-Nazis and KKK members” and “people like Ms. Heyer.”
Heather Heyer, 32, of Virginia, was killed Saturday when a car plowed into anti-racism demonstrators.
The alleged driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, was charged with second-degree murder.
Virginia State Troopers Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke Bates, 40, died when their helicopter crashed while responding to the unrest.
Trump tweeted about Heyer as mourners spoke at her memorial service Wednesday.
“Memorial service today for beautiful and incredible Heather Heyer, a truly special young woman,” he posted. “She will be long remembered by all!”
Also Wednesday, former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush released a joint statement rejecting “racial bigotry.” Like McConnell, they did not mention Trump.
“America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms,” the statement said. “As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights.”
In an interview with the American Prospect, Steve Bannon, senior Trump adviser and former editor of the far right website Breitbart, which has been criticized for promoting a white nationalist agenda, said: “Ethno-nationalism — it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more . . . These guys are a collection of clowns.”
Bannon is quoted as saying of Democrats: “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Republican Party officials began speaking out Tuesday after Trump’s news conference.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona tweeted: “There’s no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry. The President of the United States should say so.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran against Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, called the president’s reaction “pathetic” and noted that hate groups were planning more rallies.
“They think they had some sort of a victory,” he told NBC’s “Today” show in emotional interview. “There is no moral equivalency between the KKK, the neo-Nazis and anybody else.”
Some Democrats spoke more pointedly.
“President Trump is a racist. Period,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) tweeted Tuesday evening. “He’s gone out of his way to make that clear, so let’s not tiptoe around it. He’s a racist.”
Paul Kosowski, a Conservative Party district leader from Nassau County, condemned Rice’s message.
“Kathleen Rice’s comments today referring to President Trump as a racist were repulsive and reflect her demagogic nature. Instead of working together to help heal our racial division, she only seeks to gain attention for herself and fan the racial flames.”
Also, leaders of the four major U.S. military services spoke out against racism and extremism after last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville. Their comments on Twitter and in longer written statements made no mention of Trump’s responses to the incident.
Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, tweeted on Wednesday: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our Values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.”
A short time later, the top Air Force officer, Gen. Dave Goldfein, wrote on Twitter: “I stand with my fellow service chiefs in saying we’re always stronger together — it’s who we are as Airmen.”
With Laura Figueroa, Dan Janison and The Associated Press