Trump drags GOP onto dangerous ground, this time over race

Donald Trump is facing growing condemnation inside his own party for his explosive remarks equating neo-Nazis to counter-protesters, as the president once again created an unwelcome distraction from his legislative agenda that caught his own aides off-guard.

Trump forced Republicans into a conversation about one topic they see no political benefit in speaking about: race. It creates the latest, and potentially most perilous, test of Republican loyalty to Trump after a long string of such moments — including his crude comments about women on the Access Hollywood tape, his baseless claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones, and his firing of FBI director James Comey.

Even inside the White House, some staff were deeply dismayed by the comments and by Trump's decision to revisit such a politically dangerous topic that he had appeared to be moving beyond, according to a person close to the White House. Several corporate leaders cut ties with the White House over the controversy.

The episode has led some Republicans to show their evident frustration at the president's continual habit of creating self-inflicted wounds for the administration and Congress.

"America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms," former Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush said in a joint statement Wednesday without mentioning Trump.

It's "very frustrating for those of us who want to start focusing on the issues ahead — tax reform, infrastructure, the debt ceiling," Representative Dennis A. Ross, a Florida Republican who was an early supporter of the president, said in a phone interview. "I wished we would start focusing on those issues, and we need to start healing and bringing people together — instead of peeling back the scabs."

In a gesture toward reconciliation, Trump said in a tweet Wednesday, "Memorial service today for beautiful and incredible Heather Heyer, a truly special young woman. She will be long remembered by all!" Heyer was killed when a participant in a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., rammed a group of counter-demonstrators with a car.

Republicans who had hoped Trump closed the book on the deadly Virginia protests Monday were forced to deal with his combative return to the subject Tuesday, in which he likened the actions of white supremacists chanting anti-Jewish slogans to those of the people who came out to confront them.

Trump criticized "alt-left" counter-protesters as "very, very violent." Facing them, he said, "were people protesting very quietly the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee. I am sure in that group there were some bad ones."

Protesters objecting to Confederate generals could move on next to heroes of the American Revolution, he warned.

"So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down too," Trump said. "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?"

While many Republicans avoided direct criticism of Trump, his remarks drew a sharp rebuke from one of the party's most prominent members, Senator John McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee.

"There's no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry," McCain said in a Twitter posting. "The President of the United States should say so."

In a reference to a former Ku Klux Klan leader who has praised Trump's comments, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Wednesday in a statement, "Many Republicans do not agree and will fight back against the idea that the Party of Lincoln has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world."

Trump came to the lectern Tuesday with a copy of his controversial Saturday remarks and aides expected him to use his prior words to make the case that he had called out bigotry from the outset, said two people familiar with preparations. Instead, Trump offered his unfiltered vision of the incidents, catching aides by surprise and dismaying some of his staff. He started out by saying he had been slow to call out white supremacists on Saturday because first wanted to "know the facts."

Within hours, the White House blasted out talking points to Republican lawmakers, asking them to defend Trump's remarks as "entirely correct" and argue that the media "reacted with hysteria," according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg News.

But some Republicans did not adhere to the script. Representative Steve Stivers, the Ohio Republican who heads the party's campaign arm charged with holding the House majority next year, showed his annoyance, hinting at the implications on the party's electoral chances.

"I don't understand what's so hard about this," Stivers tweeted. "White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended."

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the top three Republicans in the House of Representatives, all came out quickly to denounce white supremacy again -- without directly criticizing Trump. The approach may give rank-and-file Republican lawmakers a way to test distancing themselves from the president without directly confronting him in a way that could spiral into a public feud.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky followed suit on Tuesday, releasing a statement on "hate groups" without mentioning Trump or the president's remarks.

"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."

Scott Taylor, a first-year Republican congressman from Virginia and former Navy Seal, said racism has to be denounced in the strongest possible terms. He gave Trump credit for his Monday statement, but criticized the president's Tuesday comments.

"This press conference was a disaster," Taylor said in an interview. "That's not good. Leadership matters, and that starts from the top."

It's an implicit recognition they need Trump's help in trying to deliver some legislative victories ahead of next year's midterm elections, as well as a reflection of fears of Trump interference in primary challenges to incumbents.

Senators with less pressing electoral concerns were more explicit in their criticism.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said that the organizers of the event were "100 percent to blame" and that Trump couldn't allow them "to share only part of the blame." The white supremacists support ideas which cost the nation and world "so much pain," he tweeted.

The chorus of criticism exposed the vulnerabilities Trump, still without a signature legislative accomplishment, is facing heading into the fall. He'll need as much support as he can get to pass not only his ambitious plan to overhaul the nation's tax code, but pass routine — yet vital — bills raising the nation's debt ceiling and funding the federal government.

Republican lawmakers already defected against his wishes in voting down a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare and passing legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia. Trump now risks losing influence on Capitol Hill at a crucial point in his presidency.

It's not just lawmakers who are starting to put distance between themselves and the president.

Merck & Co. chief executive officer Kenneth Frazier, then Under Armour's Kevin Plank and Intel's Brian Krzanich stepped down from a White House business group set up to advise the president on Monday.

On Tuesday, Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, said he was stepping down, because it was "the right thing for me to do." AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka quit the advisory group immediately after Trump's remarks Tuesday, saying his federation of labor organizations "cannot sit on a council for a President who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism."

If corporate leaders continue to put distance between themselves and the president, it could prove disastrous for Trump. The president has leaned on fellow chief executives to provide credibility to his economic efforts, and the White House has recruited business leaders to help the public sales effort for top priorities like tax reform.

While some on the White House staff were alarmed by the fallout from the president's remarks Tuesday, others said they blamed the media for overblown coverage. A source close to Stephen Bannon, the president's chief strategist, said he was proud of the president's performance Tuesday.

A White House official downplayed the significance of the CEO departures on Tuesday, noting that the administration had been through similar controversies before without seeing a lasting impact on its ability to coordinate with corporate America. The official pointed to the June meeting of the American Technology Council, which was attended by 18 high-profile technology CEOs just weeks after Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Even allies overseas have taken issue with Trump's response to the Charlottesville violence. "I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them," U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters Wednesday when asked about Trump's comments, according to the Press Association newswire.

"I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views wherever we hear them," May said.

In the U.S., polls show an increasingly shrinking base of people who stand with the president.

The Gallup daily tracking poll released Monday showed the president's support at just 34 percent, an all-time low. Former President Barack Obama's approval rating never fell below 38 percent.

The controversy has also ratcheted up pressure on top aides at the White House, and particularly those with ties to so-called alt-right groups. Reports have circulated that Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, could be the next administration official to depart. On Tuesday, Trump told reporters that he did not believe Bannon to be a racist, but said "we'll see what happens" when asked about his aide's future.

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