Trump's reaction to Charlottesville was a turning point. Republicans in Congress will no longer give him the benefit of the doubt, says former Bush aide Sara Fagen.
Each of our presidents has faced difficult events at home and each of them rose to the challenge of helping the nation understand the context around such tragedies. They helped us find healing and hope after innocent people lost their lives. Their first instincts were to unite, pray, and offer words of encouragement to the victims, the families, and the rest of us just watching from the sidelines, trying to make sense of it all.
President Reagan didn't point fingers at the NASA engineers when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in flight. President Clinton didn't attack his political enemies when Timothy McVeigh's bomb blew up an Oklahoma City federal building. But, on Tuesday, Donald Trump managed to create more division, more anger and cast blame on secondary players.
Over the course of Trump's news conference, which was supposed to be about infrastructure, he 1) said there were bad people on "both sides," 2) compared counter protesters to activists chanting racial epithets, 3) equated hateful racists to anyone who disagreed with them, 4) suggested the events were tied to statues coming down, failing to fully recognize the deep seeded hate expressed by the white supremacists and, 5) he conflated the events of the Civil War to the Revolutionary War. He even debated a journalist on what "alt-right" means.
To be fair, the president did, on several occasions, denounce white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and he said, "There is no place for hate in America." His very first statement, in the form of a tweet, on Saturday morning, said, "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!" He should have just stopped there. But, he didn't.
And, it's also true that some of the counter protesters behaved inappropriately, yielding clubs and using foul language. I'm sure there were some original protesters in the crowd who wanted the statute to remain for historical reasons and didn't yell racist slurs. It's probably also true that there were some Nazi soldiers who felt stuck in a really bad situation and didn't think Jews should die. But, we wouldn't now say there were some good Nazi soldiers.
The problem for Trump is that he wants to win on a technicality.
Instead, he missed the biggest opportunity in his early presidency to show moral leadership on an issue that deeply divides the country. He failed to fully rebuke a group of people who seek to destroy nearly 200 years of progress. This wasn't a close call.
I believe this was a turning point for the president. Republicans in Congress will no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. By the 2018 midterms, many Republicans will openly run away from him, if not sooner. Any coming together between Republican legislators and the president in the name of tax reform will be for mutual survival, not out of a shared desire for Trump's success.
Some things can't be unsaid or undone. And, on this issue, the president got one do-over on Monday, but on Tuesday, he did untold damage to his presidency . Let's just hope his words were the result of hurt feelings over the way his very first statement was received, and not what he really thinks. Either way, I suspect history will make the tougher assessment.
Commentary by Sara Taylor Fagen, a partner at DDC Advocacy and a former political director for President George W. Bush. Follow her on Twitter @sarafagen2.
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