ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
One month ago, dozens of white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. The violent protests left one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, dead. President Trump’s initial reaction blamed the violence on many sides. Days later, he condemned white supremacy by name. His equivocation was criticized by Republicans and Democrats.
This week, the Senate’s lone black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office to discuss the president’s response to Charlottesville and race in America. Not even 24 hours after that meeting, the president once again returned to his initial response.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From audio.) I think especially in light of the advent of Antifa, if you look at what’s going on there. You know, you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also, and essentially that’s what I said. Now, because of what’s happened since then with Antifa – you look at, you know, really what’s happened since Charlottesville, a lot of people are saying – in fact, a lot of people have actually written – gee, Trump might have a point. I said you’ve got some very bad people on the other side also, which is true.
MR. COSTA: Hours after that comment, the president signed a joint resolution from Congress that read that the president should reject “White nationalism, White supremacy, and neo-Nazism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”
Yamiche, why all the back and forth, both sides, and the president at this point?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think the back and forth is because you have the president’s communications staff telling him this is what you need to say, this is what you need to say to be clear to the American people; and then you have Donald Trump the person, who really does believe that there was – there were – there was blame on both sides, who really does believe that there are some fine people that might show up to a white supremacist rally. I think he really believes that. And I think he gets a bad rap for having no ideology, but I think in this case he really believes this. I mean, I should say I talked to Senator Tim Scott today – or not today, this week – and I talked to him about what was his conversation to the president. And he essentially said that I lectured – he said that he lectured the president on the last three centuries of historical racism and the history behind these groups, the fact that the Ku Klux Klan has lynched thousands of people, and said that he made the case that that’s – that we need to do better when we talk about these things. But he said that the president did not back down from it, he did not regret it. When I asked the senator did he – did he say that he regretted it, did he back down at all, he said no he did not. And he said that he – if you think that there’s going to be some epiphany that comes out of the president because I walk in the room, then you don’t understand human behavior. So essentially the senator is saying I can’t change his mind.
MR. COSTA: That he keeps coming back.
MOLLY BALL: Well, I mean, yeah, I think it’s exactly as Yamiche said. We know – we know where Donald Trump’s heart is on this issue. No matter who he talks to and no matter what talking points get put in front of him, I think it’s very clear what he – what he really thinks. And I think part of it is his racial attitudes, but part of it is also that he looks at these alt-right protesters or even white supremacists and he sees people who like him, people who support him. And he has a hard time rejecting the support of anybody who supports him, no matter how noxious or hateful.
PETER BAKER: What’s also interesting is that he’s saying this again and he’s taking on the ESPN host who said he, you know, is hanging out with white supremacists and so forth. At the same time, he is trying to make deals with Democrats. Why is this happening at the same time? On the one hand, the one explanation is it’s just his natural instinct, you know. He’s contrarian on this. He bristles at the idea that he should somehow back down or apologize. He refuses to do it no matter what his staff might tell him. The other side is, you know, there’s also an interpretation that it’s a base play, right – that at the same time we’re working with the Democrats, we want to make sure the base doesn’t think I’ve suddenly gone off on the cuckoo left, I’m – you know, I’m – you know, I’m still who I am, don’t worry. And it’s not just this; several of the tweets in the last 24 hours of 48 hours were playing off old themes like that. And it’s –
ERICA WERNER: Right, going after Hillary.
MR. BAKER: Going after Hillary, talking about how the Senate filibuster rule is all wrong, and so on and so forth.
MS. BALL: Yeah, and that has always been Trump’s main way to keep his base in line, is remember we have the same enemies.
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: And Congress, though, is really trying to box the president in. They seem uncomfortable with the way he’s handled this issue.
MS. WERNER: Well, you know, it was really interesting the way this joint resolution passed this past week because there was zero fanfare, I mean none at all. It was voice-voted in the Senate and in the House, and nothing said by leadership. And the resolution included a section that specifically called on the president to speak out against hate and hate groups. It was quite strong. But it was almost like they wanted to – I mean, Republicans are obviously put in a very difficult position when their president is, you know, embracing groups that offend most Americans. So they wanted to speak on it, but it was like they didn’t want to speak too loud.
MS. ALCINDOR: The night of the election I had this 2 a.m. conversation with a Black Lives Matter activist, and the main thing that she told me that night was that I was – that she was really, really scared that the president was going to usher in this new phase, this new era in America where there was going to be essentially policies passed that racists would like. She didn’t say that the president was racist, but what she said was that the fact that these groups are excited about him really, really scares me. And now when you think about who is really wary of the deals that are coming out of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi’s new relationship with the president, it’s those same people who are saying we remember this man, we remember what he said on the campaign trail, and we remember that before he was even a candidate he started the birther movement basically questioning whether or not Barack Obama was born in this country. So this goes – this is way deeper than just the Charlottesville. This goes back years.
MR. BAKER: And I think you’re right that Charlottesville – I think Charlottesville is a big impediment to getting deals done for that very reason, because in fact the base says how can we go into bed with this guy, how can we – and by re-upping again this week he just – he just keeps it alive. It’s self –
MR. COSTA: But the leadership seems to be able, in the Democratic Party, to put all these issues aside and try to cut deals in spite of all of that.
MR. BAKER: Well, they try to, but once they sit down at a table and actually, OK, you get this if we get that, that’s going to be the real test, and we haven’t seen anything like that. The deal last week was a nothingburger in the sense that all it did was push the fight off for three months. They agreed not to fight for three months. OK, in Washington that’s actually kind of a big deal because they like to fight. But it didn’t actually resolve any substantive disagreements. Nobody gave up anything. When that comes to push to shove, and you can see liberals saying, you know, you’re going to do what with this guy who said this about Charlottesville, very, very hard.
MR. COSTA: Molly.
MS. BALL: Well, I think – I think the terms of that deal were that Democrats are willing to make a deal with Trump to get everything they wanted, right?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, right. He simply accepted what they put on the table.
MS. BALL: They didn’t make any concessions to him.
MR. BAKER: There was no negotiation.
MS. BALL: He made all the concessions to them. So as long as Donald Trump wants to continue to do exactly the things the Democrats want and they’re not actually really dealing with him at all, they’re not making any compromises. It’s when they start making compromises, to your point.
MR. BAKER: Exactly.
MR. COSTA: Is this Antifa point something you’re hearing a lot when you talk to conservative sources? Is this argument against Antifa, is that a rising Republican talking point?
MS. BALL: Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s all over Breitbart, it’s all over talk radio. This is an obsession. It’s all over Fox News. This is an obsession of the right, absolutely.
MS. ALCINDOR: One of the things I want to say is that in my reporting this week talking to the Tri-Caucus – which is the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus – those members are very fearful that the Democratic leadership is going to somehow say, OK, we don’t want to talk about identity politics, we don’t really want to talk about Charlottesville, we really need to be on an economic message and we need to start getting deals done. But the base, the people that they rely on to show up to the polls, is way more diverse than the Republicans. So if you start saying, OK, well, I got you this really great deal, by the way we’re not really going to deal with this race issue, we’re not going to deal with the DOJ, we don’t want to talk about policing anymore, we’re tired of talking about voter suppression, that’s going to be a real problem when you try to go into people’s homes and convince them to vote for Democrats.
MR. COSTA: Is that happening Erica, on the Democratic side in Congress? I mean, if you’re in a swing district running for the U.S. House or you’re in a swing state running for the Senate, do you talk about trade, trade, trade, or do you bring up Charlottesville and the president’s leadership?
MS. WERNER: Well, that’s a good question, and it varies district to district and state to state. But as Yamiche was saying, after that initial debt deal was struck last week, there was a lot of concern among the Hispanic Caucus in particular that you just did what? We’re focused on DACA. I mean, that deal happened like, what, 24 hours after Trump had announced he was rescinding DACA? And so then leadership had to, you know, get a clue and say, oh no, we’re going to use this to get leverage on the DREAM Act specifically. But yeah, there is a disconnect there that is concerning a lot of rank-and-file Democrats.
MR. COSTA: Peter, final thought. What’s the mood inside of the White House as they watch the president make these kind of comments, revive these kind of comments?
MR. BAKER: Well, the irony is that it’s been actually a pretty positive mood overall in the White House, not because of that but because there’s a feeling that he is getting back on track a little bit. You know, the idea that this is the president that some of those in the White House thought he could be, somebody who could make deals, who could be the leader in a natural disaster, who, you know, does – you know, visits victims and passes out food and so forth. And for this to come along just kind of like throws everything up in the air again. All of the efforts by John Kelly, the new chief of staff, to impose an order; all of the ideas of sticking to message and discipline seem to go out the window. So it’s very frustrating to his staff. Otherwise, it feels like they have been heading in a better direction.
MR. COSTA: We shall see, and we’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. And find out if you missed any major news stories by taking our Washington Week-ly Quiz while you’re on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.