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Trump's Comments On White Supremacists Raise Questions


There's little sign that the backlash the president has received has made an impact on his approach to his job. NPR's Mara Liasson tells us the president's unapologetic stance reveals a few things about him. For one, President Trump is an open book.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: He's extremely transparent. When you don't have a teleprompter in front of him, when there weren't measured comments that somebody else had written for him, he tells you what he really thinks. And that's what you heard yesterday. Also, the other thing it reveals is that he's extremely sensitive to criticism. He's always said that he's a fighter. He's very comfortable when he's fighting back. He said, if you hit me, I'm going to counterpunch 10 times harder. He clearly did not like the criticism of his initial remarks on Saturday, whether it was from the mainstream media or John McCain. And he really let people know that yesterday.

And finally, he continues to be as president as he did as a candidate, which is, he takes a very personal approach to these things. It's all about him. If you're attacking him, you're attacking him and his people. If you support him, whether you're Vladimir Putin or David Duke, he's very reluctant to criticize you. He doesn't see his job as president as providing moral leadership to the country. This is very different from every other modern president when faced with a racial episode like this.

CORNISH: We have heard about Republican politicians distancing themselves from the president. But where does this put Donald Trump with his supporters?

LIASSON: I think it puts him more and more alone with his base. His approval ratings are now in the mid-30s. More and more Republicans feel emboldened to disagree with him, not to hold their tongues or stay silent. More and more Republicans are either criticizing him for his language about white supremacists or taking a stand that's very different from his.

Even business leaders - and the business community is certainly the bedrock of the Republican coalition. Clearly business leaders now see a price to being associated with Donald Trump. And then you look at the people who did praise him yesterday for his press conference performance, and that was people like David Duke and Richard Spencer.

CORNISH: This all comes a couple weeks into the tenure of John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps general and former homeland security secretary who's now the White House chief of staff. And everyone talked about him being a general who's going to impose discipline on the White House. But what does yesterday tell us about his impact so far?

LIASSON: I think the performance yesterday tells us that General Kelly may have been able to impose some discipline on the White House staff and on the process inside the White House but not on President Trump. You could see it in his body language as Kelly stood in the back and listened to Donald Trump's words yesterday.

We also know that this was an impromptu press conference. This was not planned. The White House staff was surprised by the president taking questions. The original plan was that he was going to make the announcement on infrastructure, and then other administration officials were going to answer questions. So White House staff were not only surprised. From the reporting, we know that most of them didn't think what he did yesterday was a good thing for him. Still, there have been no White House resignations over the president's tone or behavior yet.

CORNISH: So to step back, what does this mean not just for president Donald Trump but also Republicans going forward?

LIASSON: Well, I think in terms of the president's agenda and the Republican agenda going forward, we're not hearing Republicans saying en masse, because I don't like him or I don't like his comments on Charlottesville, I'm not going to support him on tax reform. On the other hand, when it is time to take a difficult vote, it might make it harder for him to ask for their support.

He couldn't close the deal on health care. There are other very tough votes coming up on the debt ceiling, on government funding. And if he can't even try to unify his party or the country over something for which there is a well-established script that every modern president has followed when there have been racially charged episodes like this one - if he can't even do that, what happens when he wants to tackle an issue when there are a lot of divisions within his own party?

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.


Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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