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Examining Trump's Initial Response To The Racial Upheaval In Virginia


Let's listen to President Trump speaking to reporters on Saturday, following the violence in Charlottesville, Va.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides - on many sides.

MARTIN: So that last bit - the other sides remark - is the one getting a lot of criticism for somehow equating Nazis and the KKK with militant leftist groups. Republican senators, including Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Cory Gardner of Colorado, all came out with strong statements urging President Trump to specifically call out the white supremacist groups who started these protests. Here's Senator Gardner on CNN yesterday.


CORY GARDNER: This is not a time for vagaries. This isn't a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines. This is a time to lay blame - to lay blame on bigotry and to lay blame on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred.

MARTIN: We're joined now by David French. He's a senior writer at the conservative publication the National Review. Mr. French, thanks for being here.

DAVID FRENCH: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: In your column this past weekend, you wrote the following. And I'm going to quote here. "It is not the responsibility of the president of the United States to make specific statements every time a gang of KKK cretins marches up and down a town square." But you argue that Saturday was different. How so?

FRENCH: Well, it was different because of what happened. You had an actual terror attack that claimed a human life. It was different because of the movement that was actually marching in in Charlottesville. And it's different because of the president. The movement here - and a lot of people don't realize this and don't understand this who weren't watching the rise of Trump - this alt-right movement backed him very early, very explicitly back in 2015, when he first announced, and was vicious online against any Trump critic who attained any kind of prominence at all - journalists, writers, ordinary citizens...

MARTIN: That included you, as well.

FRENCH: Yes, my family - me, my family. And this is something that a lot of us were sounding the alarm about, now, literally for years. Yeah, I think it was two years ago that I wrote my first piece calling out the alt-right. And so this is not something that just came out of nowhere. These are people who fashion themselves to be his core supporters.

MARTIN: Yet Sebastian Gorka, a presidential aide, just last week in an interview with Breitbart said the media overplays the threat from alt-right groups. How do you respond to that? I mean, how do you characterize this threat?

FRENCH: Well, you know, look. It - I don't know how many people there are in the alt-right. Let's just say they punch well above their weight online. And also, you know, let's just face them some bad facts here. The president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has declared that his publication - the publication he used to run, Breitbart, one of the more widely read publications on the right - he called that the platform for the alt-right, which is a very stunning statement.

And in fact, it did, for a long time, promote and publish one of the foremost apologists for the alt-right, a man by the name Milo Yiannopoulos. And he was somebody who was very, very outspoken for Donald Trump, became very popular throughout the campaign and published probably one of the most influential apologetics for the alt-right.

MARTIN: So let me ask you this then. I mean, alt-right groups are taking what the president said after the violence and saying, this is good for us. I mean, specifically, the Daily Stormer, which is a supremacist website, said, quote, "Trump comments were good. He didn't attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us."

FRENCH: Right.

MARTIN: So what do you believe the president needs to say? Do you believe the president needs to say something to shirk that support?

FRENCH: Well, we know that when Trump doesn't like someone, he can get very, very specific. Like, ask the Khan family. Ask James Comey. Ask any number of his opponents. So what he needs to do here is get very, very specific. And you can get very specific against the alt-right, against white supremacists, without equivocating about political violence from any side. You can condemn white supremacy specifically and condemn all political violence.

MARTIN: Why do you think he's not? Because the vice president has done so. He's spoken out strongly against these groups. Why has the president not?

FRENCH: You know, I mean, now we're psychoanalyzing. It's hard to psychoanalyze other than to say this. They have been on his side very specifically, very vocally. He has people close in his White House who have tied themselves to him. And to me that raises an uncomfortable inference that he doesn't want to shun them because they have been supporters. And that's a - that's a bad - that's a terrible thing to contemplate.

MARTIN: David French, who is a senior writer at the National Review. He joined us via Skype this morning. Mr. French, thanks so much for your time.

FRENCH: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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