President Donald Trump had a news conference on Tuesday because he had something to say. Unfortunately, what he wanted to say and what the staff had prepared for him to say were two wildly different things.
Since everyone knew the president was going to get questions about the events in Charlottesville, it is plausible to assume there was some plan for how to deal with the obvious. Undoubtedly, the president didn’t share his plan with anyone else.
Time and again, Trump takes the bait offered by his media critics. He takes all the bait. Every time. The president must really like bait. In some ways, that makes it easy for the communications staff to plan. They know he will take the bait and never be reliably on message. So, inevitably the White House communications office has become a cleanup operation. The communications office isn’t really about affirmative message management. They can never plan on the president doing his part in a disciplined way. But that is process. In the case of Charlottesville, the substance of what the president had to say was the problem. It was not a failure of the communications team.
Any news conference, or public appearance for that matter, is about style and substance. Trump’s style on Tuesday was the most stunning, jaw-dropping and out-of-character display by a president I have ever seen. He was hyper and angry from the first question. His thoughts were fragmented and his demeanor was the opposite of poised. He was gushing and full of rage.
It was disturbing to watch.
On substance, because I am a white southern Republican, I appreciate how careful some politicians have to be when talking about race. You can’t give the biased media what they want. But Trump gave it to them by the shovel-full. When asked about the so-called alt-right’s motivations behind the protests and attacks in Charlottesville, Trump’s response was: “OK, what about the alt-left that came charging at ‘em … Do they have any semblance of guilt?” But that’s not all. Trump made matters worse, comparing George Washington to Robert E. Lee. “George Washington was a slave owner,” he said, “So will George Washington now lose his status?”
To watch Trump’s defenders on Wednesday struggle with trying to defend his bizarre statements is beyond sad; it is pathetic. Washington wasn’t about slavery. But the Civil War and those who led it were about slavery. My standard is simple. Like I have said before, “If a child asks what someone did that earned them a statue and the only possible answer is that he fought in the Civil War to defend slavery, then the statue should go.”
Anyway, that is beside the point. The Republican Party is going to be allied with Trump on some things but not others. And right now, the president is somewhere I can’t go and where the Republican Party can’t afford to be.
Most of Trump’s inappropriate, ill-fitting comments are usually quickly overtaken by a new inappropriate, ill-fitting comment. However, this time, Trump being out of line about matters associated with race and violence is something we can’t just move on from. And it’s not simply because of the media’s preoccupation with the issue. It is because the conversation is so central to the American dream.
With his response to Charlottesville, Trump has marginalized himself and altered the potential that he has as president.
Whatever disaster occurs later today or tomorrow won’t make this disaster fade into the background. This one will linger. And it will be impossible for Republicans to completely disassociate themselves from it.
Charlottesville has shaken the Trump presidency. This one hurts.
Ed Rogers is a political consultant and veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses. He is the chairman of the lobbying and communications firm BGR Group, which he founded with former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour in 1991.