NEW YORK CITY - Some of President Trump's most ardent supporters are worried his impromptu comments on the racially motivated violence in Charlottesville will imperil the fate of his economic and policy agenda.
Two prominent supporters who have worked with the Trump team – speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize the president – say they worry the self-inflicted Charlottesville controversy will only make it harder for the White House to get tax reform, health care, infrastructure, or anything else critical to his agenda out of Congress.
Trump's aides did not expect the president to take questions at an event at Trump Tower on Tuesday touting infrastructure plans, but he wound up telling reporters that left wing protesters were just as responsible for the violence as white supremacists – despite a hit-and-run car attack by an alleged white nationalist that left one protester dead and injured 19 others.
Lawmakers, including congressional Republicans who are essential to passing Trump's economic agenda, quickly pointed out that white supremacist groups came armed with guns, torches, and Nazi flags, chanting racist and anti-Jewish slogans. One alleged white nationalist is charged with murder after ramming his car into a crowd, killing local resident Heather Heyer.
Two administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, expressed dismay over Trump's off-the-cuff comments that set off a firestorm across the globe.
Yet on Wednesday, the White House tried to change the conversation to discuss jobs and the economy and said he will spend Friday at Camp David with his national security team to discuss another crisis: The threat from North Korea. At the same time, the Trump campaign also announced that the president will host a political rally Tuesday in Phoenix.
Belying how seriously the White House was taking the controversy that continued to dominate cable news, it scrambled Tuesday night to provide talking points for talk show surrogates and other Republicans defending Trump's remarks.
"The president was entirely correct – both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility," read one of the points.
The two Trump supporters, even as they defended the substance of Trump's comments, said the president should never have brought up such volatile issues, especially at an event devoted to infrastructure. They said it only gave his enemies, including those in the media, a fresh excuse to attack him.
Trump's relations with Republicans were already tense, especially after the GOP-run Congress failed to agree on a plan to repeal and replace the health care plan signed by Obama. The Charlottesville comments don't figure to generate much warmth.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom Trump attacked during his news conference over a recent health care vote, said "there's no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry. The President of the United States should say so." Many Republicans – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan – issued strong statements echoing the sentiment.
Critics, including Republicans, said Trump gave cover to white supremacists and Nazis who organized the Charlottesville event to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and came spoiling for a fight.
Despite the concerted effort to change the conversation, the political fallout continued.
One day after Trump boasted he had reams of business leaders to replace those leaving his manufacturing council over his response to the Charlottesville violence, Trump disbanded both that council and another one after it failed to stop the defection of prominent CEOs.
At this point, other Republicans said, Trump has little choice but to press forward, however difficult the path may be.
GOP consultant Kevin Madden said the Republican-controlled Congress is determined to pursue an economic agenda, particularly on tax reform. He said many White House officials share that sentiment.
"Now would a good time to execute on that sentiment," Madden said, adding that the only option is to be "consumed" by Charlottesville. "Political redemption lies in the pursuit of an economic agenda that matters to people" he said.
Trump, who is in the midst of a 17-day working vacation, did not make a public appearance Wednesday. After spending two nights at Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, the president left in the early afternoon for his golf club in Bedminister, N.J.
He kicked off his morning by tweeting a potentially defiant: "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
Yet he also appeared to be trying to do some subtle clean-up on Wednesday.
While not commenting directly on Charlottesville in a flurry of tweets, Trump did note the memorial service for "beautiful and incredible Heather Heyer, a truly special young woman. She will be long remembered by all!"
Trump also re-tweeted a claim by supporter Harlan Hill that the media ignored Trump when he "clearly, unambiguously & repeatedly condemned the bigotry & violence in Charlottesville."
Meanwhile, the White House talking points sought to bolster Trump's remarks, citing acts of left-wing violence, from the killings of police officers to this summer's attacks on Republican members of Congress during baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. They stressed that Trump has opened a Justice Department investigation into the hit-and-run that killed Heyer.
"Leaders and the media in our country should join the president in trying to unite and heal our country rather than incite more division," the talking points said.
During his campaign and throughout his presidency, Trump has been accused of welcoming support from white nationalists and neo-Nazis who make up much of the so-called "alt-right" movement. Many critics pointed to Trump's past leadership of the "birther" movement that questioned Obama's American citizenship.
One of his top aides, Steve Bannon, once ran Breitbart News, and once described the website as a "platform for the alt-right."
After initially saying over the weekend that "many sides" were responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, Va., Trump read a prepared statement Monday in which he said "racism ls evil," and that the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists are "repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans."
Yet he reversed himself again on Tuesday, saying that "I think there is blame on both sides" and that national alt-right groups which organized the demonstration included some "very fine people" who only wanted to protest the removal of the Lee statue.
"You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent," Trump said at one point. "And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say it right now."
"What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?" Trump said. "Do they have any semblance of guilt?" At another point, Trump said white supremacist groups "had a permit" to march, while "the other group didn’t have a permit."
Some Republican consultants were not so optimistic that Trump can recover.
Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who worked for Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, said the health care failure probably marks the end of Trump's legislative agenda in any event.
Trump lacks the skills to secure major legislation, he said, which include "clear communications, assembling alliances, courting stakeholders, building public support, working across the aisle and the ability to compromise."
And success also assumes there are no more distractions. As Tyler pointed out, Trump "refuses to learn from his countless mistakes."
© 2017 USATODAY.COM