Members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation have offered one of two responses to President Donald Trump’s words in the aftermath of a violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia last week: criticism or silence.
During a telephone interview from Israel Friday morning, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., hammered Trump for his remarks that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazi protesters, one of whom drove a car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding 20 others.
“I can’t find a fine face in that crowd, and I’m not going to try either,” Capito said.
Capito, who rarely criticizes party leadership, made no excuses for Trump’s remarks. She said Trump needs to address his comments again, and that he needs to unite the their party and the rest of the country to heal after the tragedy.
“I don’t think he’s handled it very well at all,” Capito said. “I think he’s sent mixed messages. I think he’s created a firestorm where there shouldn’t be one. We’re talking about anti-Semitic, racist, white supremacists who should have no place in this country, on the streets of beautiful towns like Charlottesville or any other town in our country. I think the president’s reaction has been unfortunately very unsatisfactory.”
A large crowd attended a “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12 to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general during the U.S. Civil War. They came waving flags bearing Nazi, Confederate or other racist, xenophobic and incendiary insignia.
The event drew large counter-protests until the gatherings turned deadly.
Several prominent Republicans have since spoken out against Trump’s handling of the situation while his allies have squirmed away from defending him. In his initial statement, he did not mention the Nazis or white supremacists by name and blamed “many many sides” for the tragedy. A day later, he came out and condemned white supremacy, racism and the Ku Klux Klan. But then, in a Tuesday press conference, he doubled down on his earlier remarks and said that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
And while Trump has refrained from calling the vehicular attack terrorism -- though other members of his administration have -- Capito said the issue is cut and dry.
“Using a car to mow down people because of a fundamental belief is a pretty good definition of, in my view, terrorism,” she said.
But Capito’s fellow West Virginia Republicans in Congress were silent on Trump’s comments. U.S. Reps. Evan Jenkins, David McKinley and Alex Mooney all declined to comment or did not responded to multiple interview requests throughout the week regarding Trump’s conduct.
Jenkins and McKinley did issue statements critical of violent protests and hate-based groups, but neither has said a word about Trump’s handling of events. Mooney has not put out a statement of any kind.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the state’s lone Democrat in congress, did not shy away from rebuking Trump’s actions. Manchin criticized both the racist protesters and Trump’s response to them in an emailed statement. Specifically, he called out Trump’s suggestion that both sides were at fault.
“I condemn, in the strongest possible way, the hatred and bigotry carried out by white supremacists in Charlottesville,” he said. “This hateful ideology has always contradicted the very foundation our country was built on and has no place in our society and our communities today. There are not two sides to the story when the other side is Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists. The President should not leave any ambiguity about these hate groups – there aren’t two sides, there is only right and wrong.”
Those with eyeballs on Manchin’s seat for 2018 chimed in against Trump.
GOP primary candidate and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a vocal Trump supporter, seemed to criticize the president’s responses.
“It’s long past time for everyone to unify and condemn all hatred and racism without equivocation,” he said on Twitter on Thursday. “We must never excuse bigotry.”
His campaign spokeswoman did not respond to an email asking if the statement was a criticism of the president.
Paula Jean Swearengin, who is challenging Manchin for his seat in the Democratic primary, said Trump could have handled the situation better. She said his campaign fanned the flames of white supremacy groups, which seem to be growing emboldened by his presidency.
She said any idea that blame lies on many sides, as Trump has said repeatedly, is incorrect.
“You just can’t equate counter protesters with these neo-Nazis,” she said. “There is no moral equivalence.”
Bo Copley, another challenger in the GOP primary, said white supremacy and anti-Semitism is unacceptable in any form. Still, he thinks Trump has responded appropriately and was unfairly criticized. Copley claimed there was violence coming from both protest groups, and people are being too forgiving of violence coming from groups like Antifa, a sometimes-violent anarchist group, who joined the counter protesters.
However, when read statements from Trump’s press conference Tuesday, he seemed taken aback.
“I’ve never heard that, but I don’t like the way that sounds either,” he said.
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