Trump’s Racially Obtuse Transcript Highlights, Annotated
White supremacy survives on violence, but the President of the United States can’t, or won’t, bring himself to condemn either. Most Americans, it seems, don’t have that difficulty, judging by the outpouring of disgust with the President and the hail of statues coming down around the country.
That’s the encouraging early public response to President Trump’s reactionary news conference in Trump Tower in New York on August 15. The news conference was supposed to be about the nation’s highways and other physical infrastructure. Even though the actual remedy was limited to an executive order that’s supposed to reduce regulatory delays, Trump summarized his accomplishment by saying: “We are literally like a third-world country. Our infrastructure will again be the best. And we will restore the pride in our communities, our nation. And all over the United States will be proud again.”
The first question from a reporter was not about bridges and highways, it was about Charlottesville and its aftermath. And the President promptly hijacked his own announced message by inflaming America’s psychic infrastructure. What looked at first like yet another Trumpian offense to decency now looks like a possible catalyst for national self-awareness and maturity.
We shall see. Meanwhile, here are excerpts from the news conference that may have unintentionally opened pathways for millions of people to get in touch with their better angels. A reporter asked why the President has waited so long to say something responsible and healing about Charlottesville. The President offered a layered lie: “I didn’t wait long. I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement but you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts…. ”
What he said on Saturday, August 12, in the wake of two days of racist chanting, under-policed conflict, and a terrorist-style killing by car was this, and only this: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.” This was not a “correct” statement; it does not express “the facts.” It is not a “fine” statement, it is an easy statement worthy of the cheapest politician trying to sound good without accepting any responsibility. It’s “been going on for a long, long time,” said the man who has spent years feeding and prolonging racist hatred in America.
But President Trump spun out his lie for minutes until he figured out how to make the killing of Heather Heyer all about him: “In fact, the young woman, who I hear is a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC, her mother wrote me and said through I guess Twitter, social media, the nicest things. And I very much appreciated that. I hear she was a fine, really actually an incredible young woman. Her mother, on Twitter, thanked me for what I said. And honestly, if the press were not fake and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice…. How about a couple of infrastructure questions.”
In reference to nothing that was asked, the President irrelevantly said, “I didn’t know David Duke was there,” and left it at that. It would be mind-reading to say that reflected a guilty conscience about one of America’s most notorious aging racists. It would be a reminder of the record that candidate Trump had a hard time disavowing former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s support during 2016, though he did so on occasion, making it seem as if the media were persecuting him. David Duke still loves him.
“The second statement [on August 14 was made with knowledge, with great knowledge. There are still things—[cross talk] excuse me. There are still things that people don’t know. I want to make a statement with knowledge. I wanted to know the facts. ”
“That second statement, carefully prepared apparently by White House staff, was careful, hitting the right notes (“We are all made by the same almighty God”) but without much sign of genuine feeling. Politically, at least, it seemed to make up for the moral squalor of “on many sides” that the President emphasized in his first statement. Possibly the President had done enough damage control to keep Charlottesville from morphing into a larger crisis. He undid that possibility with his Tuesday news conference where, despite terrorist car attacks in France, England, and elsewhere, he had trouble calling the Charlottesville car attack terrorism: “Well I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country. You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.” The posture is defensive, protecting the driver’s Vanguard America and other alt-right, white supremacy groups like the KKK, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, or neo-Confederates from being officially labeled terrorist organizations. Asked if the “alt-right” was responsible for Charlottesville, the President feigned ignorance: “Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell you…. When you say the alt-right. Define alt-right to me. You define it. Go ahead. No, define it for me. Come on. Let’s go.”
The term “alt-right” was invented by those on the alt-right, such as White House advisor Steve Bannon, as a term to describe their movement. The alt-right is self-named. The alt-right also invented the term “alt-left” as a term with no specific meaning other than to label whoever the alt-right considers an enemy. President Trump, so seemingly baffled by “alt-right,” had no trouble blaming an undefined “alt-left,” that has no specific membership, for causing trouble in Charlottesville. Invited to compare the alt-left to neo-Nazis, the President shifted gears: “So—excuse me—and you take a look at some of the groups and you see and you would know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases, you are not. But, many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
This is nonsense, and a common argument from the alt-right. It has no merit. Washington and Jefferson were instrumental in creating the United States, whatever else they may have done. That they were slave owners and still could argue that all men are created equal only illustrates the human capacity to harbor contradictory beliefs (as a devout Christian, Stonewall Jackson taught Sunday school to his slaves). No matter what, Washington and Jefferson betrayed their king and risked being hanged as traitors, all for the sake of getting our imperfect country going. Lee chose to fight to destroy the country to which he had sworn allegiance. To support Lee is to support treason and to discard the United States as no longer valuable. That’s the logic underlying what the President says. If that’s what President Trump believes, then he should say so and we should all confront that, for what it’s worth.
Unfortunately, this President seems to believe things that are not true, even though he says he’s seen the reality with his own eyes. He made this distinction between the torchlight parade of Friday night and the aborted rally of Saturday: “I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee. I am sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.” Their innocent protest included chants of, “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and the quintessentially Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil.” This is not nonviolent language, but the parade was nonviolent for the most part. The parade came onto the University of Virginia campus and there forced a confrontation with a much smaller number of peaceful, unarmed counter-protestors. The counter-protestors had joined hands in a circle protecting a statue of Thomas Jefferson. The Unite the Right parade pushed and shoved the counter-protestors, who pushed and shoved back, while the police mostly watched and made one arrest. President Trump didn’t mention the defense of Thomas Jefferson—or the alt-right’s threatened attack on Jefferson. As the news conference was winding down, the narcissist-in-chief returned to what seemed to be his favorite part of the Charlottesville events: “I thought that the statement put out, the mother’s statement, I thought was a beautiful statement. I tell you, it was something that I really appreciated. I thought it was terrific. Under the kind of stress that she is under and the heartache that she is under, I thought putting out that statement to me was really something I won’t forget. Thank you all very much. Thank you.”
Back to Lying
Then the President went back to lying gratuitously, saying he owns a house in Charlottesville, actually a winery, “one of the largest wineries in the United States.” Only it’s not. And his son Eric seems to own it. (After hearing this news conference, Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, is refusing to take calls from Trump: “I’m not talking to the president now, I’m sorry. After what he said about my child. You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying ‘I’m sorry.’”)
Whether Donald Trump is an actual racist bigot in his heart, what does it matter? He’s still defending racist and bigoted words and actions and symbols. That’s something White House advisor Steve Bannon is accused of doing as well, although on August 15, when he called the American Prospect, he referred to his erstwhile alt-right colleagues disparagingly: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more…. These guys are a collection of clowns.” Contradicting the President when Bannon’s own job is rumored to be on the line is an interesting tactic, although at his news conference, the President said of Bannon: “I like Mr. Bannon. He is a friend of mine…. He is a good man. He is not a racist. I can tell you that. He is a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard.”
In that same American Prospect interview, Bannon also talked about North Korea and said something smarter and truer than President Trump has ever said about North Korea: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” But not to sound too much saner than his boss, Bannon went on to push instead for greater confrontation with China: “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
Meanwhile we have President Trump’s lawyer forwarding an email that supports alt-right arguments and claims that Black Lives Matter “has been totally infiltrated by terrorist groups.” The subject line on the email is “the Information that Validates President Trump on Charlottesville.” Among the email’s assertions: “You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there literally is no difference between the two men.” Literally, that’s pure hokum. So here we are, looking at a President and his lawyer fostering white race rage and a now former presidential advisor looking to man up against China, and war with North Korea just barely off the front pages, any one of which could be an inflection point from which we may never recover.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theater, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this article