President Trump’s response to the deadly white-supremacist protests in Charlottesville earlier this month sparked a fierce national backlash, drawing rebukes from elected officials, corporate executives, military leaders, clergy, and—according to a new poll—a majority of Americans.
But it appears there’s at least one influential group that Trump can still count on for support: the institutional Republican Party.
In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, The Atlantic reached out to 146 Republican state party chairs and national committee members for reaction to Trump’s handling of the events. We asked each official two questions: Are you satisfied with the president’s response? And do you approve of his comment that there were “some very fine people” who marched alongside the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis?
The vast majority refused to comment on the record, or simply met the questions with silence. Of the 146 GOP officials contacted, just 22 offered full responses—and only seven expressed any kind of criticism or disagreement with Trump’s handling of the episode. (Those seven GOP leaders represent New Mexico, Texas, Virginia, North Dakota, Alaska, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.) The rest came to the president’s defense, either with statements of support or attempts at justification.
Trump’s reaction to the tragedy in Charlottesville played out over four remarkable days, in an episode that has captured the world’s attention, galvanized grassroots opposition, and plunged his own party and administration into political crisis. On August 11, the same day white nationalists clashed with counter-protesters, Trump condemned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence—on many sides, on many sides.” Facing pressure to offer a more explicit condemnation, on August 14, he denounced “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.” But the next day, in an off-the-rails press conference, Trump suggested that not all of the “Unite the Right” marchers were white supremacists, and that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the protest.
Most of the Republican officials reached by The Atlantic either claimed they had not heard Trump’s full remarks, or chose to defend them.
“I think there are a lot of people that marched in that march that do not have a racist bone in their body,” said Alabama committee member Paul Reynolds. He pointed out that the march was organized to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “I don’t want to see the monuments come down. They’re not an issue.”
Reynolds said he objected to lumping all the marchers together with extremists like the Ku Klux Klan—a group he called “nuts”—and suggested Trump was right to draw the distinction.
“I’m not going to say anything at all in anyway negative toward the president because there were people that were there to preserve—” he said, before trailing off. “How do you know who is a Klansmen and who isn’t unless he has a robe? You don’t.”
Other officials were similarly willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to the “Unite the Right” rally-goers. Asked whether she approved of Trump’s characterization of the people at the march, Melody Potter, a national committee member from West Virginia, said, “Well I don’t really know, because I don’t know who marched with them, but I’m sure there’s good and bad in every group.” North Dakota committee member Sandy Boehler said, “To be honest, I don’t think some of the people that marched were realizing … what it really was.” And Vermont committee member Jay Shepard contended that, “in all mob scenes there are people who just happen to be there, who aren’t leaders of organizations and are just confused as to what the march is all about.”
This is not the first time Republicans have rushed to defend Trump in a moment of national controversy. But in the days following Charlottesville, many wondered if Trump’s erratic behavior—and the political damage it inflicted—would prove to be a breaking point for the GOP. And, indeed, some congressional Republicans have become more vocal in their criticism of the president. But the less visible functionaries in the RNC and the state-party organizations are also a vital part of the establishment, and their attitudes can serve as a useful barometer for the party. So far, at least, few have shown a willingness to break with the president.
Not every Republican who spoke to The Atlantic sided unequivocally with Trump. Some praised his explicit condemnation of hate groups on August 14, and suggested he should have left it there. That statement “was the right one,” said Virginia GOP Chair John Whitbeck. “It was unequivocal, and it’s important to remember that the blame for this is squarely on the KKK, white supremacists, neo-Nazis who organized the rally and caused the violence.”
A few also took issue specifically with Trump’s assessment that there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.
“That’s a strange comment,” said Cynthia Henry, national committeewoman for the RNC in Alaska. “I think folks that march alongside KKK and Nazi people are not reputable and we should not defend them.”
Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey agreed. “I would not agree that anyone who does not realize how incredibly unwise it is to join—sorry. The short answer is, no matter what your own motives are, if you are with a group and someone whips out a Nazi flag, you should leave.”
Others homed in on what they believed to be the unfair media coverage of Trump’s remarks. Morton Blackwell, a committee member from Virginia, said he was “more satisfied with the president’s response than I am with the reaction to his response.”
And an aide for the Iowa GOP chairman balked when The Atlantic provided her with questions to pass along to her boss. “What do you people want?” she asked.
Below are all the responses The Atlantic received to these two questions:
Q1: Are you satisfied with the president’s response to Charlottesville?
Q2: Do you approve of his comment that there were “some very fine people” who marched alongside the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis?
Rob Anderson, GOP Chair, Utah:
Q1: Am I satisfied? I think we're part and parceling comments that people are saying and making them out to be more than they are. I think he condemned hatred and violence at all levels, regardless of who the people are, and I agree with that. Whether exact descriptions … That doesn't matter. Anyone who has hate and violence in their—has done that—then those people, regardless of who they are, those terms are descriptive enough for me.
Q2: I have no comment on that.
Dominic Pacheco, Communications Director for the Republican Party of New Mexico:
Q1: So the Republican Party of New Mexico specifically denounces and condemns any form of racism and hatred. We don't think that there is a place for it in America, and while we agree that everybody in the United States of America has the right to free speech, what was happening in Charlottesville gives us an even louder reason—an even bigger reason to be more loud and clear that we will not stand for that kind of speech. So I don't want to say we condone … But the Republican Party of New Mexico does not stand by anything happening in Charlottesville.
Q2: Definitely not.
James Dickey, GOP Chair, Texas:
Q2: I would disagree—sorry. Let me figure out the. I would not agree that anyone who does not realize how incredibly unwise it is to join—sorry. The short answer is, no matter what your own motives are, if you are with a group and someone whips out a Nazi flag, you should leave.
John Whitbeck, GOP Chair, Virginia:
Q1: You know, I think the president has spoken out to denounce the un-American speech and actions of these racist and hateful individuals. I think you cannot denounce these groups strongly enough, and the statement that was made on Monday by the president was the right one, it was unequivocal, and it’s important to remember that the blame for this is squarely on the KKK, white supremacists, neo-Nazis who organized the rally and caused the violence. That statement on Monday encapsulated what I’ve been saying and what ought to have been said all along regarding this just absolute horrible tragedy for Virginia and for the country.
Q2: I don’t see any scenario where I would consider the people present at that rally to be acceptable in their beliefs, their behavior. I just cannot denounce strongly enough the people there, the KKK, white supremacists, neo-Nazis. The president denounced those people, and as the Chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, I denounce them 100 percent. There just isn’t any room for ambiguity in my statement regarding that.
Glenn McCall, national committee member, South Carolina:
Q1: Yes I am. I thought he was measured Saturday when he came out until he he received more information and facts. And Monday, definitely satisfied with his comments about the tragedy.
Q2: Yeah, well, you know, what I realized and I didn’t get to hear his comments, but I read them, that there were people on both sides. Definitely, we don’t support the Klan or white supremacists, I don’t personally and as a party we don't. And also those on what they call alt-left. I feel there were people out there that were from Charlottesville that really didn’t want this to happen in their city, and they're good people. I didn't take it as him saying that white supremacists or KKK and those folks are good people. So I was satisfied with what I read on that matter.
Fredi Simpson, national committee member, Washington:
Shane Goettle, national committee member, North Dakota:
Q1: I was satisfied with his second response. I thought that was a good response.
Q2: I’m not going to comment on that, because I didn’t actually listen to the president’s comments on that.
Paul Reynolds, national committee member, Alabama:
Q1: Sure. Absolutely. I have no problem whatsoever with the initial statements before all the inflammation was in … You don’t know how it is to live your entire life because of where you grew up. Because of where you grew up, you’re assumed to be a racist. We have to prove ourselves—in light of the national news media and a lot of the educational establishments—we have to prove ourselves not to be racists before we can carry on a conversation because the automatic assumption is because you’re from Alabama, you have to a racist and that’s crazy … Just because [Democrats] are looking for something to hit you over the head with and no matter what you say they hit you over the head. This was a no-win situation.
He responded when he got the information. Because I live here I don’t know a single member of the Ku Klux Klan. The town I grew up in in South Alabama, not far from the Florida line, there’s one guy in town that people said was a member of the Klan. I never saw any evidence … the Klan was not an issue my entire life in south Alabama.
Q2: I’m not aware of that statement. But I will say this—and here again it will be misconstrued as racist—anything we say, we’re automatically condemned as being racist. But I grew up also around Confederate monuments. My relatives fought in the war between the states as privates … I had relatives that are buried in Chattanooga because they were killed at the Battle of Lookout Mountain.
I think there are a lot of people that marched in that march that do not have a racist bone in their body because they did not want to see their monuments come down. I don’t want to see the monuments come down. They’re not an issue. I serve on the state Republican Steering Committee, which is the committee that runs the Alabama Republican Party, by the nature of the fact I’m a committeeman in Alabama I serve on the state steering committee. That is not a Confederate statue, being there is not an issue [for minority members of the state steering committee] one bit. What does bother all of us is someone cramming something down on our throat and that’s the way I look at this. No, I’m not going to say anything at all in anyway negative toward the president because there were people that were there to preserve … How do you know who is a Klansman and who isn’t unless he has a robe? You don’t. Even though they’re nuts they don’t have horns. I think the Klan is nuts, I think it’s crazy, anything that is based on the fact that I dislike somebody or I think somebody is inferior just because they’re different than I am and their skin is different than mine …
Cynthia Henry, national committee member, Alaska:
Q1: From what I have seen on television, I think he needs to go a little farther. I see that he is attempting to criticize folks that are hate mongering and I think he didn’t focus on the white supremacist groups and Nazi folks. I hope to see him focus more on them.
Q2: That’s a strange comment and I don’t know what he meant by them. I think folks that march alongside KKK and Nazi people are not reputable and we should not defend them.
Peter Goldberg, national committee member, Alaska:
Q2: I’d have to see the exact quote to answer that because I don’t remember it. I suspect there were some very fine people there, but I don’t think the very fine people were associated with the Klan, Neo-Nazis, or white supremacists. For someone to be a fine person, that person would have to distance themselves from Nazis, whitte supremacist, and Klan members.
Lori Klein Corbin, national committee member, Arizona:
Q1: Yes, I am. I don’t think there’s no room for any hate groups in America. This country is based on being colorblind, we’re one nation, indivisible, with justice for all.
Q2: Those comments I think were misinterpreted. My interpretation was that there were innocent people in both sides that got caught up in the demonstration and violence. There were people on both sides that were there in order to foment violence and be on national TV … These are leftist organizations that have a political agenda and they are domestic terrorists all of them. I don’t approve of anything.
Demetra DeMonte, national committee member, Illinois:
Q1: I support our president. I support President Trump.
Q2: I support our president. I support President Trump.
Tamara Scott, national committee member, Iowa:
Q1: Absolutely. The first day we didn’t know enough and all [Trump] condemned was all violence … He showed great restraint.
Q2: We don’t know enough yet, who was there and who wasn’t, and I think he made that statement … Why do we never hear about the alt-left? … I think media needs to work on getting to the bottom of things instead of stirring the pot.
Carolyn McLarty, national committee member, Oklahoma:
Q1: I think he was fine in what he said as far as we are against all violence.
Q2: I hadn’t heard that one.
Solomon Yue, national committee member, Oregon:
Q1: Yeah, I am.
Q2: I just get in last night from Rome, so I have not heard everything. … Well I have not heard his comments, but I know he commented on—what I’m referring to his comment is, he said both sides committed violence. I absolutely agree with this.
Jay Shepard, national committee member, Vermont:
Q1: I’m not sure. I can’t answer these questions because of all of the responses he’s given.
Q2: That’s another very difficult question, since I don’t know of all the people that were marching. I think that in every group, there are some people that just show up that aren’t aware of what they’re marching for or how it all turns out. I think in all mob scenes there are people who just happen to be there, who aren’t leaders of organizations and are just confused as to what the march is all about.
Diana Orrock, national committee member, Nevada:
Q1: Yes, I am.
Q2: Absolutely that’s the case. We heard a lot of different stories about how groups were bused in that were armed and had shields, and initially the people who had the permits for this protest, you know, were not planning to protest with the intention of causing violence, so the whole thing kind of got co-opted by these outside groups that came in, and everything got out of hand.
Keiko Orrall, national committee member, Massachusetts (via email):
Q1: Public officials at all levels should denounce white supremacy and neo-Nazism in the strongest and clearest terms. There is no room for bigotry and hate in this country and there is no place in the Republican party for white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Q2: Anyone who marched with the KKK and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville knew they were with hateful racist people and they should be denounced for participating.
Melody Potter, national committee member, West Virginia:
Q1: I think the president had a good response, because he placed blame on everybody that was involved.
Q2: Well I don’t really know, because I don’t know who marched with them, but I’m sure there’s good and bad in every group.
Ada Fisher, national committee member, North Carolina:
Q1: I’m not satisfied with Charlottesville at all. The president has a right to say what he feels and he stated what he feels, but there’s a lot more that needs to be said in a discussion by a lot of people. His second response was sufficient. But—I just wrote a column, and in the column I said, Nazis aren’t okay. As a Jew, I kind of squirmed a little bit on that.
Q2: I don’t know, I wasn’t there to see who was there. But I’ll tell you this: I live in the South. And there was a lady in Durham named Anne Atwater. And she and the grand dragon for the Klan in Durham became the best of friends because they sat down and talked. Now if I thought I would’ve seen that in my lifetime, I doubt it. So people can change and people have all things going on. If you like, like I said, the copy of my article says a whole lot of things. The most disturbing thing was not Charlottesville to me. It was the people pulling down the Confederate statue in Durham, because nobody has hit on the fact that the black young lady who was out there represented the World Workers Party, which is a communist party. So people were worried about Putin, and we got the communists coming in here arousing hatred and discomfort in this country. That worries me more than anything.
Sandy Boehler, national committee member, North Dakota:
Q1: I am. You know, I know a lot of people thought he should’ve come right out. He needed to know everything that was going on before he—I mean they always complain about him tweeting so quickly on things, and he took his time and really had to find out what was happening.
Q2: I’m trying to think exactly how he said that. To be honest, I don’t think some of the people that marched were realizing it. I mean, what it really was. And this is just kind of off-the-cuff, but I’ll explain why to you why I’m saying that. Because I’ve gone to many national conventions, and one time I was on a bus in New York or Philly or one of those where they had the national convention, and I said to one of the guys that was getting on the bus from the plane to the convention, and I said, “Are you a delegate or an alternate?” And he said, “Oh, I’m a protester.” And I said, “What do you mean you’re a protester? What are you protesting?” And he said, “I won’t know until I get there. We’re hired protesters.” So I don’t know if some of these people were part of that and really knew what was going on, so it’s kind of--the whole thing is so sad. And I know that Trump had even said that we don’t want people like that in our party. They are not Republican, they are not Democrat. They are just out there. And it’s just time we all start getting together, honestly.
Morton Blackwell, national committee member, Virginia:
Q1: I am more satisfied with the president’s response than I am with the reaction to his response.
Q2: What I have to say on this—I’ll be happy to email you immediately. I’ll read out this [written statement he published]: “There were not good people on both sides. All those who went to participate in violence were bad. Those present on both sides of the Confederate statue issue who did not go intending on being physical combatants were fools, dupes of those who intended violence from the start.” But if I have to answer your question, there were not good people on both sides.
Priscilla Alvarez and Lena Felton contributed reporting.
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