And it is, as well, a challenge to his approach to race. On Tuesday, a reporter asked him what he’d do to overcome racial divides. “I really think jobs can have a big impact,” Trump said. “I think if we continue to create jobs at levels that I’m creating jobs, I think that’s going to have a tremendous impact, positive impact, on race relations.” If Trump believes, as he told reporters, that racial divides can be healed by the rising wages of a manufacturing revival, the dissolution of the business councils deals his agenda a double blow.
Also on Wednesday, North America’s Building Trades Unions also issued a statement that did not name Trump but called on “men and women of character to demonstrate leadership and unequivocally reject those who perpetrate hate, racism, sexism or any other manner of corrosive public discourse and action that only weaken us as a country.”
But the demise of the two panels is just one element of the latest self-inflicted crisis for the White House. Pundits have for months wondered what would happen when Trump encountered a genuine crisis that was not of his own making, and Charlottesville helps to clarify: As usual, he finds a way to make it harder for himself.
One bright spot for Trump is that despite the horror with which his comments on Charlottesville have been received, he has yet to have a single Cabinet member or high-profile aide resign in protest. While there’s been lots of staff turnover at the White House, those who have left have either been fired or pushed out in internal power battles. Reports pop up from time to time of top aides who are angry, but none of them has actually quit or said publicly that they could not tolerate the president’s words or actions.
Trump’s comments place all of his associates in a difficult position: They have to find some way to defend the president without implicating themselves in his wilder positions. Pence, speaking in Chile, said, “What happened in Charlottesville was a tragedy and the president has been clear on this tragedy and so have I. I spoke at length about this heartbreaking situation on Sunday night in Colombia and I stand with the president and I stand by those words.” But he avoided other parts of a question about whether there were “good people” in the march, or whether Robert E. Lee should be considered an American hero. The vice president said he was cutting short his Latin American trip and coming home on Thursday, ahead of schedule.
Pence faces the same dilemma as newly installed Chief of Staff John Kelly, who looked uncomfortable during Trump’s remarks Tuesday, and as Republican officeholders. Many of them continue to treat Trump’s views on Charlottesville as an error, but as one more akin to a tactical difference—as though they simply disagreed about how to fund a new initiative. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, perhaps Trump’s most prominent GOP critic at the moment, said he wanted his colleagues to stage an intervention with Trump:
Flake’s doubts that Trump would listen are prudent. This is not simply a matter of difference of policy approach. The optimists espouse the view that they can talk Trump out of a central tenet of his political identity. The improbability of that happening is manifest in the case of Trump’s manufacturing and strategy councils, in which he would not sacrifice white identity politics to defend another of his top priorities.