Why Trump Sees Moral Clarity in London and Complexity in Charlottesville

The president’s divergent responses to two apparent terror attacks speak volumes about his approach to politics.

President Trump addresses reporters in the aftermath of an apparent terrorist attack in London.
President Trump addresses reporters in the aftermath of an apparent terrorist attack in London. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

For the second time in a month, President Trump has rushed to condemn a terrorist attack abroad as the work of Islamist terrorists, speaking out before the facts are known even to local officials. Trump’s remarks came just a day after he once again insisted he was right to cast blame on both sides after violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. And they renew the question of why he is so quick to speak with such clarity in cases involving Islamist terrorism and yet so deliberate and equivocating in a clash involving white supremacists.

Within hours of an apparent attack in London, which injured several people, Trump tweeted:

He added that the attack made the case for his ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries entering the U.S.: “The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific-but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!” (This statement is difficult to parse: How can a ban be both larger and more specific? Moreover, the problem with the initial version of his ban was not that it was politically incorrect, but that courts repeatedly found it to be constitutionally incorrect.)

Trump’s remarks drew quick condemnation from British authorities. Prime Minister Theresa May, one of the allied leaders with whom Trump has forged a good relationship, scolded the president, asking him not to speculate on the culprits of the attack. A police spokesperson also told CNN Trump’s statement was “pure speculation given we don’t know who is involved” and “unhelpful.”

Shooting from the hip is not unusual for Trump. After an attack in Barcelona last month, Trump quickly condemned it as terror and resurrected an old and slanderous falsehood about General John Pershing’s handling of Muslim fighters in the Philippines. Earlier this year, he got into a tiff with London Mayor Sadiq Khan over the response to terror, also drawing chastisement from British authorities. And during the presidential campaign, he was quick to label the downing of an EgyptAir flight as terror, even though few facts were then known.

Moving quickly to label these attacks as terror may be somewhat irresponsible—as I have written, Trump is eager to stoke fear in a way that few other politicians will, even when it creates problems for foreign allies—but there is a political logic to it: Trump has been right in nearly every case where he has jumped the gun so far, and it makes him look tough on terror.

Yet that doesn’t explain why he was so deliberate in his response to Charlottesville, where clashes broke out during a neo-Nazi and alt-right rally in defense of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and a man with white-supremacist links allegedly murdered a young woman by driving his car into a crowd. In that case, Trump was slow to speak, and when he did, he condemned bad actors “on all sides.” That stunned many observers, who couldn’t understand why Trump wouldn’t draw a line between white supremacists and those opposing them. The following week saw a tortured series of Trump statements. He tried to clean up his initial remarks with a sober “racism is evil” statement, then delivered a blistering press conference saying there “were very fine people on both sides.”

It is possible, of course, to deplore violence as a means in any form, while also recognizing that the underlying motivations for white supremacists and neo-Nazis are different in type from those arrayed against them. But this is not a distinction that Trump drew. After the Charlottesville saga, Trump complained that the media “didn’t cover [him] fairly” and said, “It is a very important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.” Yet in the case of London, he was eager to make his point, not to get facts. The question remains why he is able to deliver clarion calls so swiftly against what he believes are Islamist terror attacks, but hesitates when it comes to more obvious violence by white supremacists.

The London attack and Trump’s speculative response to it comes the day after he reaffirmed his “both sides” response to Charlottesville. On Wednesday, Trump met with Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican from South Carolina who had been critical of Trump’s response to the attacks. Scott tried to impress upon Trump the long history that fed into the clash.

“I shared my thoughts of the last three centuries of challenges from white supremacists, white nationalists, KKK, Nazis,” Scott said. “So there’s no way to find an equilibrium when you have three centuries of history versus the situation that is occurring today.”

Scott did not seem optimistic that Trump had grasped the lesson. Asked whether Trump expressed regret, the senator said, “He certainly tried to explain what he was trying to convey.” He also offered caution about future statements, using the soft condescension that allies often use when discussing the president: “Anyone that expects an epiphany or a transformation to happen overnight because somebody walks in a room, I think you don’t understand human nature.”

The caution was well-placed. On Thursday, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he stood by his comments that the Charlottesville incidents—in which a neo-Nazi and alt-right march precipitated clashes, and an apparent white supremacist allegedly killed a woman with a car—had blame on both sides.

“Now because of what’s happened since then, with Antifa, you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville—a lot of people are saying—in fact, a lot of people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump might have a point,” Trump said. “I said, ‘You’ve got some very bad people on the other side,’ which is true.” The president has repeatedly seemed to be trying to draw a fine distinction, condemning the Klan but legitimizing a slightly less aggressive form of white identity politics. This may be politically savvy, since white-grievance politics were central to his electoral success. Notably, riling up anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment appeals to the same nationalist impulses as this white-grievance politics.

Perhaps Trump earnestly learned the wrong lesson from the blowback over Charlottesville, and he will be puzzled why he was too slow then and too fast on London. But his critics did not object to him taking his time to give a statement because they feared he did not know the facts; they objected because it doesn’t require a detailed debrief to condemn neo-Nazis. In the case of London, he has not made the mistake of waiting too long, nor does anyone object to condemnation of Islamist terrorism per se. But by tying an overseas attack of unproven provenance to his constitutionally flawed Muslim ban, the president has once again given the impression that he employs one standard and speed when violence helps feed white-grievance politics, and another standard and speed when violence poses a threat to those politics.