Why Trump's Condemnation of Neo-Nazis Has Been So Underwhelming

Trump has surrounded himself with people who've espoused racism or have ties to white nationalist groups

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville Saturday. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post/Getty Images

Hours after a 32-year-old woman from Charlottesville, Virginia, was mowed down by an Ohio man who came to town to participate in a white nationalist rally on Saturday, President Trump delivered a short statement. "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence – on many sides," Trump told reporters regarding the demonstration, during which 19 others were injured. "On many sides."

After his prepared remarks, the president was given the opportunity – not once, but four times – to denounce white nationalists specifically, distinguishing them from the anti-racist counter-protesters who had been in Charlottesville this weekend. He refused. "Mr. President, How do you respond to white nationalists who say they're participating in Charlottesville because they support you?" one reporter asked. Trump slinked out of the room silently as others called after him: Do you want the support of these white nationalists groups? Will you denounce them? Is this terrorism?

His unwillingness to call out white supremacists by name – even as they were name-checking him in Charlottesville – was striking, particularly to white supremacists themselves. The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer celebrated his tepid words. "Trump comments were good. He didn't attack us," the author of site's live blog wrote. "No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."

It took nearly 48 hours for Trump to issue a second statement, one calling out white nationalist groups by name. "Racism is evil – and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans," Trump said Monday. "Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”

Trump's initial impulse, made after consulting "a broad range of advisers," and the delay in his follow-up statement, are not particularly surprising when you consider the advisers he's surrounded himself with. Trump's circle is filled with people who have espoused racism, who have pushed ethno-nationalist policies and/or who have ties to the same white supremacists Trump at first refused to denounce.

Steve Bannon
Before he was appointed chairman of Trump's campaign last August, Bannon was the head of Breitbart, a website he proudly describes as "the platform of the alt-right." An analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed that under Bannon's leadership, readers responded with increasingly racist comments, and Bannon was "the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill." A former employee said Bannon deliberately pushed "white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness," turning the Breitbart comments section into "a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers."

At the time, Bannon's installation atop Trump's campaign was hailed by high-profile white nationalists David Duke and Peter Brimelow, calling the pick "excellent" and "amazing," respectively. The larger public soon found out why: When discussing immigration, Bannon frequently cited Camp of the Saints, a racist French novel from the Seventies and the anti-semitic French philosopher Charles Maurras, who was sentenced to life in prison for cooperating with Nazis during WWII. An ex-colleague recalls Bannon musing on the "genetic superiority" and contemplating the idea of restricting the vote to property owners.

Jeff Sessions
The former Alabama senator was confirmed as attorney general earlier this year, 31 years after the Senate rejected his nomination for a federal judgeship because of accusations of racisms; among other things, he was said to have called a white civil rights lawyer a "disgrace to his race," a black colleague "boy," and the NAACP and ACLU "un-American" groups that were "trying to force civil rights down the throats of people." In the Eighties, Sessions famously joked he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot."

Sessions acquired a reputation as the most anti-immigrant member of Congress – a hardliner who almost single-handedly tanked immigration reform, and tirelessly sought to advance policies that would curb legal immigration as well. Since joining the Justice Department, he's been criticized for supporting changes to policies on voting rights, immigration and drugs – changes that disproportionately disadvantage people of color.

Stephen Miller
Sessions brought with him into the Trump fold his former aide, Miller, now a senior adviser to the president. Miller, who helped Sessions form his anti-immigrant positions in the Senate, became known as one of the architects of Trump's Muslim ban. Lesser known is his history with the most famous neo-Nazi of our time, Richard Spencer. "It's funny no one's picked up on the Stephen Miller connection," Spencer told Mother Jones in October. "I knew him very well when I was at Duke." Miller denied any connection to Spencer at the time, but emails obtained by the Electronic Intifada confirmed that Miller worked with Spencer to put on a debate on immigration sponsored by the Duke Conservative Union.

Sebastian Gorka
Gorka, an adviser to Trump on matters of counterterrorism and a frequent cable news defender of the president, is also claimed as a sworn member of Vitezi Rend, a far-right, Nazi-affiliated Hungarian group to which his father also belonged. Leaders of the group told The Forward that he took a lifelong oath of loyalty to the group, and Gorka has been photographed wearing a Vitezi Rend medal. (Gorka says he wears the medal to honor his dad, and his wife has denied his involvement with the group.)

Michael Anton
During the 2016 campaign, Anton, blogging under the name Publius Decius, dubbed it the Flight 93 Election – "charge the cockpit or you die." In his viral post, he railed against the "ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners" which was changing the electorate – making it "less traditionally American with every cycle." Trump, he contended, was the only one who could stop it. When Trump won, Anton was offered a role with Trump's National Security Council.