After two days of failing to denounce white supremacy following a violent rally in Charlottesville on Saturday, President Trump answered outraged calls from his own party: He condemned racist hate groups by name.
Those comments, read from prepared text on Monday in the White House, will almost certainly be sufficient to avoid any real damage to Trump’s legislative proposals.
And as far as insiders on Capitol Hill can see, Trump’s amended comments seem to be enough for Republican lawmakers to move forward as if this were any other White House dust-up — and to continue pushing for policy goals they share with the president.
“It seems like what Congress is focused on is what Congress has always been focused on,” a conservative House aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity: moving the legislative agenda on health care and tax reform that GOP members have campaigned on for years.
On Saturday, a Nazi sympathizer at a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — whose mother identified as a Trump supporter — rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racism counterprotesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen. In the immediate aftermath, Trump refused to condemn white supremacy specifically, prompting angry calls from Republican lawmakers.
“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) tweeted.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called for a Department of Justice investigation into the suspected act of domestic terrorism. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) called white supremacy “a scourge.”
By Monday, Trump had answered his party’s demands, and life went on. Ryan returned to messaging on tax reform, and Congress will come back in September with a full plate of residual health care negotiations, a budget, a looming debt ceiling, spending bills, and a tax package. All of these agenda items will be pursued in hopes of delivering Trump a legislative win.
“Nothing changes,” a second Republican aide said. “Things don’t change.”
Instead, for congressional Republicans, the Charlottesville incident has resulted in the same calculus Republicans have had to make with each one of Trump’s past scandals.
This, according to one aide working on what looks like a contentious Republican 2018 seat, is that calculus: “How do we criticize him enough — because it’s the right to do — to politically insulate ourselves, but continue to work with him for our legislative priorities?”
When it comes to protecting the legislative agenda, Trump did not cross a line
Trump’s change in tune does not change the fact that when faced with an act of domestic terrorism, his initial reaction was to criticize all parties involved and not single out white supremacists.
But as the events in Charlottesville settle on Capitol Hill, it has become increasingly clear that among congressional Republicans, this incident is no different from Trump’s past scandals — whether the Russia allegations, his ethics violations, or White House shake-ups.
This was true of Trump’s presidential campaign, as it is now. Congressional Republicans won’t support the president’s actions, but they will support his presidency. Health care negotiations will continue, as will a debate over tax reform. At this point, congressional insiders say, Republicans have turned their heads to enough Trump scandals that there is no intention of sacrificing their agenda over another bungled Trump statement.
But it’s possible the lengths to which the Trump administration will go to protect a white base will backfire politically, mobilizing a Democratic base while demoralizing some Republican voters. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained, the party of presidents with bad approval ratings usually does badly in the midterms, and Trump’s rating is dismal:
Trump’s approval — which on the Monday after the Charlottesville white supremacy rally sat a record low of 34 percent, according to Gallup — is well within the range of presidents who have lost 20 to 50 House seats. It’s still early, but if this continues, it could be a rough result for Republicans — and the Trump administration — in the midterms.
“Will the silence be seen as acceptance?” the Republican campaign aide said. “I guess we’ll see.”