There was really only one political story this week — Donald Trump’s erratic behavior in the wake of a white supremacist murder in Charlottesville, Virginia, and its fallout. But the sheer volume of events and kaleidoscopic array of consequences — ranging from the removal of a statue in Annapolis, Maryland, to the imperiling of the president’s relationship with key congressional Republicans, to the departure of chief strategist Steve Bannon — can be difficult to keep up with.
Here’s what you need to know.
Trump pulled his usual tango with an explosive group
It all started with the “Unite the Right” gathering of “alt-right” white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville who rallied in defense of the town’s statue of Robert E. Lee and marched carrying torches and chanting slogans like “Jews will not replace us.” The rally attracted counterprotesters, and a Nazi sympathizer named James Field drove his car into them, injuring nine people and killing one woman, Heather Heyer.
- Trump’s back-and-forth: Trump’s initial reaction Saturday blamed “many sides” for violence, leading to several days of criticism, a reluctant Monday statement clearly blaming white supremacists, and then unscripted remarks on Tuesday where Trump returned to the many sides theme and even defended some of the marchers.
- Trump is Trump: The remarks were, fundamentally, nothing new for a man who launched his ascendancy in Republican politics with birther conspiracies, said a judge was unfit to serve based on Mexican ancestry, and campaigned on a Muslim ban.
- Why it matters: Practical responses to Trump continue to vary across the board, but this appears to be the week when the American political elite finally reached the conclusion that, whatever you think of Trump, he’s not going to change who he is.
Corporate America kinda ditched Trump
Backlash to Trump’s flirtations with white supremacist groups led to increasing pressure on American businesses to distance themselves from the White House by quitting his various advisory councils. At first, Trump was defiant, but eventually he bowed to the inevitable by folding the councils.
- Trump is no longer intimidating: Early in his presidency, many businesses clearly feared Trump, and there was a lot of discussion of the possibility that he could shift corporate culture in favor of domestic production and against outsourcing by using his Twitter bully pulpit. But Trump is now sufficiently unpopular that the dynamic, if anything, goes the other way, and companies are under pressure to not align with the White House.
- Business still loves Trump: But make no mistake — these advisory councils are just for show. Corporate America has every intention of continuing to work quietly with the White House on their shared priorities of slashing regulations and cutting corporate taxes. It’s just that it will happen in a low-key way.
- CEOs could check Trump if they cared: When corporate America gets really mad about something, they make their voice heard through collective action (and massive political spending) via groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. If CEOs wanted to, they could use these levers against Trump. Instead, they’re running ads in support of Republican tax cuts.
Trump’s fighting with Senate Republicans
Charlottesville fallout does appear to be further imperiling Trump’s relationship with Senate Republicans, a relationship that had already been strained after the failure of Obamacare repeal efforts. The key step here was Trump taking the extraordinary measure of directly calling for a primary challenge to Jeff Flake (R-AZ), though the clashes are multidimensional.
- Republicans are hitting Trump: Incumbent senators — including majority leader Mitch McConnell and fellow Arizonian John McCain — were quick to rally around Flake. And the nexus of the Flake attacks with Charlottesville is emboldening other Republicans to express their annoyance. Sen. Bob Corker complained that Trump hasn’t shown the “stability” or “competence” the country needs from a president, while Tim Scott (R-SC) said Trump’s “moral authority is compromised.”
- Flake challenging Trump on policy: Trump’s explicit endorsement of a primary challenger to Flake appears to have helped inspire Flake to clearly and directly break with Trump on immigration, standing up for the value of the “low-skilled” immigrants whom Trump wants to bar from the country.
- Why it matters: Since FDR’s time, presidents have shied away from challenging same-party presidents — even ones who defy them — for precisely this reason. Open warfare tends to provoke more policy dissent from the senator you’re at war with, while incumbent senators like to protect other incumbents.
We started talking about Confederate statues
The Unite the Right rally was not primarily about the Robert E. Lee statue that inspired it, but it has helped spark a national debate on the subject by inspiring critics of Confederate monuments to step up their activism, while inducing Trump to explicitly endorse them as an integral part of American history.
- Monuments coming down in Maryland: Early in the week, the mayor of Baltimore quickly and quietly dispensed with the city’s Confederate statues, and a few days later, the governor of Maryland removed a statue of the author of the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision from public grounds.
- Trump stands up for statues: Seeking to shift conversation away from the very dicey ground of neo-Nazi marches, Trump tweeted vocal support for Confederate statues (a position that has traditionally polled well), asking, “who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?”
- What’s next: While Confederate statues are swiftly dispensed with in no-longer-Southern Maryland, the issue looks set to be a significant flashpoint in November’s elections in Virginia — a state that’s emerged as blue-leaning while retaining significant amounts of Southern identity. The Confederate statues that sit in the United States Congress are also coming under increasing criticism from Democrats, but there’s no sign they’ll be removed.
Steve Bannon got fired
To cap things off, on Friday afternoon word began leaking from the White House that the president had decided to fire chief strategist Steve Bannon — or maybe that Bannon had already submitted his resignation. The White House confirmed that Friday would be Bannon’s last day.
- Progressives have been demanding this: Bannon was Trump’s most visible and clearly identifiable link to the alt-right, and pressure to fire him has come from progressive groups and congressional Democrats since the day his appointment was announcement.
- He seems to have been fired for other reasons: One read of Trump’s outbursts this week regarding Charlottesville is that it’s his way of clarifying that getting rid of Bannon does not mean backing down in the face of critics who charge him and his administration with racism. Bannon got fired because he’s been the source of inter-office leaks and drama, not because Trump has any fundamental disagreement with his view of ethnic politics.
- What’s next? A critical question moving forward is what Bannon’s departure augurs for coverage of the Trump administration from his Breitbart media empire. In the immediate aftermath of the news, rank-and-file Breitbarters seemed ready to go to war with Trump. But it’s far from clear that Bannon himself wants to go in that direction.