House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) reacted candidly Monday night to President Donald Trump’s response to the white supremacist terror attack Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
During a CNN town hall with host Jake Tapper, Ryan admitted that Trump “messed up” when he seemingly equivocated in his differentiation between neo-Nazis and counterprotesters. Among the counterprotesters was 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who died after being run over by a car that was allegedly being driven by a white supremacist. Two Virginia state police officers also died while responding to the violence.
Following the attack, Trump said “all sides” were to blame, a line that both Republicans and Democrats roundly criticized.
Then, on Aug. 14, Trump delivered a teleprompter speech condemning white supremacists.
But critics said Trump lost whatever credibility he had regained when he made an off-the-cuff remark about Charlottesville during an infrastructure news conference on Aug. 15 at Trump Tower in New York.
During the Trump Tower news conference, the president told reporters: “I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place [in Charlottesville] was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to [it].”
In surprisingly candid comments during CNN’s town hall, Ryan addressed Trump’s seemingly inconsistent comments about the attack.
“His speech on Monday was pitch perfect,” Ryan said. “Then, the next day, I think it was in New York, on infrastructure press conference, in answer to a question, I think he made comments that were much more morally ambiguous, much more confusing.”
The Republican speaker said that Trump “could have done better” and “needed to do better” in his Charlottesville response.
“I actually think what he did two days ago in commending the peaceful protests against the hate in Boston. I think just what I heard, I don’t know, 25 minutes ago, was exactly what a president needs to say and what we needed to hear,” Ryan said, referring to Trump’s primetime speech on the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
Back on the topic of Charlottesville, though, Ryan said that Trump “messed up in his comments [at Trump Tower] on Tuesday when it sounded like a moral equivocation or at the very least moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity.”
“This issue speaks to humanity, our country, our society, our culture,” Ryan said, “and so the point that I think is bigger than getting into a spat with other people for whatever reason — it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-life or pro-choice, it doesn’t matter if you want to be drilling for oil or leave it in the ground or if you want big government or smaller government, every single one of us needs to unify and stand up against this repulsive, this repugnant, vile bigotry.”
— CNN (@CNN) August 22, 2017
The bottom line
Both sides, from Ryan to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), agree that the behavior by neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, is unAmerican and inhumane. Yet, for the most part, Democrats have been far more willing to hold the president’s feet to the fire.
If the GOP wants to expand its voter base — and it has to, if it wants to survive — then party leaders like Ryan must be even more candid in calling out Trump than he was in his comments on Monday night. Ryan needs to make clear that Trump’s unscripted response to Charlottesville does not represent the GOP, nor does it represent America and its values.
The Republican Party must face this reality: To date, it has worked for the party to appeal to a mostly white, male, Christian voter base. With millennials growing as an important voting bloc, Republicans, including Ryan, have to do more to be able to reach a wider and more diverse audience with the ideals of free markets, smaller government and lower taxes.
First, however, Republicans must assure these voters that the party will never tolerate behavior that is bigoted or empathetic to bigotry.