Democrats are throwing the kitchen sink at President Trump to protest his ongoing equivocation about a white nationalist rally and put increasing pressure on Republican leaders to denounce their party’s standard-bearer in the White House.
No tool has been overlooked. The Democrats have sent letters, called for hearings, launched campaign ads and promised resolutions of censure and impeachment designed to highlight the firestorm set off by the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va. — and the president’s equivocal response.
The episode has forced congressional Republicans into a defensive crouch, caught between condemning the racist groups which organized the Charlottesville protest while taking pains not to rebuke the president, whose support they need to move the ambitious legislative agenda they’ve planned to finish before the year’s end.
The Democrats are not making the GOP’s balancing act easy. The leaders of the House minority and liberal caucuses are invoking the deadly attack on counterprotesters to pressure Trump into sacking the nationalist voices in the White House.
The Congressional Black Caucus wants the removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol — a campaigned backed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday.
And some Democratic appropriators are eying plans to use next month’s government spending fight to secure funding for organizations that battle white supremacists and other hate groups.
The Democrats’ campaign arms, meanwhile, are flooding supporters’ email boxes with messages accusing congressional Republicans of demonstrating a “lack of moral clarity” that’s empowered the mercurial Trump.
“House Republicans must be held accountable along with the President,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The strategy marks a change of tack for the Democrats, who had shifted away from a sharp focus on Trump after that design largely failed in the 2016 election cycle. Launching their 2018 agenda last month, the Democrats presented an economic message that didn’t mention the president at all.
The outcry from Charlottesville has changed their calculus, at least in the near-term, and party leaders said they have no plans to abandon their effort to pressure GOP leaders to take a stronger stand against Trump’s more controversial actions.
“[Speaker Paul] Ryan [R-Wis.] has a long record there that’s pathetic,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
There are signs, however, that Democrats are not all on the same page. Pelosi on Thursday gave a full-throated push for the removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol — a response to Trump’s tweets hours earlier defending such monuments. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a black lawmaker and possible 2020 presidential candidate, plans to introduce such a bill next month.
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement shortly afterward warning that Trump’s focus on the statues aims “to divert attention away from the President’s refusal to unequivocally and full-throatedly denounce white supremacy, neo-Nazism and other forms of bigotry.”
“While it is critical that we work toward the goal of Sen. Cory Booker’s legislation, we must continue to denounce and resist President Trump for his reprehensible actions,” Schumer said in a brief statement.
Featuring a who’s who of white nationalist groups, Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville quickly erupted into a series of violent confrontations between hundreds of white nationalist marchers — many of them carrying firearms and chanting racist slogans — and the counterprotesters gathered to oppose their bigoted message.
Amid the commotion, a car rammed into a group of counterprotesters, killing a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring at least 19 others before speeding away. A 20-year-old white nationalist from Ohio was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
In his first response Saturday, Trump widely censured for blaming “many sides” for the day’s tragic events. Only two days later did he denounce racism and rebuke the white supremacist groups by name. The delay drew criticism from both sides of the aisle, which grew to howls on Tuesday when the president amplified his initial judgment that “alt-left” counterprotesters bear equal blame for the bloodshed and that there were “very fine people” on both sides.
“You had a group on the other side side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent,” he said during a combative press conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Trump shifting the focus to Confederate statues may be a deliberate attempt to move the fight to more favorable ground. “Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” he tweeted Thursday, referring to them as “the beauty” being removed from public spaces.
An NPR/PBS/Marist poll out Wednesday found that 62 percent of Americans polled favor keeping statues of historical Confederate figures in place. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, argued that the left’s “race-identity politics” would only boost support for the president.
“Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” Bannon told The New York Times.
Because of the monthlong August recess, most GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republicans have managed to lay low and dodge questions about Trump’s Charlottesville crisis, save for a tweet or statement generally condemning racism and bigotry.
And some of Trump’s close allies in Congress are still defiantly standing in his corner, arguing that the president did not defend the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville.
Trump’s words “coming out of Barack Obama’s mouth would be hailed as poetic,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who Trump once interviewed for a Cabinet post, told The Hill.
Trump “separated the white supremacists from others protesting the removal of a statue. Not everyone who thinks statues should stay up are white supremacists,” added Cramer, who said he personally didn’t understand why anyone would want to display Confederate statues and symbols.
“I wish he’d stop talking about it at all so liberals and the media couldn’t distort his words.”
Other GOP lawmakers said they didn’t anticipate Republican leaders caving to Democratic demands for hearings, removing the statues or censuring Trump, though members of leadership and their aides were closely monitoring the situation.
While most of those polled believe that Trump’s response to Charlottesville wasn’t strong enough, Trump still enjoys broad support in his party: 79 percent of Republican respondents still approve of his performance, while only 10 percent disapprove, according to that same NPR/PBS/Marist poll.
“The people that were never with him can use [Charlottesville] as their excuse to not be with him. The others in the middle just kind of go on with life and don’t care what he said, and then there are people who support him,” said one House GOP lawmaker, explaining the various factions in the party.
While GOP leaders face pressure from Democrats to act, they’re also being pressed by members to protect them from tough, unpopular votes that could infuriate conservative activists back home.
“A lot of people want to be protected so they say, ‘Don’t go too far this way. Keep us from having to do anything,’ ” the GOP lawmaker said. “The majority of the conference is saying, ‘Don’t make me vote on the [Confederate] flag amendment or gays in the military.’ ”
On Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) became the first Republican in Congress to call for his party to hold hearings into the attack in Charlottesville and the rise of white supremacists and nationalists in America. Issa, who faces a tough reelection in 2018, is the former Oversight Committee chairman and sits on the Judiciary panel that has jurisdiction over law enforcement and human rights issues.
But a GOP aide said Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), whose conservative district sits just west of Charlottesville, has no plans to hold such a hearing at this time.
Spokesmen for Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not respond to questions about whether GOP leaders were considering hearings or a vote to censure Trump over his Charlottesville comments.
As for the calls to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol, Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said the decision should be left up to the states. Under the current rules, each of the 50 states can display two statues in the U.S. Capitol; those statues can be replaced by the governors and legislatures of those states.
The debate over the fate of the statues echoes a similar fight in 2015 that followed the racially motivated shooting death of nine parishioners at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C.
Democratic leaders, at the time, had urged the removal of Confederate imagery from the Capitol, including statues. Conceding in part, Republican leaders agreed to remove the state flags adorning an underground subway tunnel — including Mississippi’s emblem, which contains the Confederate battle flag — and replace them with giant commemorative coins.
The statues, however, remained.