Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump built his public persona on a willingness to comment, often provocatively, on any topic, any time, wooing supporters as the one public figure who would "tell it like it is."

Saturday, faced with deadly violence during a second day of neo-Nazi marches in a quiet, Virginia college town, Trump seemed uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

As elected officials and other prominent people from across the political spectrum rushed to condemn white supremacists who marched with torches and Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday night, Trump remained silent. His reticence continued into Saturday, after police shut down the rally because of the violence.

Only after his wife, first lady Melania Trump, turned to Twitter for what was only her sixth comment on a public issue since the inauguration — "let's communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence," she wrote — did the president make his own initial comment.

Even then, the president's words carefully avoided naming any specific groups or assigning any blame for the situation. Nor did he mention Charlottesville, as she had.

About two hours later, after a car had plowed into a crowd of anti-Nazi counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, killing at least one person and injuring 19, Trump made a public comment at a previously scheduled appearance at his golf resort in New Jersey with Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

The president appeared ill at ease, and again avoided any assignment of blame.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," he said, repeating the final phrase for emphasis.

"It's been going on for a long time in our country; it's not Donald Trump, it's not Barack Obama," he added, without specifying what "it" referred to.

Trump spoke briefly, devoting much of his roughly 13 minutes in public talking about his accomplishments and shaking hands with a group of veterans. He left quickly, ignoring shouted questions from reporters about whether he considered the violence a terrorist attack.

The president's response contrasted sharply with that of other public figures, including many of his fellow Republicans.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, the father of Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and one of Trump's former rivals for the Republican nomination, openly condemned white supremacists.

"'White supremacy' crap is worst kind of racism-it's EVIL and perversion of God's truth to ever think our Creator values some above others," Huckabee wrote.

Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado was among many Republican lawmakers who criticized Trump's remarks as weak.

More strikingly, Trump's reticence contrasted in multiple ways with the standard he has set, both as a candidate and since becoming president.

On Thursday and Friday, Trump welcomed reporters' questions, holding three mini-news conferences over the two days, at one point blowing past a stop sign from Sanders in order to take more questions as he opined on North Korea, Venezuela, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and transgender service members, among other topics.

His reluctance to respond quickly to the violence in Charlottesville also departed from the pattern he set in response to violent acts elsewhere.

On Feb. 3, for example, Trump tweeted a comment on an apparent terrorist attack at the Louvre Museum in Paris less than three hours after the violence, which happened at roughly 5 a.m. Washington time.

Trump made similarly swift comments after a terrorist attack in London on June 3, which, like the attack in Charlottesville, was executed by driving a vehicle into a crowd, similar to earlier attacks in Egypt and Germany.

And in notable contrast to his careful avoidance of mentioning white supremacists on Saturday, Trump long has famously made a campaign issue of his opponents' unwillingness to specifically label terrorist threats.

"When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can't say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!" Trump declared early in his presidential bid, hitting a theme that he would repeat over and over.

"To solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name," he said in one of his campaign debates with Hillary Clinton.

Trump's approach to Charlottesville, however, was consistent with the way he handled relations with white supremacists and other alt-right figures during his presidential campaign.

Although he eventually — after considerable prodding — disavowed support from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Trump and his top campaign aides consistently avoided condemning such groups despite criticism from Clinton and media commentators.

Overtly racist groups such as those who marched in Charlottesville make up a small share of the U.S. electorate. Their support, alone, would have little political effect for Trump.

But researchers who have studied the 2016 election have put together extensive evidence that Trump won overwhelming support from a much larger group of white voters who think the government provides too much help to blacks and other minorities and who resent changes that have put the U.S. on course to having a white-minority population by the middle of this century.

Feelings of racial resentment are most common among Trump's most ardent supporters, polling data have indicated.

Over the last several weeks, as Trump's standing with voters overall has dropped, the White House has appeared to aim its messages more exclusively at those core supporters — the roughly one-quarter of voters who continue to say in polls that they strongly support the president.

That approach suggests Trump's strategists are resigned to the idea that he cannot hope to expand his support right now and therefore must put his priority on strengthening ties to those who already admire him.

On Saturday, after Trump's initial, generic Twitter message about the violence, Duke, who took part in the Charlottesville marches, tweeted a warning to the president.

Trump may not have wanted to suggest he was heeding Duke's words, but his ginger handling of the Charlottesville violence is bound to convey precisely that message.