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GOP Response To Trump's Charlottesville Comments


President Trump weighed in this morning on the removal of Confederate monuments. He wrote on Twitter, sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart. In the same tweet, Trump called the monuments beautiful. The president also wrote, quote, "you can't change history, but you can learn from it." And once again, he asked if statues of the Founding Fathers would be removed next.


So the president is speaking up. So are his critics. Many are not happy with his response to the violence in Charlottesville last weekend. Business leaders who sat on White House advisory councils quit. Military leaders took a united front against hatred. And many Republican members of Congress put out tweets and press releases.

Yesterday, we reached out to all 52 Republican senators about how they view the president's handling of this sensitive moment. We sent their offices the same request, asking for an interview or at least answers to two questions.

CHANG: The first question - does the senator believe President Trump is doing enough to ease racial tensions in this country? Second, does the president's response to events in Charlottesville weaken Republicans' ability to govern effectively?

In the last 20 or so hours, we have received 10 responses. Only one senator, John Hoeven of North Dakota, actually answered the questions. He said, quote, "President Trump and all of us need to work together to ease racial tensions." And then he said that easing racial tensions would help them govern effectively.

None of the 52 Republican senators agreed to an interview on the subject. So joining me now is NPR's Scott Horsley instead. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: (Laughter) Good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: (Laughter) Some of the senators, as we said, you know, they've tweeted on this subject. But very few are taking on the president directly. Do you have any sense for why they're not willing to come out and talk about this publicly?

HORSLEY: Well, don't take it personally.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: It's not just NPR. Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said yesterday, he was unable to get any Republican to come on and defend president's remarks. As you say, a lot of lawmakers did issue statements in response to the events in Charlottesville condemning racism and neo-Nazis. But most did not directly challenge the president's remarks. There are some exceptions; Cory Gardner of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida did take on the president.

But most lawmakers have been trying to sort of walk a line. We've also not heard the usual voices from the White House making the rounds on the television talk shows to support the president's handling here.

CHANG: Well, there was one exception to that, Vice President Mike Pence. He supports the president - sort of. Well, let's hear what he had to say.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The president has been clear on this tragedy, and so have I. I spoke at length about this heartbreaking situation on Sunday night in Colombia. And I stand with the president, and I stand by those words.

CHANG: What do you make of that? What do you make of what the vice president is saying there?

HORSLEY: Well, that was an artfully crafted statement from Vice President Pence. He's in the midst of a Latin American tour. And he'd been taking questions from reporters every day, so it would have been sort of awkward for him to duck the reporters' questions. As he said, he did make his own statement about Charlottesville on Sunday in which he denounced Klansmembers and the neo-Nazis, something the president had had not done up to that point.

So he stood by his own statement and the subsequent statement from President Trump in which he stood in front of a teleprompter and read those kinds of words.

CHANG: Right.

HORSLEY: Pence did not stand by the president's statements on Tuesday, though. This is a vice president who is, on the one hand, trying to be very loyal to this president while at the same time also preserving his own political future.

CHANG: Walking a very, very fine line there. I mean, it's no secret that the president's poll numbers are, to put it lightly, not great right now. So shouldn't that make it easier for people in his party to just - to speak out, to speak their minds?

HORSLEY: Yes, it does. We saw a Gallup approval rating for the president fall to 34 percent this week. There's also a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that finds a majority of Americans think the president's response to the events in Charlottesville has not been adequate. So that does make it somewhat easier for lawmakers and others to put some distance between themselves and President Trump. But they're still cautious. Ohio Governor and Trump primary rival, John Kasich, addressed this on NPR - on NBC's "Today Show."


JOHN KASICH: You're not going to turn your back on the president. You're going to speak clearly and bluntly and say, get your act together. President Trump needs to listen to the people before he takes this presidency in a place that is not acceptable for our country.

HORSLEY: Kasich did go on to say that it's terrible that the president had not actually been more forceful in condemning hate groups.

CHANG: So if there's not much coming from Republican senators, you know, there has been a lot of pushback from the business community this week. Two of the president's advisory councils have been disbanded. Can you explain why that's the case?

HORSLEY: Yeah. We began to see an exodus from the manufacturing advisory council, and that sort of turned into a flood in the last couple of days. We saw more and more chief executives saying they were leaving and issuing statements about the importance of diversity and denouncing hatred. Faced with that exodus, President Trump, yesterday, announced in a tweet that he was disbanding his manufacturing advisory council as well as his strategic and policy forum.

But it was pretty clear that that disbanding on the president's part was sort of a fig leaf, a way of saying - well, you're not breaking up with me; I'm breaking with you.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: Just the day before, Trump had boasted that for every executive who left one of his advisory councils, there were many more willing to take their place. So that obviously is not the case. And this is a challenge for the president, who - remember - ran as somebody who was, you know, a successful businessman.

CHANG: There was also an interesting united front in the military. The chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines all banded together - and also the head of the National Guard - they all spoke up on social media denouncing hatred. How unusual is it for them to buck the White House?

HORSLEY: It's very unusual. But the military is a racially integrated institution. At same time, it's sensitive. They - it's - we have a tradition of civilian oversight, and for them to buck the commander in chief is very unusual.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.