WASHINGTON, D.C. — The last two Republican presidents — George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush — issued an implicit rebuke of the current president Wednesday, as party elders scrambled to limit the fallout from Donald Trump’s stance on neo-Nazis.
“America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms,” read the statement issued by Bush aides from Kennebunkport, Maine, site of the Bush family compound.
The Bushes have largely kept on the sidelines during the Trump presidency. The younger Bush has maintained a strict policy of resisting the urge to inject himself into contemporary politics, deeming that unfair to the current national leader — whether that was Trump or, before him, Barack Obama.
The elder Bush turned 93 in June.
But amid the uproar over Trump’s warmth toward neo-Nazis and white supremacists, the father-son presidents apparently could not hold their tongues any longer.
Also on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., forcefully distanced himself and the party from Trump’s stance.
“We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred. There are no good neo-nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head,” McConnell said in a statement issued by his office, in part to denounce a rally planned by hate groups in Lexington.
The Bushes rarely issue joint statements, underscoring the importance they placed on airing their views on this controversy. Their full statement read:
“America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”
While the Bushes’ rare joint statement didn’t mention Trump, their message was clearly aimed at distancing themselves — and the Republican Party — from the president’s comments about the violence in Virginia. On Saturday, a Nazi sympathizer rammed a car into a crowd of anti-fascist demonstrators, killing one woman and injuring 20 other people.
The neo-Nazis and white supremacists chanted anti-Semitic slogans and waved swastika flags.
Trump initially blamed clashes on agitators and bad actors on “many sides,” without mentioning neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan or white supremacists by name. On Monday, after aides had invoked those labels, Trump did, too, in scripted comments that were criticized as belated but welcomed as a signal that Trump had shifted away from describing a moral equivalence between fascists and anti-fascists.
He then proceeded to undo those efforts at damage control on Tuesday afternoon with a freewheeling news conference in the lobby of his glittering Trump Tower. He insisted that there were “very fine people” on that side of the clashes and accused the “alt-left” of provoking the violence.
Before the Bushes and McConnell weighed in, House Speaker Paul Ryan was the highest-ranking Republican official to publicly distance himself — and the party — from the president. Trump’s critics, and many of his fellow Republicans, viewed those comments as a wink of approval toward fringe nationalists and white supremacists.
“We must be clear,” Ryan tweeted. “White supremacy is repulsive. … There can be no moral ambiguity.”
Indeed, white supremacist leader Richard Spencer of Dallas, and David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, had welcomed Trump’s stance as an affirmation of their views and tactics.
Trump had denounced racism and bigotry as evil and repugnant. But in equating the actions of neo-Nazis chanting Nazi-era slogans such as “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” to the actions of anti-fascist demonstrators, his critics say, he gave political cover to the worst fringe elements of American society.
For GOP leaders, that has presented a challenge. Trump, as president, is leader of the party. But the party’s congressional majorities will be at stake in the 2018 elections and Trump’s approval ratings are already at a record low for any president in decades.