Donald Trump

Former US presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush slam racism as Trump backlash picks up

Father and son who served as US presidents issue rate joint statement condemning ‘racial bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 August, 2017, 5:11am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 August, 2017, 5:51am

Former US presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush on Wednesday issued a joint statement that condemned “racial bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred” as Donald Trump faced a growing backlash over his defence of those who took part in the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The father and son did not mention President Trump by name, but their rare combined intervention came after Trump’s comments that “there is blame on both sides” for the deadly violence in Charlottesville on Saturday.

“America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred in all its forms,” the Bushes said in a statement, going on to cite the third US president, Thomas Jefferson, who lived near Charlottesville.

“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.”

Republicans are facing intense pressure to denounce Trump, who at a bellicose press conference on Tuesday drew a moral equivalence between the white supremacists and a non-existent group that he branded the “alt-left”.

The Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent Trump critic, issued the strongest rebuke from his party so far. “Mr President, I encourage you to try to bring us together as a nation after this horrific event in Charlottesville,” he said. “Your words are dividing Americans, not healing them.”

Graham highlighted the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer after a white nationalist allegedly drove his car into a group of protesters. Heyer’s mother, father and grandfather spoke on Wednesday at an emotional memorial service for her.

Senator Graham continued: “Through his statements yesterday, President Trump took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally and people like Ms Heyer. I, along with many others, do not endorse this moral equivalency.

“Many Republicans do not agree with and will fight back against the idea that the party of Lincoln has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world.”

‘What about the alt-left’: Trump again blames ‘both sides’ for deadly violence in Virginia

Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was among those on the far right who welcomed Trump’s combative Tuesday press conference. The president said there were “some very bad people” among the protesters but added: “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”

Trump’s remarks amounted to a rejection of the Republicans, business leaders and White House advisers who earlier this week had pushed him to more forcefully and specifically condemn the Klan members, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who took to the streets of Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee.

Three Trump cabinet members stood by helplessly in the lobby of Trump Tower as the president veered off script and let rip. Chief of staff John Kelly was nearby with head bowed, looking grim.

White House officials were caught off guard because Trump had signed off on a plan to ignore questions from journalists during an event touting infrastructure policies, only to change his mind once he stood behind the lectern.

The fallout has again put the White House on the back foot. An official said Hope Hicks, a close Trump aide, would temporarily serve as White House communications director. Hicks will work with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on White House messaging strategy.

Time and again, Trump’s actions and words have led to questions of whether the Republican party can continue to back him. But his remarks on Tuesday in which he, in effect, became the first president in generations to defend white nationalists, appeared to set a new moral test.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill shared the approach of the Bushes, condemning Trump without using his name. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell noted that the groups behind the Charlottesville violence are planning a rally in Lexington, in his home state of Kentucky. McConnell said: “Their messages of hate and bigotry are not welcome in Kentucky and should not be welcome anywhere in America”.

Paul Ryan, the House speaker, declared in a tweet that “white supremacy is repulsive” and there should be “no moral ambiguity”.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump called Heyer, who died on Saturday, “beautiful and incredible” and a “truly special young woman.”

Trump has been abandoned by a series of influential figures since his initial refusal to criticise white supremacist groups at the weekend.

Five of America’s most senior military officials took the unusual step of condemning racism and extremism. General Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the US army, and General Robert Neller, the commandant of the US marine corps, used Twitter to reject extreme rightwing beliefs.

“The army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775,” Milley tweeted on Wednesday morning.

His comment echoed what Neller had posted on Tuesday night. “No place for racial hatred or extremism in the US marine corps. Our core values of honour, courage, and commitment frame the way marines live and act.”

General Dave Goldfein, the chief of staff of the US air force, issued a statement on Wednesday morning supporting Milley and Neller’s, as did General Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the national guard bureau. Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said the US navy “forever stands against intolerance & hatred”.

The five men all serve as joint chiefs of staff, uniformed leaders who advise the president on military matters.