The direct line between Trump campaign and Charlottesville horror
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Donald Trump's silence over the neo-Nazi's in Charlottesville was deafening. But did he fail to speak out sooner because the only friends he has left are on the far right?
If the Russian Connection doesn't get him first, Saturday August 14, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, is the date and place that may well have decreed Donald Trump's presidency doesn't survive into a second term.
If so, it will serve as a fitting epitaph to the memory of Heather Heyer, the fresh-faced 32-year-old white legal assistant and peaceful anti-racist protester who lost her life in the carnage (along with two police officers whose surveillance helicopter crashed).
The storm of criticism unleashed over President Trump's initial, equivocal response to the bloody violence triggered by a far right rally in which a 20-year-old Hitler-worshipping, Trump-loving, Bashar al-Assad admiring fanatic called James Fields Jr used his car to mow down 20 peaceful anti-fascist protesters, including Ms Heyer, sent shock waves across America. Shock waves felt not least among Republican Party leaders and the great majority of decent, moderate GOP supporters.
A photograph has since emerged showing Fields, originally from Kentucky, standing at the rally before his murderous car assault alongside a neo-Nazi group and holding a shield bearing the insignia of the fanatical Vanguard America movement whose motto 'Blood and Soil' is an adaptation of the Nazi racial purity slogan 'blut und boden'.
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For 48 hours Republican Party leaders and wiser White House aides urged Donald Trump to personally join them in outright and forthright condemnation of the ugly, violent alliance of White Supremacists, KKK supporters, alt-right extremists and assorted others from America's fanatical fringe.
For 48 hours, POTUS refused to budge from his original blanket remarks in which he conspicuously failed to single out far right, racist nationalists and chose instead to blame 'many sides' for the 'hatred, bigotry and violence' on display in the Charlottesville sunshine.
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It was indeed a display of 'hatred, bigotry and violence', but hardly on all sides, Mr President. The footage viewed in millions of American homes, and across the world, told a very different story. Hundreds of heavily-tattooed white power 'disciples' armed with rifles, clubs and shields, many performing Nazi salutes and chanting anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-black slogans and carrying Trump campaign placards confronting a noisy but predominantly peaceful counter-protest.
While, even at Charlottesville, the spectre of the Russian Connection was present too, with placards and chants declaring 'Russia is our friend' and shouts of support for Putin's leadership style.
By the time Donald Trump returned to the White House on Monday to deliver the kind of language he'd been urged to use since Saturday, the general sentiment 'too little too late' hung heavy in the air like an early epitaph for his presidency.
'Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs', The Donald duly intoned at an impromptu televised press conference. Along with 'repugnant' to describe the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
'We condemn this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America,' he pronounced, solemn-faced and at times gripping the podium as if for safety.
Right words. Wrong time, Mr President.
The big trouble for POTUS is that those words were just as applicable back on Saturday as they were on Monday. That said, critics were quick to spot that the 'alt-right' were omitted from Trump's condemnation roll call; an omission that looked suspiciously like a sop to its champion and White House Strategy Chief Steve Bannon and his ex-Breitbart News cadre at the heart of Trump's administration and key figures in his election victory.
It was also noticeable that, for once, POTUS stuck to the script on his teleprompter without the usual off-the-cuff Trumpian flourish. (We now know his original and theatrical 'fire and fury' threat about North Korea was a Trump ad-lib not contained in his advisers' original script).
A further clear sign of Trump's unease was signalled by his swift exit from the room, refusing to respond to reporters' shouted questions about why he hadn't hit out earlier. An unease that owed much to the fact that earlier his Attorney General Jeff Sessions had already announced that the deadly violence at Charlottesville 'met the definition of domestic terrorism' and 'First Daughter' Ivanka Trump had joined Republican leaders and vice-president Mike Pence in publicly condemning the extremists involved while her father remained silent.
Perhaps, too, he'd been shaken by the powerful words of Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer who cited a 'direct line' between the Trump campaign and the fateful, fatal right wing rally that desecrated his city.
'I don't want to make this too much about Donald Trump, but he should look in the mirror. I mean, he made a choice in his presidential campaign, the folks around him, you go right to the gutter, to play on the worst prejudices…' was how the mayor reacted in a series of national TV interviews, in which he urged the president to seize the 'opportunity for a fresh beginning'.
Then Wednesday's Washington Post sensationally claimed that Rupert Murdoch was among influential figures privately urging Trump to sack strategy Bannon. The president's son-in-law Jared Kushner was also said to be backing the call. And the Post speculated that Bannon could be gone within days.
But, in another indication of the chaotic state of the White House, Donald Trump's widely-condemned Trump Tower double U-turn speech reverting to blaming anti-fascist protesters as much far right white nationalists for the Charlottesville carnage bore all the hallmarks of Bannon and his team in the West Wing. Chaos has once again engulfed the White House.
It's also clear that POTUS has been shocked by the resignation of three of America's top business CEOs from one of his pet projects, the American Manufacturing Council. The trio, Kenneth Fraizer (Merck), Brian Krzanich (Intel) and Kevin Plank (Under Armour) quit against the backdrop of Charlottesville and Trump's initial response to it. But that didn't prevent the president from reverting to his petulant, provocative self with a tweet aimed at Fraizer, one of America's few black CEOs of a major corporation, that went: '@Merck Pharma is a leader in higher and higher drug prices while at the same time taking jobs out of the US. Bring back jobs and LOWER PRICES!'
The catalyst for carnage at Charlottesville was white nationalists' objection to a decision by the liberal college city to remove a statue of slave-owning Civil War 'hero' General Robert E Lee from a public park. It's part of a movement to remove 'archaic' symbols of segregation and the slavery era from public life, but one that has triggered fierce opposition from the far right and those who view such statues as 'honouring' the post-war hangover of historic Southern pride.
Significantly, the night before Saturday's bloody violence, white supremacists staged a torch-lit procession through the city. It was a sinister event filled with racist rhetoric and an appearance by David Duke, the infamous former leader of the KKK, who told an appreciative audience, 'We're going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump and 'take our country back'.
Duke's words served as another ugly reminder of Trump's repeated evasions and refusals to disown the former KKK head klansman and other white supremacists' support for him during last year's election campaign.
Critics also suggest the president's initial refusals to condemn the far right's actions at Charlottesville was influenced by the fact that, while his overall public opinion poll ratings are sinking steadily, the areas where he's holding onto support are among white nationalists, white supremacists, the pro-gun lobby, anti-abortion supporters, alt-right hardliners and Evangelical Christians.
But snap polls in the wake of Charlottesville suggest that the great majority of Americans – including moderate Republicans who voted for Trump – are horrified by both the carnage and their president's initial ambivalence over apportioning blame. GOP leaders are bracing themselves for the upcoming larger, more scientific polls to show another record low for The Donald.
Inevitably, another legacy of the Charlottesville horror has been to return the focus to the Trump campaign's election strategy of courting the far right and its racist sympathies. And, above all, to the continuing power and influence of Bannon and his fellow Breitbart appointees within the White House.
Trump's loyalty to Bannon hitherto has been based largely on the fact that the ex-Breitbart chief was undoubtedly the string-pulling mastermind behind last year's election strategy, with The Donald the flamboyant, narcissist TV reality star front man. It proved a winning combo.
But could another, swifter legacy of Charlottesville prove to be Bannon's demise with Trump forced to sacrifice him in the greater interest of presidential self-survival? It would constitute a huge gamble, rather than a strict test of personal loyalty, for POTUS and for several reasons.
Bannon still commands big support among those on the far right – including white nationalists – who aren't likely to desert Trump over Charlottesville but well might if his belated White House condemnation stretches to sacking the alt right's 'hero' himself. On right wing social media sites during the campaign, Bannon was lauded to the heavens, for example when he branded a prominent Republican critic of Trump a 'Jewish renegade'.
Under Bannon, Breitbart News – avidly followed for years by The Donald and Bannon's pal Nigel Farage – built its reputation as the voice of 'white identity', with constant attacks on immigrants, multiculturism and calls to 'fly the Confederate flag high and fly it with pride' so much more than a cruel irony after the Charlottesville savagery.
But there is another twist insofar as Bannon now stands accused of being behind many of the leaked media stories about White House chaos and rivalries and Russian Connection stories that have so enraged Trump and alarmed the GOP leadership. Bannon denies responsibility but, I'm reliably informed, is already telling confidants that he may well be on 'borrowed time' at the White House.
Bannon's position – and direct access to POTUS himself – is also imperilled by the fact that (officially at least) he is meant to report to the new White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, the man charged with making a disastrously dysfunctional West Wing function with some semblance of order and discipline. And, by all accounts, the tough, no-nonsense ex-marine general is no fan of Bannon.
But sacking Bannon carries huge potential dangers, too. Whatever you think of his political views, he's a smart, cunning, media savvy operator who – so far – hasn't been personally tainted by the Russian Connection allegations to the same degree as others close to POTUS, his family and much of his inner circle.
The recent revelation that the FBI have raided the home of Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort has led to growing Capitol Hill whispers that special counsel Robert Mueller already has enough evidence to criminally charge him but that he is trying to negotiate a deal in return for his co-operation in testifying against others.
As one former close associate of Steve Bannon put it to me: 'It may well be that Steve doesn't have too much to fear personally from the Mueller investigation, but he's smart enough to have found out for himself where the bodies are. And if I were Donald Trump I'd be very worried by the prospect of a sacked Steve Bannon outside the tent with the power to piss back in.'
But with General Kelly and much of the GOP leadership rattled by the fallout from Charlottesville, the fate of Steve Bannon and the horrific killing of Heather Heyer could both ultimately play decisively into the over-arching political drama of Donald Trump's own presidential survival.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor. He met and interviewed Donald Trump several times as the Mirror Group's US Bureau Chief