17 Aug 2017

Republican ex-presidents wade into Trump's 'both sides' claim

10:12 am on 17 August 2017

Former presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush have called on the US to "reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred in all forms" after President Donald Trump blamed "both sides" for deadly violence in Virginia.

Former Presidents George HW Bush (left) and George W Bush in 2013.

George HW Bush, left, and George W Bush in 2013: "As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded ... in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal." Photo: AFP

They are the latest Republican figures to weigh in on the backlash to Mr Trump's latest remarks, with the president also forced to disband his jobs councils after several of the chief executives involved - including the heads of Merck and Intel - abandoned ship.

Violence at the Charlottesville protest culminated with a woman's death and nearly 20 wounded when a car ploughed into a crowd of counter protesters at the far-right rally.

Hundreds of white nationalists had converged in the southern town to protest plans to remove a statue of General Robert E Lee, commander of the pro-slavery Confederacy in the US Civil War.

Republican elected officials around the country expressed outrage when Mr Trump appeared to defend the rally's organisers.

"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," a statement from the two former presidents said.

"We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country."

The violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday have sparked a heated debate on US race relations.

'They killed my child to shut her up'

A public memorial for Heather Heyer, the woman who was fatally struck by the car that ploughed into the group of anti-racism protesters, was held on Wednesday in Charlottesville.

Her mother, Susan Bro, delivered a powerful speech calling on people to "find a way to make a difference". She added it was "just the beginning of Heather's legacy, not the end".

"They killed my child to shut her up. Well guess what, you just magnified her," she said before the crowd erupted into a standing ovation.

"I'd rather have my child, but by golly, if I'm going to give her up, we're going to make it count," she said.

Clergy observe a moment of silence during the memorial service for Heather Heyer outside the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Clergy observe a moment of silence during the memorial service for Heather Heyer outside the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: AFP

The fallout from Mr Trump's comments on Tuesday continued in Washington, where Republican lawmakers reacted angrily.

Many echoed House Speaker Paul Ryan who said: "White supremacy is repulsive... There can be no moral ambiguity."

"I think there is blame on both sides," Mr Trump told reporters at a tense news conference at Trump Tower in New York.

"You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I'll say it right now."

"What about the alt-left that came charging... at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? (...) There are two sides to a story," Mr Trump said in response to one reporter.

He condemned the driver of the car, but said those who had marched in defence of the statue had included "many fine people".

US President Donald Trump, after making comments that "both sides' were responsible for violence in Virginia.

US President Donald Trump after making comments that "both sides' were responsible for violence in Virginia. Photo: AFP

Trump's comments catch officials off guard

The president's comments were said to have caught senior White House officials off guard.

Following the news conference, the White House sent a set of official talking points to Republican congressmen, urging them to say Mr Trump was "entirely correct" in his latest remarks on Charlottesville.

"Despite the criticism, the President reaffirmed some of our most important Founding principles: We are equal in the eyes of our Creator, equal under the law, and equal under our Constitution," a bullet point read.

Mr Trump's remarks were welcomed by David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who tweeted: "Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa."

But many others strongly condemned the comments.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday it was important to condemn far-right views "wherever we hear them".

"I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them," she said.

Of the reactions of some 55 Republican and Democrat politicians collected by the Washington Post, only the spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Kayleigh McEnany, expressed her support.

Veteran Republican Senator John McCain tweeted: "There is no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry."

One of Mr Trump's former rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Marco Rubio, sent a series of tweets criticising Mr Trump's stance.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO trade union federation, became the fifth prominent business leader to resign from Mr Trump's advisory body, the American Manufacturing Council, over the issue.

In another development, the response of former president Barack Obama to the violence in Charlottesville has become the most-liked tweet ever.

The message, quoting Nelson Mandela, reads: "No-one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion."

- BBC / RNZ

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs