Republican Sen. Mike Lee was the first and only member of Utah’s congressional delegation to pointedly criticize President Donald Trump for defending white supremacists and neo-Nazis after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.
“Carrying a Nazi flag or any other symbol of white supremacy is a hateful act that cannot be morally defended, least of all by the leader of a diverse nation still healing from its original sin of racist slavery,” Lee wrote in an 88-word-long scathing Facebook post.
His colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch, stood up for Trump while the state’s other federal representatives demurred. They were quick to denounce the racially-charged rallies outside the University of Virginia. And they, too, condemned the hate groups responsible. But they steered away from calling out Trump — or even naming him — for insisting Tuesday that there was “blame on both sides” and essentially likening the demonstraters wearing swastikas to the protesters fighting racism.
“He’s a Republican president, and there’s a hesitance to criticize him,” explained Dave Hansen, former Utah Republican Party chairman and veteran political strategist.
Hatch, though, defended Trump while making allowances for “some things I wish he would’ve handled differently.” He got a call from the president Wednesday, which he spoke about in an interview with KUTV, and said he is certain Trump had good intentions.
“I just think he wanted to assure me that he’s going to work his way back on top and that he’s going to handle things as well as he can,” Hatch said of their conversation.
The conservative senator said he “won’t point” to how he believes Trump could’ve better handled the situation other than to advise him to speak out against hate, condemn the white supremacy groups “and then leave it at that.”
“He did make it very clear that there was no excuse for this racism,” Hatch said. “And even though he did say some other things that I think [were] probably misconstrued, he made that very clear. I don’t think he personally has a racist bone in his body.”
Hatch, whose brother died fighting Nazis in World War II, repeated that last sentence three times during a nine-minute conversation about Charlottesville, emphasizing his conviction that the president is not prejudiced. Trump had promoted an inaccurate narrative that Barack Obama, the first black president, wasn’t born in the United States. He’s also called for a “Muslim ban.”
On Monday, Trump had condemned neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan by name for inciting the violence in Virginia where a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. By Tuesday, he flipped the script, returning to his initial response from Saturday, to say there are “very fine people on both sides.” That set off a frenzy of GOP leaders blasting him for buoying white nationalists.
Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, tweeted a response suggesting that the two sides are “not the same.”
“One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes,” he wrote.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. John McCain, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham all joined in strongly condemning Trump and distancing themselves from his statements.
David Magleby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said it is time for more, most or even all Republicans to step away from the president after his “unacceptable behavior.”
“The president is out of touch with his party and with most of America,” said Magleby, who taught at the University of Virginia early in his career.
Condemning Nazis is an easy, nonpartisan move, the professor added, while disagreeing with Trump can be much bolder and tougher. Utah Rep. Mia Love was the only House member from Utah to mention the president in response to the violence, though she tiptoed around directly commenting on his remarks.
“When I heard about what was happening in Charlottesville, I knew how I felt,” she said in a statement. “I didn’t have to wait for a president to tell me how to respond. Racism of any kind is wrong and should be condemned, whether it’s from extremists, white supremacists or hate groups of any kind.”
Love, the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, also spoke in Salt Lake City on Monday night at a rally opposing the racism in Charlottesville. She said “hatred is taught” and shared her own experience facing bigotry.
Neither Lee nor Love voted for Trump in the 2016 election and both have had an uneasy posture toward the president, disagreeing, at times, with his rhetoric and policy positions.
Both Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop blasted the violence but did not criticize the president. Stewart said he was “distraught” by the rallies and urged “let us not mince words.” Bishop called the hatred on display “unAmerican and inexcusable.”
“I denounce violence of any kind,” Bishop added in a statement, “and call on parents to teach their children that racism and bigotry are loathsome practices.”