President Trump on Tuesday reignited the controversy over his reaction to a Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally, opening the widest gulf between himself and Republican elected officials since the "Access Hollywood" tape nearly derailed his campaign last year.
A debate that started over Robert E. Lee and Civil War memorials now finds Trump dealing with an insurrection of his own.
"I don't understand what's so hard about this," said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "White supremacists and neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended."
"The president should have immediately denounced the racism, the bigotry, the hatred that he saw in Charlottesville. The president should have done that immediately," said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. "And what he did today again goes back on what he said yesterday and that's unacceptable. The president was wrong to do that."
Between the two of them, they represent the campaign arms of the House and Senate GOP, respectively. They joined House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona in a long list of current and former GOP elected officials who rebuked Trump.
The president first touched off a firestorm of criticism when he responded to violent protests in which a woman died by blaming "many sides" and failing to condemn the various racist groups that participated in the event by name. Then on Monday, Trump read a prepared statement at the White House in which denounced racism as evil and specifically called out neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacists.
"Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America," Trump declared. He left the podium without taking any questions.
Trump repealed that careful statement Tuesday and replaced it with an angry, impromptu exchange with reporters at what was supposed to be an event highlighting his commitment to rebuilding the nation's infrastructure. In that testy back-and-forth, Trump returned to the "both sides" formulation that was so widely criticized over the weekend.
"And you had, you had a group on one side that was bad," Trump said. "And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent." He asked reporters if the "alt-left" bore "any semblance of guilt."
Talking points later distributed by the White House emphasized that Trump did not back down from his denunciation of "hate groups fueled by bigotry and racism" just because he also mentioned violence by left-wing groups.
But racist leaders, including David Duke, took a victory lap thanking Trump for "defending the truth." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted that white supremacists would see being assigned only 50 percent of the blame as a win.
Outraged Republicans protested that Trump was treating the racists and counterprotesters as morally equivalent, while detractors across the political spectrum said he was echoing the defenses offered by the alt-right.
"Trump needs to learn when to shut up. He once again brought a bad story back to life because he can't take any criticism whatsoever," said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity to discuss the president candidly. "This continued behavior is going to take down his presidency and probably a fair amount of good Republicans with it."
"In the midst of a terrorist attack, every other president would be uniting the country and watching his poll numbers rise," said a Republican operative working on House races. "But now, we're having an extended debate about white supremacy. It's mind-boggling."
Trump's chronic defensiveness in the face of racially charged controversies, ranging from an interview in which he hesitated to disavow Duke during the campaign to his ethnically based criticism of a Hispanic judge presiding over the Trump University lawsuit, has long perplexed Republicans. Some of them hoped he would outgrow the "birther" crusade against former President Obama that first bonded him with some grassroots conservatives and speak to a broader constituency.
"At this point it's not about party or harm to the brand," Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told the Washington Examiner. "It's about basic decency. I don't think he's a racist but failing to provide moral clarity in what happened last weekend is something our country cannot afford."
"We're too divided," Holmes added. "Too much distrust. Too much anger. You don't need to be right when you're president. You need to heal the nation and help everyone walk forward past our collective failures as a society and improve. Clearly, that's not happening here."
Some Republicans also argued that Trump's reticence was also self-defeating, since he usually ends up ultimately chastising racists anyway. "Why not just do it to start with?" asked a GOP consultant. "Why not give Monday's statement on Saturday and never look back?"
Republicans who have opposed Trump from the beginning, in some cases refusing to support him even after he won the nomination, contend that having the titular head of the party of Lincoln defending symbols of the Confederacy was precisely what they wanted to avoid.
The Charlottesville controversy has ripped open old wounds that neither the November election results nor the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch never completely healed.
But the president's most passionate defenders insist he is right to condemn violent left-wing protesters, saying that "Antifa" is a clear and present danger to all conservatives, not just the "alt-right."
"Nearly the entire quisling ‘conservative' media immediately caved to the B.S. left-wing media narrative on Charlottesville," tweeted conservative columnist Ann Coulter. "NOT TRUMP!"
Others pointed to liberal pronouncements treating ordinary conservatives and racists, even Nazis, as one and the same, suggesting fatigue over such characterizations might have played a role in Trump's rise by leading the Republican primary electorate to tune out racially charged controversies.
Trump's Republican critics fear this indifference plus the president's bluster could damage the party in the long run.
"Just because Trump was able to leverage a plurality of votes into hijacking the GOP doesn't mean he cares about it when he's gone," Republican campaign veteran Doug Heye told the Washington Examiner.
David M. Drucker contributed to this report.