Republican strategists this week admitted that President Trump didn't have the best week on the divisive issue of race relations in America, but stopped short of saying Trump had done any permanent harm.
Trump faced criticism throughout the week for not immediately denouncing neo-Nazis and white supremacists after a violent rally in Charlottesville, Va. After condemning those groups, Trump then argued that there was violence on both sides of the protests, which led to more criticism that he was defending overtly racist groups.
Patrick Ruffini, a GOP strategist and co-founder of Echelon Insights, said Trump's exposed the divide on race that still exists in the U.S., and said it wasn't an optimal message for him to deliver from the office of the president. Ruffini said by that measure, Trump has fared worse than President Obama did on race.
"It does show how divided the electorate is on these issues, particularly along racial lines," Ruffini said. "That has not gotten better in the last couple of years, but I think certainly we've had these challenges with Ferguson and the Charleston shooting, where a lot of the same issues flared up, but at least at the time, the leadership of the country wasn't enflaming those tensions."
And though challenges with race relations aren't necessarily new, Ruffini said the president's response raises concerns.
"That is not a good role for the president to have," he said. "That somebody who is actively wading in on a wide, on a very contentious and divisive topic, when tragedies like this occur, normally there should be a unifying response from the White House, and we haven't seen that."
Also this week, Trump signaled his support for leaving Confederate-era monuments standing, after many elected officials renewed calls for them to come down in the wake of the events in Charlottesville.
"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments," Trump tweeted Thursday. "You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!"
Support for leaving Confederate-era statues is high, according to a new NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll, which found 62 percent of adults believe they should remain.
But another GOP strategist, John Feehery, downplayed Trump's apparent missteps, the GOP has struggled with race issues in recent years.
"This is probably not a high point [for race relations]. But Trump was accused throughout the campaign of being a racist. There are some racists that support him, and he hasn't done an effective job at condemning them," Feehery told the Washington Examiner. "He kind of muffed the David Duke stuff, his less-than-impressive denouncement of them. But I don't think he's a racist."
Feehery noted that Trump's comments mark a low point for the president regarding race relations. But he said the Republican Party, too, has battled accusations of worsening race relations, though Feehery conceded that both parties have played identify politics in their own specific ways.
"We're better off trying to find understanding and have better communications among the groups instead of trying to call everyone a racist," he said. "I think if you're a Republican, you're used to this. There's no group that's more into identity politics than the Democrats. It's a party built on identity politics. They get their juice by calling someone anti-Semitic, anti-Islam. If you're a Republican, you've seen this played before."