Vice President Pence on Wednesday declined to denounce or distance himself from President Trump's controversial remarks the day before that "there's blame on both sides" for recent violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., between white supremacist groups and counterprotesters.
"What happened in Charlottesville was a tragedy, and the president has been clear on this tragedy and so have I," Pence told reporters in Chile. "I spoke at length about this horrible situation in Colombia, and I stand with the president and I stand by those words."
Pence was asked specifically about Trump's about-face on Tuesday, in which he not only assessed blame for the violence equally between the white supremacist groups and the anti-racist counterprotesters, but also suggested that maybe removal of statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson was next because both Founding Fathers had owned slaves.
Instead, Pence pointed back to his previous statement on Sunday when he arrived in South America on a weeklong trip. The vice president said then that there was "no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK." It was a day later, on Monday, when Trump himself finally used those words after declining to do so in the immediate aftermath of the violence on Saturday. But then on Tuesday, the president backtracked and all but erased what had been an apparent effort by the White House to provide the kind of criticism of the racist groups that many in the country and some in the GOP had been calling for.
"The strength of the United States is always strongest, as the president has said so eloquently, when we are united around our shared values, and so it will always be," Pence said Wednesday, still not directly answering questions from the Washington Post political reporter Philip Rucker.
Pence also said his thoughts and prayers were with the family of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday after a man aligned with the neo-Nazi protesters rammed his car into a street of anti-racism, anti-fascist counterprotesters. Heyer's memorial service was held Wednesday. The suspect has been charged with second-degree murder, among other charges.
Pence was not the only leading Republican who refused to criticize Trump directly in the wake of the president's Tuesday remarks. Some top Republicans said they didn't stand with the neo-Nazi groups, white supremacists or the KKK — but also didn't single out the president by name. And no leading Republicans said they were no longer supporting Trump or called for larger repercussions.
Former conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes told NPR's Scott Horsley the response from many Republicans wasn't surprising given Trump's many other gaffes and controversies during the campaign — calling Mexicans rapists, mocking a handicapped reporter and even the vulgar Access Hollywood tape — that still didn't cause some to fully withdraw their blessing.
"Each and every time you had Republicans who made the decision that their ideological agenda was more important than holding Donald Trump accountable," Sykes said. "Given that track record, I guess I'm skeptical that this will be the turning point."
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