After questioning the president’s “moral authority” in his response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott thinks Donald Trump now may understand how he could have handled the episode differently.
Time will tell, however, just how far Scott’s message resonated beyond the 40 minutes that the S.C. Republican spent Wednesday morning with Trump in the Oval Office.
“My comment on his compromised moral authority was based on America’s reaction” to his rhetoric after the violence in Virginia, said Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican. “I think a restoration of moral authority will be based on America’s reaction, and that will take time.”
Scott told reporters there were no moments of tension during his meeting with fellow Republican Trump.
The S.C. lawmaker did say Trump “tried to explain what he was trying to convey” last month, when the president bemoaned violence on “many sides, many sides,” rather than pointedly condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who converged on the college town to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. A counter-protester died during the melee and two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash as they aided in the response.
“He simply was trying to convey … that there was an antagonist on the other side,” Scott said of Trump’s criticism of the counter-protesters.
“My response was, while that’s true – if you look at it from a sterile perspective, there was an antagonist on the other side – however, the real picture has nothing to do with who’s on the other side,” Scott continued. “It has to do with the affirmation of hate groups who over three centuries in this country’s history have made it their mission to create upheaval in minority communities as the reason for their existence.”
Scott said that while Trump mostly listened, he did express an understanding of the point the senator was trying to make.
“He shook his head and said, `Yeah, I got it,’ ” recalled the Charleston Republican.
Trump also cited other incidents involving racism and racial unrest in the United States over the past several months, comments that led Scott to believe the president was engaged. Scott also said Trump, who requested the meeting, stuck to the subject and did discuss other matters, “which was helpful.”
Scott was not the only Republican who criticized Trump’s response to the Charlottesville violence. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, also challenged the president to deliver a more decisive condemnation of the white supremacist instigators. Graham’s demand provoked a Twitter response from Trump.
“Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists,” Trump tweeted. “Such a disgusting lie. He can’t forget about his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!”
Graham told McClatchy Wednesday he had not spoken to Trump about their Charlottesville exchange but was glad Trump agreed to discuss the issue with Scott in a civil way.
“I think Tim has been terrific on Charlottesville, and I hope the president will listen because Tim will tell him from his heart about how Charlottesville came across,” said Graham.
Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., also said he was gratified Trump and Scott sat down together.
“Maybe he'll hear it better from Tim than he would from the Congressional Black Caucus,” Richmond said. “We have not been shy about our disappointment in his words and how we think he has mischaracterized history and then conflated arguments about monuments and other stuff. Maybe Sen. Scott can make some more headway because he’s a Republican.”
At her daily briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied Scott criticized Trump’s initial comments on Charlottesville.
“They talked about it pretty in-depth,” she said. “But the focus was primarily on solutions moving forward.”
Sanders — who attended the meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, deputy legislative affairs director Mary Elizabeth Taylor and Scott’s chief of staff Jennifer DeCasper — called the meeting constructive.
Sanders said Trump and Scott spoke about priorities for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Separately, Scott said Trump appeared amenable to the senator’s “Opportunity Agenda,” a slate of bills aimed at improving access to education and apprenticeships.
Scott’s response to Trump’s rhetoric about Charlottesville has resonated so strongly — perhaps more so than any other elected official’s response – because Scott, a black Republican, has made issues of race in America a major part of his portfolio as a U.S. senator.
After a rash of shootings of young men of color at the hands of police officers during the summer of 2016, Scott delivered a series of speeches on the floor of the Senate that recalled his upbringing in North Charleston and his ongoing confrontations with racial profiling even as a senator.
Deeply religious, Scott often has said he feels a “calling” to serve in the Senate, and speak out about race relations and what he refers to as the “American family.”
“I think some people limit my experience and my service, outside the state particularly, to being the face for the black conservative movement,” Scott said in an interview earlier this year. “It is a responsibility, a burden, an opportunity and an exciting concept. I’m not blind to issues of race and segregation, and, when it needs to be addressed, I am going to do what I can.”
Bill Douglas contributed