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Trump's Shift On Charlottesville Violence Is Unpresidential, Continetti Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's the message the White House intended to send yesterday at a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My administration is working every day to deliver the world-class infrastructure that our people deserve and, frankly, that our country deserves.

MARTIN: But when President Trump opened it up for reporter questions, the focus quickly shifted to clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters that happened over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that.

MARTIN: The president also defended those who were protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: Was George Washington a slave owner?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes, he was.

TRUMP: So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As you know...

TRUMP: Excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Symbols of the Confederacy...

TRUMP: Are we going to take down - are we going to take down statues to George...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Symbols of the Confederacy are very...

TRUMP: How about Thomas Jefferson?

MARTIN: Matthew Continetti has been following all this. He's the editor of the conservative Washington Free Beacon paper. Thanks so much for being in here, Matt.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What did you make of the president's news conference yesterday?

CONTINETTI: Well, I thought, in a presidency of low points, this was the latest on the Donald Trump limbo game. Clearly, the president was unpresidential in his remarks and clearly revealed his actual position on what transpired in Charlottesville, which was this idea of a moral equivalence at a time when, really, that's totally, you know, not only wrong but inimical to any type of progress.

MARTIN: You say that this revealed his true feelings. I mean, one of the things that was so stark about this is that he had delivered these remarks on Saturday that were pretty tepid - didn't name specifically the KKK, neo-Nazis, those groups, then clearly felt pressure to do so - did so on Monday, scripted remarks and then he just totally reversed himself and went back to the original remarks. I mean, was he changing for different audiences?

CONTINETTI: I think a few things are happening. One is - if you recall, prior to the press conference, the president retweeted one of these alt-right figures and also tweeted and then deleted an image of the Trump train running down fake news CNN. And so it's clear by yesterday morning anyway that the president was extremely frustrated and angry at the response to his initial statement and then to the response to his second statement, which was also negative - or at least the opinion on it was split.

And so it wasn't that surprising that when the floor opened for questions, he would then, as he often does, veer off into whatever is foremost in his mind, which, in this case, was how he felt badly treated by the media over his initial response. It was just shocking because that's not how a president behaves (laughter). And so the - it wasn't only the content of his remarks but it was the manner in which he was engaging...

MARTIN: Delivering them, yes.

CONTINETTI: ...With the press, you know, yelling back and forth. Now, some in the press were also interrupting him. But nonetheless, it was just kind of a sorry display of the highest office in the land.

MARTIN: What does this mean for his relationship with Congress because members of his own party - leadership in his own party have spoken out against his response. Even Paul Ryan, who doesn't usually criticize the president, tweeted yesterday. White supremacy is repulsive, he writes. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for.

He didn't mention the president by name, but it was clear the implication. Is all this going to make it more difficult for the president to push through his legislative agenda?

CONTINETTI: Oh, yes. I think so. I mean, Republicans are in a bind in the sense that they disapprove - many of them disapprove of what the president says or certainly sometimes his erratic behavior. But they often agree with some of the policies that the president is trying to implement.

MARTIN: They still think that trade-off is worth it, apparently.

CONTINETTI: Well, you know, I think it may be getting to the point where it's getting just difficult because the idea of even implementing the policies is now kind of almost a mirage. I mean, we're going to return from the August recess in a few weeks. We'll have a few more months. And really, not much gets done in the election year that's coming up.

And, you know, really the window for legislative opportunities is closing. And when you combine that with the strained relations the president has - I mean, remember what happened last week with the president going after the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (laughter)...

MARTIN: By name.

CONTINETTI: ...Whose wife was standing next to Donald Trump...

MARTIN: Elaine Chao in the Cabinet, standing next to the president during his remarks.

CONTINETTI: ...During the debacle yesterday. So it just - the picture one gets of Washington is of incredible dysfunction and irresponsibility.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, there have been a lot of hopes pinned on retired General John Kelly coming in as the new chief of staff. He was supposed to rein in the drama. He said it was his job to manage the staff not the president. But you had to wonder what was going through his head yesterday. Does this mean he doesn't have the kind of power he wants there?

CONTINETTI: Well, I think, clearly, by some of his body language - if you were watching the press conference, he seemed kind of disappointed in what was transpiring. However, I think you, Rachel, hit on the important distinction. Kelly sees his job as managing the staff not the president. And it seems like no one can manage the president of the United States.

MARTIN: Matt Continetti - he's the editor of the Washington Free Beacon. Thanks so much.

CONTINETTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.