PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Some leading Rhode Island Republicans on Wednesday sought to distance themselves from President Trump’s explosive remarks about last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, as others defended him or kept silent.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”
As for the violence that broke out at what was billed as a “Unite the Right” rally, Trump said, “There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. … I think there’s blame on both sides.” But, he said, “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Former state Rep. Joe Trillo, who became synonymous with Trump in Rhode Island in 2016 as honorary chairman of his state campaign, was the most prominent local GOP leader to defend the president.
Trillo, who is exploring a run for Rhode Island governor in 2018, said Trump had “taken a strong stance” against hate groups such as the KKK, but was right to call out both sides for what happened in Charlottesville.
“I believe that he has condemned the neo-Nazis, he’s condemned the alt-right, and I support him in condemning those groups,” Trillo said. “I think he’s been very clear about it from day one.” But he suggested counter-demonstrators who showed up to protest the far-right groups gathered there were “looking for trouble.”
“I do think if you look at the left in this country, the progressive movement, I think it could be as bad as the super-conservative movement, which would be called the alt-right,” Trillo said.
Trillo rejected suggestions by Democratic Congressman Jim Langevin, among others, that Trump’s words have emboldened far-right groups. “I think these groups have been crazy from day one,” he said. “I don’t think Trump has added to their craziness. I really don’t believe that.”
Trillo added, “The problem is the left is never going to be happy with the way he does anything.”
One of Trillo’s rival candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, was less willing to defend Trump, recalling that she had “seen the worst of America” as a student at Kent State University in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“There should be a no tolerance policy for any and all hate groups. Period,” Morgan told Eyewitness News in an email. “President Trump should pick his words more carefully, because as president, every word he says has meaning.”
But, Morgan added, “I do not believe he is a man full of racism and hate as some in the media have alleged.”
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who was the Republican nominee for governor in 2014 and is planning to run again in 2018, issued a statement Wednesday that did not reference Trump but said, “Let there be no doubt – there is no justification for bigotry expressed by any white supremacist group.”
“As a minority, I’ve seen my share of subtle and not so subtle racism over the years,” Fung said. “It’s incumbent on those of us in the minority community to work harder, and by our consistent actions over months and years, truly change stereotypes. Hashtags and vigils are not enough.”
“We are looking towards leaders to make sense of the nonsensical and to give us reassurance that what was on display this past weekend isn’t who we really are as Americans,” he added. “Personally acting with kindness and empathy towards all of our neighbors is more powerful than any decree from hundreds of miles away.”
Among the two Republicans seeking to run against U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in 2018, state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo described himself as “very disappointed” in Trump for “assigning only partial fault to the white supremacists groups.”
“This was nothing more than a one-sided act of violence,” Nardolillo said.
Former R.I. Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Flanders, who is also considering a run against Whitehouse, had not responded to a request for comment at midday Wednesday.
Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell tweeted Tuesday night he “would be very disappointed if POTUS equivocated on his statement condemning these hateful bigots,” but did not render a judgement on whether Trump had done so. Bell described the actions of white supremacists in Virginia as “disgusting and unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, a lengthening list of Rhode Island Democrats issued statements criticizing the president’s comments, directly and indirectly.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, whose Cranston district voted strongly for Trump last November, said: “All of our leaders have a responsibility to speak with one common voice against bigotry, hatred and prejudice. A failure to denounce such actions in Charlottesville and elsewhere is an implied acceptance of this intolerable behavior.”
Bill Lynch, a special adviser to the Democratic Party, suggested local Republicans’ reactions had been insufficient. “Issuing statements condemning racism is not enough,” Lynch said. “Each one of them needs to answer a simple question: Were President Trump’s comments appropriate yesterday?”Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and FacebookKim Kalunian contributed to this report.