By Michael D. Shear, Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman
President Donald Trump found himself increasingly isolated in a racial crisis of his own making on Wednesday, abandoned by the nation’s top business executives, contradicted by military leaders and shunned by Republicans outraged by his defense of white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The breach with the business community was the most striking. Titans of American industry and finance revolted against a man they had seen as one of their own, concluding Wednesday morning they could no longer serve on two of Trump’s advisory panels.
But before Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chief executive of the Blackstone Group and one of Trump’s closest business confidants, could announce a decision to disband Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum – in a prepared statement calling “intolerance, racism and violence” an “affront to core American values” – the president undercut him and did it himself, in a tweet.
“Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both,” Trump wrote. “Thank you all!”
The condemnation descended on the president a day after he told reporters in a defiant news conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan that “alt-left” demonstrators were just as responsible for the violence in Charlottesville last weekend as the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who instigated protests that led to the death of a 32-year-old woman, struck down by a car driven by a right-wing activist.
All five armed services chiefs – of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines and the National Guard Bureau – posted statements on social media condemning neo-Nazis and racism in uncompromising terms. They did not mention Trump by name, but their messages were a highly unusual counter to the commander in chief.
Republicans, too, issued new denunciations of the hatred on display in Charlottesville, although some remained vague about Trump’s remarks.
Vice President Mike Pence abruptly cut short a trip in South America as his aides announced he would return home early to attend meetings on Friday and through the weekend at Camp David.
The White House insisted that the topic of the meetings would be South Asia. During his travels, Pence stood by the president but declined to defend Trump’s comments at Trump Tower on Tuesday that “both sides” in Charlottesville were to blame.
In a tweet on Wednesday night, Trump urged supporters to “join me” at a campaign rally scheduled for Aug. 22 in Phoenix. But the Phoenix mayor, Greg Stanton, said in his own tweet that he was “disappointed” that the president would hold a political event “as our nation is still healing from the tragic events in Charlottesville.” He urged Trump to delay the visit.
The president’s top advisers described themselves as stunned, despondent and numb. Several said they were unable to see how Trump’s presidency could recover, and others expressed doubts about his capacity to do the job.
In contrast, the president told close aides that he felt liberated by his news conference. Aides said he seemed to bask afterward in his remarks, and viewed them as the latest retort to the political establishment that he sees as trying to tame his impulses.
Trump’s venting on Tuesday came despite pleas from his staff, including his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Instead of taking their advice to stop talking about the protest, the president eagerly unburdened himself of what he viewed as political correctness in favor of a take-no-prisoners attack on the “alt-left.”
On Wednesday, even Fox News, a favorite of the president’s, repeatedly carried criticism of Trump. One Fox host, Shepard Smith, said that he had been unable to find a single Republican to come on-air to defend Trump’s remarks.
No one from the president’s team has yet to resign in protest, but some spoke candidly on Wednesday about whether they could continue to work much longer for a man who has expressed such sentiments. Most incensed among Trump’s top advisers, according to three people familiar with the situation, was Gary D. Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, who told people around him that he was offended, as a Jew and as an American, by the president’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville.
The relationship between the president and Cohn, who stood next to Trump during the news conference, seems to have suffered a serious blow. Although White House aides denied that he was planning to quit, they acknowledged that Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive, was upset with the president’s lack of discipline.
One aide who felt energized by the president’s actions was the embattled White House chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who shares Trump’s anger at the efforts of local governments to remove monuments honoring prominent Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee. The proposed removal of a Lee statue on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville spurred the demonstrations last weekend.
Bannon, whose future in the White House remains uncertain, has been encouraging Trump to remain defiant. Two White House officials who have been trying to moderate the president’s position suggested that Bannon was using the crisis as a way to get back in the good graces of the president, who has soured on Bannon’s internal machinations and reputation for leaking stories about West Wing rivals to conservative news media outlets.
Many in the White House said they still held on to the hope, however slim, that the new White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, could impose order on the disarray even as Trump hopscotches from one self-destructive episode to the next.
Kelly, who watched the president’s performance on Tuesday with his head hung low, grimacing at some of Trump’s remarks, is frustrated, according to people inside the White House.
Several people who participated in White House conference calls over the weekend said the chief of staff initially did not seem to fully grasp the effect of the controversy about the president’s remarks. But as a former Marine, Kelly is determined to try to bring order to the White House, the officials said.
The White House turmoil intensified as friends and relatives gathered to memorialize Heather Heyer, woman who was struck and killed on Saturday. Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, told worshippers that her daughter had been protesting hatred by the nationalist groups when she was killed by one of them.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her,” Bro said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, denounced “hate and bigotry” in a statement on Wednesday but made no mention of Trump or his comments – an example of the careful line that some Republican officials are treading as they hope to work with the president on a conservative agenda in the months to come.
Leaders of the Republican Jewish Coalition were more direct, calling on Trump to “provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.” They added: “There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan. Thankfully, in modern America, the KKK and Nazis are small fringe groups that have never been welcome in the GOP.”
David Shulkin, the secretary of veterans affairs, delivered an emotional statement to reporters on Wednesday at Trump’s private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where the president is vacationing. Treading carefully without chiding Trump, Shulkin said: “Well, I’m speaking out, and I’m giving my personal opinions as an American and as a Jewish American. And for me in particular, I think in learning history, that we know that staying silent on these issues is simply not acceptable.”
Paraphrasing famous words from Martin Niemoller, a German pastor and a vocal critic of Adolf Hitler, Shulkin said, “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I wasn’t a trade unionist, so I didn’t speak out. Then they came for the Jews. I wasn’t a Jew so I didn’t speak out. Then they came for me, and there was no one to speak for me.”