McAuliffe emerges from Charlottesville crisis as a counterbalance to Trump

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The Virginia governor, who may run for president in 2020, says Trump failed to lead

On the day that white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed violently over a Confederate statue in his state, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe spoke the words that President Trump would not.

“I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Our message is plain and simple: Go home. . . . There is no place for you here, there is no place for you in America,” a stricken-looking McAuliffe said on national television.

As images of mayhem from Charlottesville were beamed continuously around the world, President Trump gave his now much-criticized condemnation of “hatred violence and bigotry on many sides, on many sides” — an equivocation he repeated days later, to the dismay of Republicans and Democrats alike.

The bigotry and bloodshed that consumed Charlottesville was McAuliffe’s first national crisis, one that unfolded as he is getting ready to leave office. It tested McAuliffe’s ability to keep order while it threatened his work to rebrand the one-time capital of the Confederacy as an inclusive, multicultural state.

Charlottesville also vaulted McAuliffe into the national spotlight like nothing else in his nearly four years in the governor’s mansion, coming just as the term-limited, 60-year-old Democrat is considering life after January — including whether to make a 2020 bid to challenge Trump for the presidency.

In the days since Charlottesville, the governor’s initially conciliatory tone toward Trump has dissolved into sharp criticism, projected now from a national platform.

McAuliffe has faulted Trump for failing to show “real leadership” in the aftermath of the violence and for lacking the ability to heal the nation as presidents are expected to do. He has subtly suggested that the president’s political rhetoric has fed social unrest. This week, McAuliffe opened up a new front, lambasting Trump’s proposed budget as damaging to the Virginia economy.

Through it all, McAuliffe has talked about the need to understand the causes of white nationalism and to help Americans find a stronger sense of unity.

“That was not real leadership what I saw,” McAuliffe said, referring to Trump during an interview with “CBS This Morning.” “I went out and did it myself.”

Calling it the most difficult task he’s ever faced, McAuliffe went on live television hours after cascading tragedies on Aug. 12: the melee in the streets of Charlottesville, a car that rammed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, and a helicopter crash that killed two state troopers who had been responding to the unrest.

The vitriol spewed on the streets of Charlottesville shocked McAuliffe. “I just couldn’t believe what I heard these people say to other human beings,” he said.

As he was about to speak, McAuliffe was reeling from the news of the dead troopers, both of whom he knew well. But he kept that part to himself because he didn’t want their families first learning about it on TV.

“It was hard, I had just been told minutes before that two of my friends had been killed — but I knew I was speaking to Virginia, I knew I was speaking to the nation, and I felt I was speaking to the world,” he told The Washington Post.

He had harsh words on the air for the white supremacists but then pivoted.

“And if I could give you a piece of advice: Use your time and energy to help people,” said McAuliffe, who spoke without notes. “Come with me to a homeless shelter. Come with me to help a veteran find a job or place to live. That’s what we need help on. To bring people together.”

The next day, McAuliffe turned down invitations to appear on the Sunday talk shows, and instead went to church services in Charlottesville. “I knew that if I’d gone on a bunch of TV that people could say – which I didn’t want – ‘He’s making it political.’ Because it isn’t about politics.”

A new poll released Tuesday by MassINC shows just 30 percent of Virginia voters approved of Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville events, while 56 percent disapproved. By contrast, 41 percent approved of McAuliffe’s approach while 27 percent disapproved.

McAuliffe, who once believed Confederate monuments should be left alone but now says they ought to be removed from public spaces, said the nation is facing a challenge that goes beyond bronze figures.

“It’s not just about monuments,” McAuliffe told CBS. “This was a big issue that happened to this country on Saturday. These people who came to Charlottesville, the neo-Nazis, the alt-right. They weren’t here about a statue. . . . There was hatred, there was bigotry that has been unleashed in this country, and we need to understand how it’s happened and, most importantly, what we can do to move forward as a nation.”

On Monday, during a budget address with Republican leaders of the state legislature, McAuliffe interrupted his remarks about finances to launch an extended attack on the Trump administration.

“The president’s recent budget proposal will cause irreparable harm to Virginians and the new Virginia economy we’ve worked so hard to build,” said McAuliffe, who had opened his address with a moment of silence for the woman and two state troopers killed during the Charlottesville protests. “And while most of the country and national media are engrossed in the sideshow of ritual firings and late-night tweets, we are facing real impacts down the line that will hurt families from Abingdon to Arlington.”

Republicans sat stone-faced.

“Let’s face it, the governor’s looking to higher national office,” said House Speaker-designee Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said later. “It’s interesting that you would spend the first 10 minutes bashing the president.”

Some say the man America knows mostly as a back-slapping pal of Bill and Hillary Clinton — someone who makes fun of himself as an unlikely successor to Virginia governors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson — emerged from Charlottesville with new gravitas.

“Governor McAuliffe’s response just clearly cut through all the murky lines and just cut right to the point . . . particularly coming on the heels of what we got from the leader of the free world,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau.

Even some Republicans said McAuliffe’s handling of Charlottesville could boost his stature, although most were wary of going on the record with any compliments, even the back-handed variety.

“Terry McAuliffe on national TV at a black church the day after a Nazi rally is a much different look than Terry McAuliffe on late-night TV in a Hawaiian shirt with a bottle of Jose Cuervo,” said one GOP insider, referring to one of his more colorful appearances, after the 2008 Puerto Rico presidential primary.

Still, there has been a lot of second-guessing of tactics by the Charlottesville police — and the state police and National Guard who provided backup — especially since a rally in Boston on Saturday was largely peaceful.

Some law enforcement experts have said authorities in Virginia waited too long to wade into the conflict in Charlottesville, and should have done a better job of keeping opposing sides apart.

McAuliffe has defended the police response, saying that while many of the white supremacists were armed, the only death directly related to the protest occurred when a Dodge Challenger rammed into a crowd, killing Heyer.

He has also placed some responsibility on the American Civil Liberties Union, for helping rally organizers defeat the city’s effort to move the protest to a larger park where authorities would have had greater crowd control.

The executive director of the Virginia ACLU turned the blame back on authorities, saying she warned state officials that police were not doing enough to physically separate the white supremacists from counterprotesters and should never have allowed sticks, poles and other tools that were turned into weapons.

Few Republicans have wanted to criticize the police response to Charlottesville, particularly after two state troopers who were recording the unrest from the air died when their helicopter crashed hours after Heyer was mowed down.

But Jim Gilmore, a Republican who was governor during the 9/11 Pentagon attack, called the response to Charlottesville inadequate and faulted McAuliffe. Gilmore called for an independent review instead of the in-house audit McAuliffe ordered.

“When you’re the chief executive either of the country or the state, then you have to be prepared to meet a crisis or a challenge as it develops,” he said. “There seems to be an effort to shift the blame.”

It’s too soon to know if Charlottesville will have a lasting impact on McAuliffe’s legacy or political prospects. That will become more clear after the shock subsides and the official response gets scrutinized, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said.

“Politicians almost always get the initial reaction correctly because it’s so obvious,” he said. “You decry violence. You identify the people who are wrong. You express sympathy for the people who are hurt or, in this case, killed. You talk about bringing the country together. All that is easy. Then the second guessing starts.”

Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist, said Charlottesville gave McAuliffe “a national exposure that he would not have obtained if it had not been the focus of the country for a week. . . . Governor McAuliffe clearly looked more like a leader than President Trump did in the wake of this incident.”

“Trump’s inconsistent messaging and equivocal response to hate represented really poor political instincts,” Farnsworth said.

“I think that one of the positive messages the governor put forward was this idea that people’s energies are better spent building better communities than dividing them,” Farnsworth said. “It may very well be a message that voters are ready to hear in 2018 and 2020. Further, it’s a powerful contrast to the consistently divisive approach that President Trump employed. . . . It was in a moment when there was an awful lot of negative commentary being discussed. The governor offered a positive suggestion, one that may not have been taken by the participants but one that speaks to a better America.”

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