It wasn’t difficult for any other living president in recent American history to decry the racism and violence displayed by the alt-right at Saturday’s white supremacy rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Their rejections were swift—their words were clear. Within the span of just a few days, former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush and his son George W. Bush each did what a commander in chief is tasked with during a national crisis; helping the country heal.
Related: Trump’s Victory Confirmed America Was Racist Long Before Charlottesville
But for President Donald Trump, mustering the courage and gall to call out the racist group for what it is seemed to be one of his hardest challenges yet. Experts tell Newsweek the sitting president’s inability to single out the alt-right in his several statements on the rallies consequently insinuate that hate and intolerance are “state-sanctioned” under the current administration.
“This is simply who Trump is,” Paul Harvey, professor and presidential teaching scholar at the University of Colorado tells Newsweek. “This is who he’s been the last six or seven years, so it shouldn’t be that surprising. Michelle Obama nailed it when she said the presidency doesn’t change you, it just reveals who you truly are.”
Trump delivered at least three sets of remarks on Charlottesville to reporters since Saturday. At first, the president declared there was violence “from many sides” during the rallies organized by neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, placing them in the same box as activists and other Americans rejecting their hate. He quickly walked back those statements by Monday after a wave of backlash, failing to address the alt-right but condemning neo-Nazis and the KKK in a prepared statement.
The next day, Trump was back to conflating the white supremacists with the counter protestors who came to the publicly permitted rally on Saturday to denounce their hate-filled motives.
“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” Trump said Tuesday. “You had a group on one side and group on the other and they came at each other with clubs – there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. You had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
“Not all those people were neo-Nazis, not all those people were white supremacists. Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee,” the president continued.
Each statement Trump made paled in comparison to those made by his predecessors—each of whom faced major tragedies during their times in office.
Obama’s message to the American people in the wake of Charlottesville came in the form of a Twitter thread, quoting Nelson Mandela and showing a picture from his presidency, greeting a group of multiracial children at a windowsill. His first tweet on the issue, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,” became the most-liked tweet in history on Wednesday morning. It was reflective of his message to the nation after racist Dylann Roof stormed a historically black church, killing nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, when the president sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for the slain South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Both Bush presidents released a joint-statement Wednesday, saying “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms.”
“As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights,” the two former presidents continued.
Clinton managed to reject the hatred seen at the weekend rallies, dubbed “Unite the Right,” while defending the first amendment in a statement delivered Saturday afternoon. “Even as we protect free speech and assembly, we must condemn hatred, violence and white supremacy,” Clinton said.
The only living president besides Trump who has yet to denounce the violence witnessed Saturday is 92-year-old former President Jimmy Carter. The Carter Center and the former president’s press secretary did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The White House also did not respond to requests for comment.
Even former Republican and Democratic presidential candidates swiftly denounced the violence and vitriol at Saturday’s events. Ohio Governor John Kasich railed on Trump in an interview with the Today Show Wednesday, telling hosts “this is terrible. The president of the United States needs to condemn these kind of hate groups.”
“The organizers of events which inspired & led to #charlottesvilleterroristattacks are 100% to blame,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted.
Hillary Clinton, who ran against Trump in the 2016 election and continues to face insults from the president nearly every week of his presidency, wrote in a statement that “the incitement of hatred that got us here is as real and condemnable as the white supremacists in our streets.”
“Every minute we allow this to persist through tacit encouragement or inaction is a disgrace, & corrosive to our values,” she continued. “Now is the time for leaders to be strong in their words & deliberate in their actions. We will not step backward. If this is not who we are as Americans, let’s prove it.”
“Trump’s got the threesome of [Steve] Bannon, [Stephen] Miller and [Sebastian] Gorka advising him,” Harvey says, describing how Trump’s key advisers may be pushing him to deflect from the alt-right. “But I don’t know how much any of them advised him on this. He clearly was completely imbued with this same ideology long before any of these guys were around, when Miller was back in college.”
“The comments Trump made Tuesday were most reflective of the views he holds on white supremacy.”
Those comments—when Trump refused to even say the term “alt-right” without claiming a reporter said it first, and questioned the media for not claiming the violence came from both sides—allowed white supremacist leaders Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannoppolous to gleefully suggest they now have an ally in the Oval Office.
“Thank you President Trump,” David Duke, a grand wizard of the KKK and avid Trump supporter, tweeted after the president’s press conference Tuesday, “for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
“He sounded like a Sunday school teacher,” Spencer said. “I just don’t take him seriously.… it sounded so hollow and vapid.”
The alt-right’s feeling of authentication from the White House will only lead to more violent rallies, the legal advocacy non-profit Southern Poverty Law Center tells Newsweek.
“Charlottesville is not the end of this; this is going to continue,” Lecia Brooks, the center’s director of outreach, said Monday. “This was just the most coordinated event to date.”
As hate crimes rates continue to soar across the U.S., set to break records during Trump’s first year in office, the need for a leader to curb hate-filled violence is more necessary than ever before. The president’s failure to do so leaves the nation in unchartered territory, with no clear indication of how—or when—the deep divisions seen over the weekend will dissipate.