The White House scrambled on Sunday to deflect a growing political row over Donald Trump’s equivocal condemnation of violence at a white supremacy rally, insisting his statement included “neo-Nazis and all extremist groups”.
However, the fresh spin will do little to counter growing criticism that the president was trying to shield white nationalists who helped propel him to power.
A day earlier protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended in tragedy when a car ploughed into a group of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal.
She was among a group rallying against members of the Ku Klux Klan and other hard Right organisations who gathered in protest at the city’s decision to remove a statue commemorating Robert Lee, a storied Civil War general who fought on the Confederate side.
As the local mayor condemned her death as an act of “terrorism” and politicians of all sides denounced neo-Nazi thugs, Mr Trump chose instead to condemn violence which he said was caused by “many sides”.
“Hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now,” he said, taking time out from a working vacation at his New Jersey golf club. “We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and ... true affection for each other.”
His words provoked a wave of outrage. Critics said his vague wording appeared to suggest a moral equivalence between the actions of peaceful protesters and those of far-Right groups, some of whom flew Swastikas.
Meanwhile Neo-Nazi websites filled with comments applauding the statement.
“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together,” said one Trump supporter on the Daily Stormer website.
On Sunday morning, a White House spokesman tried to defuse the anger, saying: “The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred, and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups.
“He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
Charlottesville far-right protest
The words will do little to ease concerns that Mr Trump is quick to condemn violent jihadist groups as Islamic terrorists but reluctant to address the ideology behind home-grown, white extremists.
In contrast, Michael Signer, the mayor of Charlottesville, described Ms Heyer as the victim of “a terrorist attack with a car used as a weapon”.
He added that it was clear that blame lay with Mr Trump and a divisive election campaign that inflamed racial prejudices last year.
“I think they made a choice in that campaign,” he told NBC news. “A very regrettable one, to really go to people’s prejudices, to go to the gutter.”
Some of Mr Trump’s closest family and advisers went further than the president.
“There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis,” his daughter Ivanka wrote on Twitter.
1:2 There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) August 13, 2017
And HR McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, said the violence amounted to terrorism.
“Anytime that you commit an attack against people to incite fear, it is terrorism,” he said.
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and a staunch Trump supporter, was among those who said the president should single out the perpetrators.
“We reject the racism and violence of white nationalists like the ones acting out in Charlottesville,” he wrote. “Everyone in leadership must speak out.”
The bitter row is a reminder of the divisive legacy of the Civil War. Symbols such as the Confederate battle flag divide the nation between those who see it as a symbol of slavery and modern-day racism, and those who say removing it from public view denies its rightful place in history.
City authorities sent their condolences to the family of Ms Heyer.
“This senseless act of violence rips a hole in our collective hearts,” they said in a statement.
Her mother, in a message posted on a fundraising site, said: "She died doing what was right. My heart is broken, but I am forever proud of her."