For Susan Bro, mother of the woman killed at a rally organized by white supremacists, the president of the United States can offer no healing words.
She says the White House repeatedly tried to reach out to her on Wednesday, the day of Heather Heyer’s funeral. But she’s since watched President Donald Trump lay blame for the Charlottesville violence on “both sides.”
“You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying ‘I’m sorry,'” she said in a television interview on Friday.
In moments like this, of national crisis or tragedy, presidents typically shed their political skin, at least briefly. They use the broad appeal of the presidency to unite and soothe, urging citizens to remember their humanity, their common bonds as Americans.
George W. Bush famously climbed atop a pile of rubble in New York City to speak through a bullhorn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy for a black pastor killed in a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
Like no other president in recent history, Trump has struggled with this part of his duties.
He talks about politics at odd moments – reminding Boy Scouts and Coast Guard graduates alike that he won the election and the media are out to get him – and has continued speaking to his core supporters with less effort to appeal to the rest of the country. The harsh language that turned off those who voted against him last year hasn’t abated during his seven months in the White House, part of the reason his approval rating is locked in the 30s.
Trump’s words on Charlottesville “caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn,” the 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney wrote on Facebook on Friday.
With CEOs fleeing after Trump’s comments, he disbanded White House business councils. The entire membership of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned. On Friday, numerous charities were following the Cleveland Clinic in pulling business from his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. And some Republican lawmakers who had hoped to work with Trump lambasted him – Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said Thursday the president has not shown he knows “the character of the nation.”
With many in his party and his White House reeling after the Charlottesville crisis, the president traveled from his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club to Camp David for a national security meeting on Friday. For a second day, Trump had no public appearances planned.
Once again, Trump left it to his Twitter feed to show his mindset: On Thursday, he defended Confederate monuments and offered support to allies in Spain after terror attacks. Then he appeared to revive a grisly, debunked tale about a U.S. general’s brutal killing of Muslims. His Friday messages included the need for strong national security and retweets from a conservative talk show host who reassured him that supporters weren’t deserting him.
Trump has expressed no regrets about his Tuesday press conference that enraged many Americans and prompted Bro’s comments on Friday. Senior strategist Steve Bannon was one of the few to publicly support Trump’s comments as politically savvy. A divisive figure who shares Trump’s “America first” instincts, Bannon lost his job on Friday.
The White House isn’t saying whether Trump plans to travel to Charlottesville at any point.
Some in his Cabinet have tried to step into what are normally presidential shoes. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that racism is “evil” and that “hate is not an American value.”
An early example in his presidency showed how divisive he is – and why even in the most somber moments it can be difficult for him to effectively reach out.
He and his daughter Ivanka Trump quietly traveled Feb. 1 to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the return of the remains of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed during a raid in Yemen, William “Ryan” Owens. But the grieving family members had mixed feelings.
“I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him,” the sailor’s father, Bill Owens, later told The Miami Herald.
But at the end of the month, Ryan Owens’ widow, Carryn, attended Trump’s address to Congress and wept as the president thanked her and said, “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.”
Trump has shown his softer side at times. He explained that he had ordered a missile strike in Syria in part because of the images – “innocent babies, little babies” – he’d seen of the aftermath of a chemical attack that the U.S. concluded was the work of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, Trump tenderly listened as a 6-year-old dressed in a tiny replica of a Marine uniform talked about his father, who’d died in a training accident when the boy was a baby.
And Trump has befriended Jamiel Shaw, whose namesake son was murdered by a man in the country illegally.
As president-elect, Trump traveled to Ohio State University 10 days after a man plowed his car into a crowd of people and then began stabbing some of them. The violence left about 13 people injured, and a campus police officer fatally shot the attacker.
Trump met privately with the officer and some of the victims. One of them, Marc Coons, who didn’t vote for Trump, was apprehensive about going – worried Trump might focus on the attacker, a Somali refugee.
“He didn’t say anything mean, and I give him credit for that,” the 30-year-old said. Coons was slashed near one of his shoulders but has recovered. One moment that sticks with him, he said, was Trump asking whether he had been “carred or knifed” just before they took a photo together.
“It struck me as a bit insensitive,” Coons said. “I just ignored it.”
Soothing the nation? Trump struggles like no other president. Like no other president in recent history, Trump has struggled to shoot the nation in tragedy.