Updated at 9:11 a.m. | Accusing Sen. Lindsey Graham of a “disgusting lie,” Donald Trump warned the South Carolina Republican voters will punish him for criticizing the president’s response to the racially tinged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Graham in a Wednesday statement said Trump, during an impromptu press conference Tuesday, “took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally and people like Ms. [Heather] Heyer,” referring to the young woman killed in a car attack by a Nazi sympathizer.
Trump hit back on Twitter on Thursday morning, calling the senator “Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham” and saying Graham “falsely stated” Trump said there is a moral equivalency between groups like the Klu Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists on one side and counter-protesters like Heyer on the other.
The president dubbed Graham’s statement “Such a disgusting lie.”
He then harkened back to the 2016 GOP presidential primary, in which he cruised to the party’s nomination while Graham never gained any traction. Graham “just can't forget his election trouncing,” Trump wrote, then writing what sounded like a threat: “The people of South Carolina will remember!”
Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
...and people like Ms. Heyer. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing.The people of South Carolina will remember!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
The president does appear to have a point — he never explicitly said on Tuesday that he sees white supremacist groups and counter-protesters on the same moral level.
“I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane,” Trump said during a testy Q&A with reporters in the lobby of his Manhattan tower. “What I'm saying is this: You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch.
“But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left … that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that's the way it is.”
Graham fired back in a statement a few hours after Trump's tweets.
"Mr. President, like most I seek to move our nation, my state, and our party forward - toward the light - not back to the darkness. Your tweet honoring Miss Heyer was very nice and appropriate. Well done," Graham said.
"However, because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country," he said. "For the sake of our nation - as our president - please fix this. History is watching us all."
On Tuesday, Trump again criticized the pro-white groups that organized the deadly Saturday protest of a plan to take down a statue of Confederate military commander Robert E. Lee. But he also described them in nuanced ways that emitted a signal he wants to retain the support of many who agree with their views, while also attacking those who showed up to counter the pro-white groups’ racist messages.
A day after reading a statement from a Teleprompter at the White House in which he denounced the white supremacist groups, Trump repeatedly praised what he contended were “very fine” white protesters.
“But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch,” the president said Tuesday, not explaining how he reached that conclusion. “Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue [of] Robert E. Lee.”
Blake Abbott, a Towson University communications professor who focuses on political rhetoric, said Trump’s Tuesday remarks were chock full of racial “dog whistles.”
“It was the type of statement that says: I am denouncing these groups without actually denouncing them,” Abbott said Wednesday. “What the president ends up doing is propping up groups that the vast amount of Americans had decided shouldn’t be propped up. Essentially, by trying - clumsily - to thread that needle, Trump is backing these groups.”
A laundry list of Republican lawmakers have criticized Trump’s Tuesday comments — though many, unlike Graham, avoided using the president’s name in tweets and statements.