As events in Charlottesville, Va., unfolded Saturday, political leaders used Twitter to respond to the violent confrontations that began Friday night — at a “Unite the Right” rally that pitted members of the alt-right, Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups against anti-racism counter-protesters — and turned deadly the next afternoon when a car plowed into a group of pedestrians.
Republican officials, from the president to members of the House and Senate, went online to speak out against bigotry and violence — with President Trump coming under criticism from some members of his own party for not speaking out forcefully enough.
While the president remained silent on the white nationalist march across the University of Virginia campus Friday night, he reacted to the street brawls, fist fights and homemade pepper spray attacks of the next day in a broadly-worded tweet Saturday afternoon.
“There is no place for this kind of violence in America,” Trump said, “Lets come together as one!”
Others weighing in included Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading Sunday on a six-day trip through Central and South America. “U.S is greatest when we join together & oppose those seeking to divide us. #Charlottesville,” Pence tweeted.
The first official statement on Charlottesville came out of the East Wing of the White House, however. First lady Melania Trump tweeted nearly an hour before the president or vice president on Saturday. “…[L]et’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville,” she tweeted.
But the president’s initial response quickly appeared outdated when a Dodge Charger plowed into pedestrians, killing one woman, and injuring at least nine others.
Just over an hour later, during televised remarks about a bill signing that had already been on his daily schedule, Trump addressed the intensifying situation in Charlottesville, which had been steadily covered on cable news outlets throughout the day.
But he did not specifically address the vehicular attack. And he did not condemn the white nationalist and white supremacist groups that had arrived to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, a hero of the Confederacy — and the president did not call out any of those groups by name. Instead, the president alluded to shared blame between protesters and counter-protesters for failing to maintain peace in Charlottesville.
“We condemn in the strongest most possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” Trump said.
As the afternoon progressed, some members of his own party began to call out the president for his generic remarks and to criticize him for not calling the vehicular attack a terrorist attack — like those that have occurred in recent years in European cities.
“Mr. President – we must call evil by its name,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., tweeted, “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” Gardner’s sentiments were echoed in tweets by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.; and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Late Saturday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, specifically called on Trump’s Justice Department “to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.”
Later on Saturday night, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a statement on the opening of a federal investigation into today’s incident in Charlottesville, Va. The statement said in part:
“The Richmond FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident that occurred earlier Saturday morning. The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence, and as this is an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment further at this time.”
Prominent Democrats also used Twitter to comment on the racially charged events and their deadly outcomes.
Invoking the torch-lit march of mostly young, white men through Charlottesville Friday night, House Democrats tweeted a photo of the Statue of Liberty with the message “The torch of liberty outshines darkness and hate.”
Onetime Trump rival Hillary Clinton unleashed a tweetstorm Saturday almost immediately after Trump’s televised remarks ended. “Now is the time for leaders to be strong in their words & deliberate in their actions,” Clinton said, adding “We will not step backward. If this is not who we are as Americans, let’s prove it.”
Riffing on Trump’s controversial “many sides” comment, former Vice President Joe Biden had a simple message: “There is only one side. #charlottesville”
Finally, former President Barack Obama weighed in Saturday evening, as the events of the day appeared to have calmed down both in Charlottesville and online. “‘No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,'” Obama tweeted, adding “‘People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love …'”
Obama attributed the quote, which he’d posted for his more than 90 million followers, to Nelson Mandela. It is reportedly from the South African leader’s 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.