WASHINGTON — A White House press conference Wednesday on new veterans education benefits was quickly overtaken by the ongoing controversy over the president’s stance on white power hate groups, leaving the Veterans Affairs secretary to defend the administration.
In a brief 10-minute question-and-answer session in Bedminster, New Jersey, David Shulkin — one of several prominent Jewish members of President Donald Trump’s leadership team — fielded only a single question on the new “Forever GI Bill” legislation signed into law Wednesday but faced multiple others on the violence in Virginia last weekend and Trump’s response.
Shulkin said he was saddened and disgusted by the hate groups demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. Extremists groups clashed with counter-protesters during a “Unite the Right” rally designed initially to protest the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces.
But participants at the rally displayed Nazi and racist paraphernalia, and chanted offensive slurs during the event. Two Virginia state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash responding to the violence caused by the event. In addition, a 32-year-old woman was killed when a Nazi sympathizer sped his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
“I am outraged by the behavior I’ve seen by the Nazis and white supremacists,” Shulkin told reporters. “I’m outraged by the use of violence, to put one’s ideals on others.
“I have the honor of representing this nation’s veterans. These are people who put their lives on the line to be able to support American ideals … It is a dishonor to our country’s veterans to allow the Nazis and white supremacists to go unchallenged. We have to all speak up as Americans.”
But Shulkin sidestepped questions about whether Trump has done enough on that issue.
On Saturday, in the immediate aftermath of the violence, Trump said that he condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” That drew a harsh response from critics who said the language seemed to equate counter-protesters’ views with hate groups’ rhetoric.
On Monday, Trump changed course, saying in a national address that “racism is evil” and “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
A day later, he appeared to change course again, saying the Charlottesville demonstrations “had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” He also said the counter-protesters “had a lot of bad people” as well.
When asked whether he felt comfortable with the president’s statements, Shulkin said Trump was “upset” and “outraged” by the extremists’ message.
“I don’t speak for the president. I think he has done a good job speaking for himself,” Shulkin said. “He has denounced bigotry and hatred, violence, Nazis and white supremacists.”
“I won’t critique the remarks. That’s your job in the press. I can tell you is how I feel, and I am completely outraged by (the hate groups’) behavior.”
Trump did not make any public comments on the controversy on Wednesday, but did appear in a closed photo opportunity with Shulkin to sign the GI Bill expansion legislation.
The $3 billion measure removes the expiration date for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, allows more reservists and Purple Heart recipients to qualify for tuition money, and restores benefits for veterans hurt by school shutdowns.
“Already, we’ve had 1.7 million individuals take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” Shulkin said. “We hope now that many more will.”