President Donald Trump has adjusted his rhetoric on the fatal white supremacist attacks. Credit: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

After President Donald Trump on Saturday issued a tepid denunciation of white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, the backlash was swift.

“My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home,” Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch tweeted.

“(Trump) missed an opportunity to be very explicit here,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) told Fox News on Sunday. “These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House.”

That was just from members of his own party. Among Democrats, the critiques ranged from irate to acid-dipped.

“Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists & terrorists who showed up in Charlottesville. Is he sending a signal? Everyone must be careful,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California.

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality,” tweeted Sen. Cory Booker, (D-N.J.).

Trump has since adjusted his rhetoric on the rally, stating on Monday 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 all that we hold dear as a nation.”

But critics, including Waters, have pointed out that the president’s words are a smokescreen: His inner circle is a clearer barometer of priorities and positions. And as we’ve reported over the past year, that inner circle is stacked with people who doubt or deny the existence of white supremacy in the U.S.

Take Sebastian Gorka. When Reveal host Al Letson sat down with the president’s deputy assistant in March, Gorka dismissed the idea that racial disparities are a result of systematic oppression. Instead, he said Democrats have spent decades marginalizing black communities.

“What have they done for them? Nothing,” Gorka said. “They’ve created a dependency culture that undermines the fabric of those communities.”

Roger Stone, a former campaign adviser to Trump, echoed this sentiment (and turned the volume up) in a July episode.

“There are no white supremacists, my friend!” he said. “This is a tiny microcosm of the United States.”

“The whole notion that there is some giant constituency of white supremacists in the country is a joke,” he continued.

But when confronted about tweets in which Stone called African American CNN contributor Roland Martin “a stupid Negro” and a “token buffoon,” he attempted to change the subject.

Then there’s Richard Spencer, an unabashed white nationalist who regularly advocates for the creation of a whites-only ethnostate. Spencer made headlines last year when he issued a Nazism-tinged Trump endorsement. He was scheduled to speak in Charlottesville until a rash of racist violence broke out, ending the rally.

Letson has spoken at length with Spencer twice: Once directly following the election, and once following revelations that Spencer’s personal wealth comes from cotton farms in the South and the federal government – the same government he so abhors.

Byard Duncan is a reporter and producer for  engagement and collaborations for Reveal. He manages Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal investigations in their communities. He also helps lead audience engagement initiatives around Reveal’s stories and assists local reporters in elevating their work to a national platform. In addition to Reveal, Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The California Sunday Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. He was part of Reveal’s Behind the Smiles project team, which was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a National Headliner Award, an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, and two first-place awards for feature storytelling from the Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West. Duncan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.