New York - Donald Trump found himself in the eye of a political storm Wednesday after his stunning remarks on the unrest in Charlottesville, which sparked unease within his own camp and could mark a turning point in his already chaotic presidency.
His assessment that there was "blame on both sides" for the deadly melee sparked a rare comment on current affairs from his two Republican predecessors, George Bush and George W. Bush, who called on Americans to "reject racial bigotry... in all its forms."
Without naming the 45th president, the 41st and 43rd leaders of the United States cited Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, in reminding Americans that all citizens are "created equal."
The violent fracas in the Virginia college town began Saturday when a rally by white supremacists over the removal of a Confederate statue turned violent, as they clashed with counter-protesters.
It ended in tragedy when a 20-year-old suspected Nazi sympathizer, James Fields, plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, leaving one woman dead and 19 others injured.
Trump's defiant statements on Tuesday, delivered in a caustic way at Trump Tower and immediately hailed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan for their "courage," left many lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, speechless.
The Republican billionaire seemed to have crossed a red line with his statements, just over 200 days into his presidency.
Many observers were left with the impression that the unscripted Trump of Tuesday was the real Trump - rather than the man who delivered a more measured statement from the White House on Monday in which he firmly denounced "racist violence." .
HE HAS TO FIX THIS
In a clear sign of embarrassment, Republican lawmakers did not line up to defend the real estate mogul-turned-president, as they have repeatedly done since he took office in January. Those who did speak criticised him.
"In Charlottesville, the blame lays squarely on the KKK and white supremacists," the leader of the Republican National Committee, Ronna Romney McDaniel, told ABC News.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a regular Trump critic, said many Republicans would "fight back against the idea that the party of Lincoln has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world." "He has to fix this and Republicans have to speak out. Plain and simple," Ohio governor John Kasich, who battled Trump for the Republican presidential nomination last year, told NBC's "Today" show.
David Axelrod, a former top aide to Barack Obama, said: "Why are we surprised that a @POTUS, who began his campaign with appeals to bigotry, would give comfort to bigots?" Trump's remarks - made at an impromptu press conference that was expected to focus on infrastructure reforms - put the white supremacists and counter-demonstrators on equal moral ground.
"I think there is blame on both sides," Trump said, as his new chief of staff, former Marine general John Kelly, stood rigidly near him and looked uncomfortable.
"You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now," Trump continued.
"What about the alt-left that came charging... at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? (...) There are two sides to a story." He also said there were "very fine people, on both sides." His remarks had led several top business executives to resign from White House advisory panels. On Wednesday, Trump simply dissolved the forums.
"Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!" he tweeted.
OBAMA TWEET MAKES HISTORY
Trump had suffered a first wave of indignation immediately after Saturday's events, when critics said his comments were too vague and did not go far enough to denounce neo-Nazis and KKK members at the Charlottesville rally.
Obama, his predecessor, had reacted by tweeting a quote from Nelson Mandela: "No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion." The tweet is now the most "liked" ever sent on the social network, Twitter said Wednesday.
In an editorial, The New York Times said Trump's behaviour "has become distressingly unsurprising." "Washington politicians had hoped the recent appointment of John Kelly, a retired Marine general, as his chief of staff would instill some discipline in his chaotic administration," the paper said.
"But the root of the problem is not the personnel; it is the man at the top." In St Louis, where he was mounting a competitive comeback, even chess legend Garry Kasparov weighed in, saying: "My family & I were forced out of one home by ethnic violence and another by political persecution. America must both fight hate & stay free."