Sen. Mitch McConnell issued a statement Wednesday morning denouncing a planned rally of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Lexington, saying this group’s “messages of hate and bigotry are not welcome in Kentucky and should not be welcome anywhere in America.”

Though McConnell’s statement did not directly mention President Donald Trump, it did draw a distinct difference from remarks the president made in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, in which Trump appeared to draw a moral equivalence between the white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville and what he called the “alt-left” who showed up to oppose them, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred,” stated McConnell. “There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head.”

A white nationalist group that was part of the deadly riot in Charlottesville has called for the rally in Lexington in response to Mayor Jim Gray’s call to remove two confederate statues from a prominent square downtown.

A CNN story from Wednesday morning also quoted an anonymous source close to McConnell saying that the Republican Senate leader is “privately upset with the President’s handling” of the Charlottesville matter and “deeply concerned that Trump is reopening long-festering racial tensions.” The same source told CNN that McConnell “did not want to immediately attack Trump for fear that it would look like retribution for their fight last week,” in which the president repeatedly attacked the senator on Twitter and in a press conference for failing to pass his legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Asked for a response to the CNN report, McConnell spokeswoman Stephanie Penn relied: “You have the Leader’s on-record response.”

Elaine Chao — Trump’s Secretary of Transportation and McConnell’s wife — was standing next to Trump during the same press conference on Tuesday.

James A. Fields Jr., who grew up in northern Kentucky, has been charged with the murder of Heather Hey and other counts, after driving his car into nearly two dozen anti-racism marchers Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville. Fields was seen with white nationalist symbols at the rally earlier that day — partly organized around opposition to moving a statue of confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — and subsequent reporting found that he had long-held views supportive of Nazis.

While McConnell did not explicitly call out Trump for expressing moral equivalence between the two sides in Charlottesville, a number Republican elected officials and conservative commentators have done so — first when Trump blamed the violence “on many sides” in his initial statement Saturday, and then again after his press conference on Tuesday. The only member of Kentucky’s congressional delegation to come close to doing so as of Wednesday morning was Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky’s Sixth District, who said Trump’s first statement contained “too much ambiguity.”

As for local legislators, state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, tweeted right after he had seen the press conference Tuesday that Trump was “doubling down on the moral equivalence. He’s wrong, and ought to call out white supremacy for the evil it is.”

Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville issued his statement on the matter Saturday, in which he said “pretending that everyone shares responsibility for this tragedy is sheer deception. It is past time for our national leaders — starting with our President — to take a strong stand against bigotry and condemn hate speech before it turns violent. Anything less is a cowardly abdication of our solemn obligation to the people who elected us.”

McConnell still supports moving Davis statue, but Bevin changes stance

Gov. Matt Bevin appeared to change his position Tuesday on moving the statue of Jefferson Davis — the president of the Confederate States of America — from the rotunda of the state capitol building in Frankfort.

While campaigning for governor in 2015 he said the Davis statue should be removed, and that “parts of our history are more appropriately displayed in museums, not on government property.” However, in a radio interview Tuesday morning he said that he absolutely disagrees with attempts to remove confederate statues, calling it the “sanitization of history.”

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin

In a press conference later that day, Bevin denied that statement, saying, “I said ‘revisionist history.’ Again, ‘sanitize’ is your word.” The governor also said that he never supported removing confederate monuments from government property, comparing this “dangerous precedent” to that of genocidal movements of the past.

“When you look at what people like a Pol Pot did, or a Stalin did, or a Hitler did, one of the first things you do is you remove any semblance of culture and of history, you try to be revisionist,” said Bevin. “You look what people are doing with ISIS, with the destruction of any kind of history of a different culture when they move into a new territory. I think it is a very dangerous precedent to pretend that your history is not your history.”

Sen. McConnell had also come out in support of moving the Davis statue in 2015, but unlike Bevin, his spokesman Robert Steurer told IL that the senator still stands by his statement.

Brad Bowman, the spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, issued a statement expressing support for moving the confederate statues in Frankfort and Lexington: “We are not sanitizing history. We are standing against racism, hate and bigotry. This issue rises above politics. We owe that to every Kentuckian.”

In the same press conference on Tuesday, Bevin also said that it was important to call out any bigotry, whether it comes from a white nationalist or “if it comes from a Black Lives Matter person.”

“There should be no tolerance of people that are intolerant of other people as it relates to their race — in this case is what we’re talking about, supremacy of either side of the equation,” said Bevin. “The people can pretend there’s not two sides. There’s people that are as hateful of people based on their color on all sides of the color spectrum. It’s unacceptable, unacceptable.”

Wednesday afternoon, the Republican Party of Kentucky’s issued its first press release on Charlottesville matter, in which chairman Mac Brown condemned the white supremacists planning the Lexington rally. He also placed the blame of Charlottesville on these same neo-Nazis and said they would find no haven in the Kentucky GOP.

“While neither side of the political spectrum is immune from this growing menace, the terrible events of this past weekend in Charlottesville and the looming threat of a similar rally in Lexington are being perpetrated by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and their supporters,” said Brown. “While they may choose to loosely affiliate themselves with the Republican Party, we will not allow ourselves to be affiliated with them.”

This post has been updated.

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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