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Gov. Asa Hutchinson Reacts To President Trump's Response To Charlottesville


President Donald Trump's equivocation over who is to blame for the violence in Charlottesville has had some powerful repercussions. Confronted with the president retracting his own unambiguous criticism of white supremacists, so many CEOs quit two White House advisory bodies that Trump disbanded those councils altogether. Then the chiefs of the armed services issued their own unambiguous denunciations of racists and racism. As for Republican officeholders, some have been exceptionally critical of Trump. Others have made familiar, more temperate criticisms.

Well, one Republican officeholder I've been checking in with ever since the primary season of last year is Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas. Welcome back to the program.

ASA HUTCHINSON: Always good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And what do you make of President Trump's handling of this moment out of the violence we saw coming out of this gathering of white nationalist groups in Charlottesville last weekend?

HUTCHINSON: When there's an American tragedy, a terrible incident like we saw in Charlottesville, the president really historically has seized that opportunity to try to unify the country, to give a message of clarity. And that's what is needed here. And the clear message is that white supremacy, neo-Nazism has no place in American values.

And that's the message that I have continued to articulate. That's the message that the president started with and needs to continue with. A person was killed because they were out there speaking out against white nationalism. That is a domestic terrorism crime. It should be investigated as such.

SIEGEL: But you said it's - the message is the message that President Trump should have continued. Well, he didn't. He didn't. He quite purposely muddied the unambiguous denunciation of white supremacists. Were you disappointed in him?

HUTCHINSON: Well, he missed an opportunity. And it's the nature of President Trump. You know, he's combative with the press. He was discussing an item that he felt passionate about. But it was not the right moment, and it took away from the clarity of the message that's important for America.

SIEGEL: Some Republican leaders have offered very forceful condemnations of the president. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said the president - and I'm quoting - "has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs in order to be successful." Do you agree with those criticisms?

HUTCHINSON: I would not get into a discussion of what people are saying about the president. My hope is that the president is successful. My hope is that the president listens to his key advisers. And General Kelly I think is doing a good job as chief of staff. I think changes are being made.

But the people of America elected a president that speaks his mind, that stirs up controversy. And that's what we have right now. And so I think it's important for us to look beyond the words, the controversy and say, let's pull together. And I think that includes our support for the president saying, let's try to do better. Let's learn from every mistake. Let's move on, and let's do something that's important for the country.

SIEGEL: One of his chief advisers, chief strategist Steve Bannon, is out today. Are you cheered by that news?

HUTCHINSON: I think it reflects the growing strength of General Kelly as chief of staff that he's bringing order to the White House. And it also shows the growing confidence that President Trump has in his new chief of staff. So I think it was the right move that they made that decision, and I'm delighted that all of the staff there at the White House seems to be responding to the leadership of General Kelly, who the president has confidence in to lead that staff.

SIEGEL: In your career, you've bumped up against some of the issues that arise in the Charlottesville story. You - as a very young U.S. attorney, you famously prosecuted a white supremacist group, a, you know, pro-Confederate group. On the other hand, you're governor of a state where there are a great many Civil War Confederate memorials, nearly all of them put up in the 20th century.

On the issue of a Robert Lee statue, if a city is offended by the fact that the commander of a rebellion against the United States in order to maintain slavery in the Southern states is indeed part of the history, must be celebrated as part of the history today? What's your view?

HUTCHINSON: Well, my view is that we ought not to go through a stage in Arkansas or in the country where we're trying to dismantle our history. Every community can debate what ought to be celebrated, and that can be changed. Here in Arkansas is a good example. At our state capitol, yes, we have a Confederate memorial, but we also have a memorial to the Little Rock Nine in the civil rights era that desegregated Little Rock Central, nine very brave African-Americans.

And so you see two aspects of history - the struggle of the Civil War. You see the struggle of the civil rights. We ought to view those as educational opportunities for our young people. And we don't learn whenever we just simply rush over them or bury the past.

SIEGEL: And what do you say to the person who says there's a danger of equivalence there? Yes, they're part of our history, but the children who desegregated Little Rock Central did so in - as an example of justice and liberty and progress. And the Civil War secession was an example of opposing justice and equality and progress, and therefore they're not equivalent to be celebrated.

HUTCHINSON: Well, that's a fair commentary. But for example, we have the Little Rock Nine, a memorial to them, and they went against Governor Orval Faubus, a former governor of Arkansas. His bust is in our state capitol. Should his bust be taken down? I think we celebrate what the Little Rock Nine did, and we simply remember Orval Faubus as a historical governor at the time.

It is a matter of scalability. It's a matter of making sure there's a right balance. That is a fair debate that we'll continue to have. But at this time, I think in Arkansas, we've got a balance here we're approaching the right way.

SIEGEL: Governor Asa Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas, thanks for talking with us once again.

HUTCHINSON: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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