RENO — U.S. Sen. Dean Heller praised President Donald Trump for sharpening his criticism Monday of white supremacists who incited violence at a rally that turned deadly in Virginia over the weekend.
The Nevada Republican, who’s in a tough battle for re-election next year and already faces a GOP primary challenge from the right, said it was important for Trump to more strongly denounce the racism and bigotry espoused by the white nationalists before a car plowed into a crowd in Charlottesville.
“I think he (Trump) needed to do it,” Heller told reporters in Reno. “I think America — and myself in particular — appreciate that the stepped up. It was much stronger and forceful in his condemnation of those activities.”
On Saturday, a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters as tensions turned violent at a related rally in Virginia, leaving one dead and dozens more injured.
Trump came under fire from both Democrats and Republicans in the immediate aftermath of the carnage when he bemoaned the violence on “many sides” in broad strokes. On Monday, the president read a prepared statement at the White House describing members of the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who take part in a violence as “criminals and thugs.”
Heller said he didn’t know why the White House didn’t act quicker and refused to comment on whether Trump waited too long to try to repair the damage.
“I’m just glad he did it,” the second-term senator said. “It took them a couple of days to get their message together, but they did a great job this morning.”
“I don’t think there’s any room for these type of activities, this kind of racism and bigotry in the United States ... not in my Republican Party,” he said. “And if it’s in my party, I want it out.”
Heller said he doesn’t believe that he — or any other Republicans — suffered politically as a result of Trump’s initial response to the violence. Last week, Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian announced he’ll challenge Heller in a GOP primary before Heller has a chance to try to defend his seat in November as the only incumbent GOP senator seeking re-election in a state Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t think it affects me personally, I just think it is absolutely wrong,” Heller said.
Heller also addressed a photograph of a student from the University of Nevada, Reno marching with white nationalists carrying torches on the campus of the University of Virginia on Friday. The student, 20-year-old Peter Cvjetanovic, also appeared in a photo taken either earlier this year or last year with other UNR students posing with Heller.
Cvjetanovic told a Reno television station he understands the photo “has a very negative connotation. ‘’
“But I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo,” Cvjetanovic told KTVN-TV. “White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have.”
Heller said he doesn’t know Cvjetanovic and isn’t sure when or where the photo was taken. He said he has a First Amendment right to express his views, but you can’t yell fire in a theater.”
The university in a statement acknowledged a student was identified in the photo and, without naming Cvjetanovic, denounced the movement as corrosive to society.
Heller declined comment on whether Cvjetanovic should be kicked out of the school. He said he understands and supports “the community outrage,” but “what the university decides to at the end of the day is up to them.”