President Donald Trump strongly defended his response to the racial discord and unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, saying there was “blame on both sides” for the violent clashes between white supremacist groups and counterprotesters.
“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 said during a news conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Tuesday.
The event started off with an announcement about on a new infrastructure initiative.
But it segued into a 16-minute question-and-answer session during which Trump sparred with reporters and doubled-down on statements he made Saturday blaming “all sides” for the violence.
“You had a group on one side and the other, and they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious and horrible. It was a horrible thing to watch,” Trump said.
“There is another side.” he said. “There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. You can say what you want. That’s the way it is.”
Trump said not all the protesters who descended on the Virginia college town on Friday were affiliated with white nationalist groups, and were there just to “ innocently protest.”
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue,” Trump said referring to the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a local park.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Meanwhile, Trump had harsh comments about James Alex Fields Jr, 20, who was charged with second-degree murder after hitting a group of counterprotesters with is car Saturday.
Trump called Fields, “a disgrace to himself, his family and his country.”
He added: “You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want...here is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? Then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer. What he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”
Trump, who faced criticism for not immediately disavowing groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis following the clashes, said that in his initial statement Saturday he was trying to avoid speaking without knowledge of all the facts.
“The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement, but you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts,” Trump said after pulling a copy of the statement from his coat pocket and rereading it.
On Saturday, Trump said: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
Critics including Republican leaders took issue with Trump faulting “many sides” for the violence, saying the clashes were incited by the white nationalists who rallied Friday with lit tiki torches reminiscent of the torches carried by white-hooded KKK members.
On Monday, amid mounting criticism of his initial statement, Trump again rebuked the violence in Charlottesville, but specifically called out the KKK and neo-Nazis, calling them “criminals,” and “thugs.”
During the often combative news conference Tuesday, Trump fielded a wide range of questions from reporters.
- Asked about the alt-right group of protesters who were in Charlottesville, Trump replied, “What about the alt-left that came charging at the as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
- Asked about Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed Saturday when Fields plowed through crowded street of counterprotesters, Trump said he had yet to reach out to her mother, but “I’ll be reaching out.” He noted that Heyer’s mother had expressed kind thoughts about him on social media.NBC News reported Monday that Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, thanked Trump for “denouncing those who promote violence and hatred.”
- Trump defended his White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, saying he was “not a racist.” When asked about Bannon’s future in the White House following recent staff shake-ups he said, “We’ll see what happens.”
- Trump brushed off a statement by Walmart Chief Executive Douglas McMillon who said the president “missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists.” Trump described it as “a political statement.”
Trump’s performance at the news conference elicited a range of reactions.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, in a Twitter post, did not name Trump, but wrote: “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted: “There’s no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry. The President of the United States should say so.”
Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader, said in a statement: “When David Duke and white supremacists cheer your remarks, you’re doing it very very wrong.”
With Emily Ngo