WASHINGTON — A Jewish Republican congressman defended on Wednesday US President Donald Trump’s response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which the president said “both sides were to blame” for the deadly violence that unfolded.
While acknowledging that “these two sides,” the white nationalists and those opposing them, “are not equal,” Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York told The Times of Israel in a statement: “I would add though that it is not right to suggest that President Trump is wrong for acknowledging the fact that criminals on both sides showed up for the purpose of being violent. That particular observation is completely true.”
Trump’s original response on Saturday, after a 20-year-old man rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring at least 19 others, was to say “many sides” were at fault, while pointedly declining to even mention the racist hate groups that had organized the rally.
Two days later, he begrudgingly did so, calling out the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis who played an outsize role in the demonstration protesting the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
But come Tuesday he doubled down on his original assessment and apportioned equal blame to the white supremacists and the counter-protesters.
“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,” he said, adding that there were also “very fine people on both sides.”
Shortly after Trump made those remarks, during a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, former grand wizard of the KKK David Duke thanked the president in a tweet for “his honesty and courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville.”
Trump’s Tuesday comments were swiftly repudiated by numerous Republican leaders, including former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, former Massachusetts gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others.
McConnell, who Trump recently criticized for his failure to whip up enough Republican votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, released a statement Wednesday that said, “We have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred. There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideas and freedoms.”
Romney took a strong stance as well. “No, not the same,” he tweeted Tuesday night. “One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.”
McCain directly called out Trump for his defense of the white nationalists: “There’s no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry. The president of the United States should say so.”
Zeldin, for his part, explicitly and unequivocally condemned the hate groups that orchestrated and participated in Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally.
“Anyone associating themselves with the KKK and Nazism is associating themselves with hatred, bigotry, racism, intolerance and a tremendously inhumane past filled with horrible evil,” he said, adding that their “violent acts inspired by deep hatred are disgusting, un-American, and unwelcome in our great nation.
“President Trump has condemned them repeatedly.”