WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump on Friday tried once more to defend his remarks about white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, this time by praising a Confederate general.
Trump was asked Friday about his 2017 comments, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a clash between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators.
He said he was referring to some who were protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. Trump praised Lee as “a great general, everybody knows that.”
In his remarks two years ago, Trump did mention the Lee statue but also said “there is blame on both sides” of the clash, which left one anti-white supremacist demonstrator dead.
Trump’s remarks were unlikely to ease the criticism. While Lee is an icon to many in the South, he is vilified by others as the man who led the secessionist forces in the Civil War, trying to preserve slavery.
The debate over Trump’s remarks resurfaced after former Vice President Joe Biden launched his Democratic presidential campaign by condemning them.
The launch underscored the degree over which the battle for the Jewish vote has already figured in the campaign and, more broadly, how each party is endeavoring to attach the taint of anti-Semitism to the other party.
“Charlottesville, Virginia is home to the author of one of the great documents in human history,” the former vice president said in a three-and-a-half minute video he posted Thursday morning. The reference was to Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence.
“Charlottesville is also home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years,” he said. “It was there in August 2017 that we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out into the open.”
Biden spoke over footage of the marchers saying “Jews will not replace us.” He described them as “baring the fangs of racism, chanting the same anti-Semitism bile heard across Europe in the 1930s.”
Biden referred to the murder of Heather Hyer, a counterprotester, who died when one of the marchers rammed his car into a crowd.
“And that’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were quote, ‘very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides?”
“With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had seen in this lifetime.”
Over the course of the weekend’s events in Charlottesville, the president initially blamed both sides for the violence, a day later condemned the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, and on the subsequent Tuesday said there were “some very fine people” on both sides of the clashes.
Biden is the 20th Democrat to enter the 2020 race, and the debate has focused so far on a plethora of issues, including jobs, health care, foreign military interventions and the corruption investigations besetting Trump.
But Biden’s opening gambit shows the degree to which Democrats plan to use Trump’s perceived jabs at Muslims, Hispanics, blacks, the disabled as well as Jews as a 2020 issue. Biden, even before he announced, was leading in the polls, and other candidates in the race have not hesitated to call Trump a racist.
Republicans want to reverse that dynamic. Trump and members of Congress have been eager to focus on statements perceived as anti-Semitic by a freshman Democrat, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and sharp criticisms of Israel by some Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is breathing down Biden’s neck in the polls. Republicans say that the party has not done enough to censure Omar and Trump has called Democrats “anti-Jewish.”
Biden, who has deep ties to the US Jewish and pro-Israel communities, said in the video that Trump’s presidency was an inflection point.
“We are in a battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden said. “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
Trump used the phrase “very fine people on both sides” three days after the violence, at a press conference at which he sought to defend his initial comments on the day of the march when he blamed the violence on “many sides.”
“If you reported it accurately, you would say that the neo-Nazis started this thing,” he said at a press conference at Trump Tower in New York. “They showed up in Charlottesville. Excuse me. They didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis. You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
Trump’s words shocked many Americans, and led at least one of his Jewish advisers, Gary Cohn, to consider quitting.
His defenders have since noted that within moments of saying “very fine people,” he said, “You had people and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists. They should be condemned totally. You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”
Although the protests had been billed as a defense of a Confederate statue, a white supremacist group openly sought the permit for the march. Real-time television coverage showed marchers bearing neo-Nazi flags and torches and chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans.