WASHINGTON — Despite condemning white supremacists on Monday, US President Donald Trump doubled down with his original Saturday statement on Tuesday, telling reporters that “both sides were to blame” for the violence that unfolded at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.
During a combative press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, the president restated his belief — first expressed on Saturday after a 20-year-old man rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protestors — that “many sides” were at fault for the deadly turn the rally took.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?” he asked.” Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact that they came charging with their clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
“You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he said.
Trump’s depiction of the counter-protestors is similar to the narrative of victimization that has come from white nationalists since the bloody demonstration.
On Monday, one of the leading figures of the alt-right, Richard Spencer, told the Times of Israel that he found comfort in Trump’s initial blaming of “many sides” for the melee. “I think in his gut he knows that we are not the ones aggressing,” he said.
Trump further said of the counter-protestors: “They came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch. I think there’s blame on both sides.”
“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 “very fine people on both sides.”
Trump also defended those who went to Charlottesville to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. “Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch.”
Reporters went on to press Trump on why he took so long to call out the white nationalists by name. His original remarks on Saturday left out any mention of the various extremist hate groups — including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan — who played an outsized role in the rally.
It wasn’t until two days later when he begrudgingly gave a second statement, under intense pressure, that referenced those specific groups.
“I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement,” he said. “The statement I made on Saturday was a fine statement, but you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts.”
Trump then took an odd turn, praising the mother of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed in the car-ramming carried out by a Nazi sympathizer, for saying “nice things” about him.
“In fact, the young woman, who I hear is a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC, her mother wrote me and said through, I guess Twitter, social media, the nicest things and I very much appreciated that.”
When asked if he would call the assailant of the attack — who has been identified as James Alex Fields Jr. — a terrorist, he said: “The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”
“The driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and his country and that is, you could call it terrorism, you could call it murder, you could call it whatever you want,” he added. “I would just call it the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That’s what I would call it.”
Before ending the press conference, which clocked out just under twenty minutes, Trump would not say whether he thought it was right for states, cities and municipalities to take down statues of Robert E. Lee or other Confederate figures.
“This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson,” he said. “Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”