WASHINGTON, United States — Boys from a Catholic school in Kentucky were treated unfairly in a rush to judgment, US President Donald Trump said on Monday after allegations the students had mocked a Native American elder.
“Looking like Nick Sandman & Covington Catholic students were treated unfairly with early judgements proving out to be false – smeared by media,” Trump tweeted.
As in many cases, Trump’s tweet appeared to be triggered by Fox News, as he cited the network’s Tucker Carlson saying new footage showed “media” were wrong about the encounter.
Footage captured on multiple phone camera videos that swept social media on Saturday showed a white Covington student standing silently with his lips taut, extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a Native American Vietnam war veteran, who beats a traditional drum while chanting.
The student wears a red cap bearing Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Other students are jumping up and down, chanting.
The incident occurred on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Friday when the annual anti-abortion March for Life coincided with a rally by indigenous communities calling for their rights to be respected.
The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School issued a statement rebuking the students after their displays drew widespread derision.
One of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in November, Deb Haaland, linked the students’ behavior to what she called rising levels of racial intolerance under the Trump administration.
Kaya Taitano, a witness to the incident, was quoted by CNN as saying Phillips had decided to intervene with a “healing prayer” when the school teens got into a verbal altercation with a group of African American youths who had been preaching about the Bible.
Phillips gave his reaction in a separate video. “I heard them saying, ‘Build that wall, build that wall.’ We’re not supposed to have walls here, we never did.”
But US media including The New York Times and The Washington Post later reported that the encounter was more complicated than it first appeared.
The African American youths were Hebrew Israelites, who reportedly insulted both Native activists and the students.
A group known as House of Israel had been camped out on the mall for some time before this viral moment. According to Phillips, he was trying to defuse tensions between the MAGA crowd and the 6 or so HOI preachers by stepping between them to chant. https://t.co/vzsZdcMBFD
— Sam Kestenbaum (@skestenbaum) January 20, 2019
Both the Times and the Post quoted Phillips as clarifying that he had moved towards the students.
CNN quoted the student at the center of the initial video, Nick Sandmann — the spelling used by major news media — as saying that his group only used “school spirit” chants, and did not express support for a border wall or say anything racist.