WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Tuesday revived his declaration that “both sides” were to blame for deadly violence at a white supremacist rally over the weekend in Charlottesville, abandoning his message from a day earlier that had emphasized the culpability of the groups that organized and participated in the event.
In a remarkable show of defiance, Trump insisted during a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan that there were “two sides to a story” just a day after he had belatedly condemned racist hate groups for the mayhem that left a woman dead and many other people injured.
Trump – clearly chafing at the political backlash over his handling of the situation and his aides’ attempts to rein him in – also appeared eager to cast aspersions on the counterprotesters, who he said acted “very, very violently” and “came charging with clubs in their hand” at the rally participants.
“Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he asked rhetorically. “Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
The president also made clear that he believes that many of the participants in the Unite the Right rally were taking part in a lawful demonstration against the Charlottesville city council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public square.
“You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay?” Trump said. “And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
There were some “fine people” among the counterprotesters, he added, but also “troublemakers” in “black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. . . . You had a lot of bad people in the other group.”
Trump’s remarks represented a rebuke of the broad array of political, civic and cultural leaders who had called on him over the past several days to clearly and firmly denounce the hate groups and offer support for the victims of the violence. Under mounting pressure to set a clear moral tone for the nation, he instead lashed out defensively against criticism that he had fanned the flames of racial divisions and, in doing so, failed a crucial test of his presidency.
During the remarks – which caught senior aides watching from the lobby by surprise – Trump appeared far more passionate in defending many of the rally participants than he had in his more muted denunciation of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis a day earlier at the White House, where he read from prepared remarks. Visibly irritated, he parried with reporters and spoke over them, refusing several times to let them cut him off.
Speaking off the cuff, Trump compared Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Lee and Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Confederate commanders during the Civil War. He suggested that the former presidents might face the same fate and have their memorials removed because they owned slaves.
You’re changing history,” Trump said. “You’re changing culture.”
Asked if he was putting the left-leaning counterprotesters on the same moral plane as the white supremacists, he replied: “I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. . . . There was a group on this side, you can call them the left – you’ve just called them the left – that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”