WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump again said that “both sides” are to blame for violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, returning to an argument that has sparked a furor among Democrats, corporate CEOs, and even some Republicans.
Speaking to the press at Trump Tower in New York, Trump said that “you had a group on one side and you have a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs. It was vicious and it was horrible. It was a horrible thing to watch. I think there’s blame on both sides.”
Trump on Monday made a statement at the White House specifically called out neo-Nazis, the KKK and other hate groups, a move at damage control after his initial remarks about Charlottesville was viewed as insufficient. He said on Saturday that “many sides” share the blame for violence and bigotry.
“You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.
Reporters seemed stunned at Trump’s remarks, and that he engaged them in trying to make his case that there was an equivalence between the actions of the demonstrators and the counter-demonstrators. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, who had been expected to create a more disciplined White House operation, at times stared at the floor as Trump sparred with journalists. Some white supremacist figures, like David Duke and Richard Spencer, praised the remarks.
When he was asked about the alt-right, Trump turned to what he called the “alt-left.”
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
He again condemned neo-Nazis, but said that not all of those marching were racists. “Not all of these people are neo-Nazis. Not all of those people are white supremacists, by any stretch.”
He said of the Friday evening march, in which hundreds on the University of Virginia with tiki torches, “There were people protesting very quietly, the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.” He said that the next day, it looked like there were some “rough, bad people’ who showed up, including neo-Nazis and white nationalists “whatever you want to call them.” But “there were a lot of people there who wanted to innocently protest.”
But video of that march, in particular that captured by Vice Media, shows large crowds of protesters shouting epithets and statements like “Jews will not replace us.”
Trump also defended his initial statement on Saturday about the Charlottesville unrest. “It takes a little while to get the facts,” he said.
“Unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts,” Trump said.
Trump also attacked the movement to remove symbols of the Confederacy, like statues of generals in public parks.” The Charlottesville rally was set up to protest plans to remove a statute of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a public park.
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Trump asked, “George Washington was a slave owner. Are we going to take down statues of George Washington?” He added that “you’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
Trump also was critical of the CEOs who resigned from his manufacturing council in the wake of the uproar over the president’s response to the Charlottesville violence.
“I will tell you, some of the folks that will leave, they’re leaving out of embarrassment because they made their products outside and I’ve been lecturing them,” he said.
Trump also was asked about the future of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. ‘We’ll see what happens,” he said. He said that Bannon “came on very late.”
“I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine,” he said. “…He is not a racist. I can tell you that. He actually gets a lot of unfair press…I think the press treats him very unfairly.”
Bannon’s future has been the topic of intense speculation. On Monday, the New York Times reported that Rupert Murdoch urged Trump to fire Bannon, but that Trump was getting other advice to retain him.
Bannon represents the populist, nationalist side of policy debate, while a cadre of New York advisers, including daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, represent the moderate establishment. If Bannon departs, it’s believed that he could return to Breitbart or some other media venture.
Trump’s latest remarks started a new round of consternation among Republicans, many of whom had hoped that Trump’s comments at Monday would start to put the issue behind them.
“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity,” House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote on Twitter.
Marco Rubio said that Trump’s equivalence was unacceptable.