Trump Blames 'Both Sides' For Charlottesville
Updated at 7:26 p.m. ET
In a stunning reversal from comments he made just one day prior, President Trump said on Tuesday "there's blame on both sides" for the violence in Charlottesville, Va.
On Monday, Trump specifically called out the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in a choreographed statement read at the White House — but that was two days after his initial statement on the protests, for which he was criticized for not condemning those groups and instead cited violence "on many sides."
On Tuesday, Trump was back home at Trump Tower in New York City and took questions from reporters in an impromptu, highly combative press conference that was expected to be limited to statements by the president and members of his Cabinet about infrastructure.
Instead, he returned to equating the demonstrators — who came to the college town to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, donning Confederate flags and swastikas, some carrying guns and shields, chanting "blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us" — with counterprotesters.
"I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I'm saying is this — you had a group on one side, and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch," Trump said. "But there is another side. 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."
Trump also pointed out that the "Unite the Right" rally had received a permit from the city for their demonstration, while "the other group didn't have a permit."
"So I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country. A horrible moment. But there are two sides," the president said.
"OK, what about the alt-left that came charging ... at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this, what about the fact they came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do," the president added. "As far as I'm concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day."
And he also equated Confederate statues with ones of slaveholding Founding Fathers and former presidents.
"Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How 'bout Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK, good," Trump argued. "Are we going to take down the statue because he was a major slave-owner? Now we're going to take down his statue. So you know what, it's fine. You're changing history; you're changing culture."
The gathering of white nationalists over the weekend in Charlottesville resulted in multiple injuries and the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed after a car was rammed into a group of counterprotesters. The suspect has been denied bond and is charged with second-degree murder.
Trump said he hadn't called Heyer's family yet but that he would soon. He thanked her mother for a "beautiful statement" that was "really terrific" in response to his comments Monday.
Of the suspect, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., Trump said he was a "murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing." But he didn't call it domestic terrorism as did Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Trump also took particular umbrage at the idea that he had waited too long to condemn the hate groups.
"I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct. Not make a quick statement," the president said. "The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, 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. And it's a very, very important process to me. ... I want to know the facts."
However, in the past Trump has rarely shown restraint in responding to incidents like the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., when he tweeted "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism," and terrorist attacks in London earlier this year, when he criticized the response of the city's mayor. Back in 2011, he began peddling the false birther conspiracy against then-President Barack Obama, at one point tweeting that "An 'extremely credible source' has called my office and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud." He has made plenty of falsestatements just since entering the Oval Office.
After the press conference, former KKK grand wizard David Duke thanked the president on Twitter for his "honesty and courage" and for being willing to "condemn" Black Lives Matter and anti-fascists (whom Trump did not name).
Trump faced widespread criticism for what was seen as an insufficient statement about the events on Saturday. Seeming to bow to those critiques on Monday, he delivered a new statement and placed blame on white supremacist groups. But after his apparent walkback on Tuesday, some GOP leaders spoke out again.
"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 tweeted, apparently in reference to Trump's remarks, although he didn't mention the president by name.
"I don't understand what's so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, tweeted.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said on CNN that he "tried to give [Trump] the benefit of the doubt, for just saying the words yesterday. But he just couldn't move on. I think the residents of Charlottesville will be extremely disappointed but not surprised."
Read a transcript of the president remarks:
REPORTER: Why did you wait so long to blast neo-Nazis?
TRUMP: I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct. Not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don't make statements that direct unless you know the fact. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don't know the facts. And it's a very, very important process to me. And it's a very important statement. So I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts --
If you go back to my ...
As I said on, remember this, on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. And then I went on from there. Now here's the thing --
Excuse me. Excuse me. Take it nice and easy. Here's the thing. When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn't even happen yet, as we were speaking. This event just happened. Before I make a statement, I need the facts. So I don't want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent.
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. I hear she was a fine, really actually an incredible, young woman. But her mother on Twitter thanked me for what I said.
And honestly, if the press were not fake , and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. But unlike you --
But unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.
REPORTER: The CEO of Wal Mart said you missed a critical opportunity to help bring the country together. Did you?
TRUMP: Not at all. I think the country, look, you take a look, I've created over a million jobs since I'm president, the country is booming, the stock market is setting records, we have the highest employment numbers we've ever had in the history of our country, we're doing record business. We have the highest levels of enthusiasm. So the head of Wal Mart – who I know, who is very nice guy – was making a political statement.
...I want to make sure, when I make a statement, that the statement is correct. And there was no way, there was no way of making a correct statement that early. I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters. Unlike a lot of reporters.
I didn't know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts. And the facts as they started coming out were very well stated. In fact, everybody said, his statement was beautiful, if he would have made it sooner, that would have been good. I couldn't have made it sooner because I didn't know all of the facts. Frankly, people still don't know all of the facts.
It was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly. Because if I would have made a fast statement, and the first statement was made without knowing much other than what we were seeing. The second statement was made after, with knowledge, with great knowledge. Excuse me. There's still things that people don't know. I want to make a statement with knowledge. I wanted to know the states.
REPORTER: Was this terrorism?
TRUMP: The driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country. And that is, you can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want, I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That's what I'd call it. Because there is a question. Is it murder, is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.
REPORTER: Do you still have confidence in Steve Bannon?
TRUMP: Look, look. I like Mr. Bannon. He's a friend of mine. But, Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. And I like him, he's a good man, he is not a racist, I can tell you that. He's a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard. But we'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon but he's a good person and I think the press treats him frankly very unfairly.
REPORTER: Sen. McCain said that the alt right is behind these attacks and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville?
TRUMP: I'm sure Senator McCain must know what he's talking about. But when you say the alt right, define alt right to me? You define it. No you define it.
REPORTER: Senator McCain defined it as --
TRUMP: Excuse me. What about the alt left who came charging, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this, what about the fact they came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I'm concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I'm not finished. I'm not finished, fake news.
That was a horrible day.
I watched those very closely. Much more closely than you people watched it. And you have, 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.
You had a group, you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.
REPORTER: Do you think that what you call the alt left is the same as neo Nazis?
TRUMP: Excuse me. I've condemned neo-Nazis. I've condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee. So. Excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups, and you see and you'd know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you're not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
So, this week it's Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson's 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?
But they were there to protest, excuse me, you take a look the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Infrastructure question, go ahead.
REPORTER: Should statues of Robert E. Lee stay up?
TRUMP: I would say that's up to a local town, community or the federal government depending on where it is located.
REPORTER: ... race relations in America and do you think things have gotten worse or better since you took office?
TRUMP: I think they've gotten better or the same. Look, they've been frayed for a long time. And you can ask President Obama about that because he'd make speeches about it. But I believe that the fact that I brought in, it will be soon, millions of jobs, you see where companies are moving back into our country, I think that's going to have a tremendous positive impact on race relations ...
REPORTER: Are you putting what you're calling the alt left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?
TRUMP: I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I'm saying is this. You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was viscous and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. 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.
REPORTER: You said there was hatred and violence on both sides --
TRUMP: Well, I do think there's blame, yes, I think there's blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there's blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it. And you don't have any doubt about it either. And, and if you reported it accurately, you would say it.
TRUMP: Excuse me. You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group, excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures as you did. 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.
George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So will George Washington now lose his status – are we going to take down — Excuse me. Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How 'bout Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? you like him? Ok, good. Are we going to take down the statue because he was a major slave-owner? Now we're going to take down his statue. So you know what, it's fine. You're changing history and you're changing culture. And you had people, and I'm not talking about the neo Nazis or the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo Nazis and white nationalists, ok? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats...you got a lot of bad people in the other group too.
REPORTER: You said the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?
TRUMP: No. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before, if you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I'm sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people. Neo Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. Because I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit. So I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country. A horrible moment. But there are two sides ...
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.