Departing the White House for the NRA convention, President Trump offered new comments sanitizing the white nationalist melee that tore through the city of Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.
Asked by a reporter Friday about his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the Charlottesville clashes that there were “very fine people on both sides” at the “Unite the Right” rally, Trump said was referring to those on the right who simply wanted to protest the removal of Confederate statutes.
“I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general,” Trump said of his “perfect” comment.
“People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee,” who, Trump said, was “one of the great generals.”
“Everybody knows that,” the president said.
This insistence on framing the deadly Charlottesville rally as a clash over a historical monument—and one dedicated to the man who led the Confederate army in a war to preserve the institution of slavery, at that—obfuscates what the event was all about. The two-day “Unite the Right” rally was, as participants’ public statements and private chats confirm, explicitly organized as a public display of white nationalist violence.
Protesting the removal of Charlottesville’s famous statue of the Confederate general may have been how the event was framed to the press, but it was ultimately utterly besides the point.
The President’s comments came in response to 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, who said Trump’s “both sides” remark “assigned a moral equivalency between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
They are the latest in a long string of defensive, misleading comments from Trump about Charlottesville itself and his response to it, which white nationalists have latched onto as proof that the President is on their side.
From the very start, Trump, who was golfing at his New Jersey course while the rally was unfolding, framed the white nationalist marchers and those there to denounce them as equally culpable.
On the day of the Saturday Aug. 12 rally, Trump condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
The response was so perfunctory and vague that Republican senators including Corey Gardner (R-VA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) urged Trump to be explicit about blaming white nationalists for unleashing the violence that left dozens injured and counter-protester Heather Heyer dead.
The rest of the administration did cleanup for Trump, with Vice President Pence and the White House insisting that the President obviously meant to condemn white nationalists, even if he hadn’t said as much.
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert even said on Sunday that Trump didn’t mention these groups by name because he didn’t want to “dignify” their movement.
Then came the infamous Monday press conference in the Trump Tower lobby. A defiant, combative Trump not only stood by his comments, but took them further.
Asked about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) blaming the “alt-right” for the Charlottesville attack, Trump challenged the reporter to “define alt-right to me.”
“Define it for me,” Trump challenged. “Come on, let’s go. Define it for me.”
“What about the alt-left that came charging at — excuse me, what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” Trump asked, again equating those who committed racist violence to those who came out to fight against it.
Multiple reporters appeared aghast, asking Trump is he was “putting these protestors on the same level as neo-Nazis” and if “the alt-left [is] as bad as white supremacy.”
Pretty much, Trump replied.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Trump repeatedly said he’d “condemned neo-Nazis,” but previewed his Robert E. Lee defense, insisting that “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 of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “So 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?”
It’s unclear who exactly constituted this peaceful, non-racist, pro-Lee contingent Trump referred to. The organizer of the “Unite the Right” event, Jason Kessler, had claimed he put the rally together to protest the Lee statue’s removal. Kessler is himself a white nationalist.
In fact, the talk of erasing history by removing Confederate statues is a common trope in the white nationalist movement. The white nationalist site VDare regularly publishes articles on this topic, and white nationalists like Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof embrace Confederate memorabilia as visual shorthand for their racist views.
When a reporter pointed out to Trump that George Washington and Lee were not the same, Trump shot back that Washington “was a slave owner.”
“So you know what, it’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture,” Trump said. “And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Okay?”
Trump even pointed out that Kessler’s group was there lawfully as they had a permit, while the counter-protesters did not.
Towards the end of the press conference, Trump was asked if he would go to Charlottesville to address the community.
“I own a house in Charlottesville,” he replied, adding that he had “one of the largest wineries in the United States.” “Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”