Politics

Far-Right Protesters in Virginia Included ‘Very Fine’ People, Trump Says

Trump says ‘both sides’ to blame for Charlottesville unrest

President Donald Trump delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower on Tuesday. He appeared to defend some of the white supremacist groups who help spawn deadly violence Saturday in Virginia. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended some of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who were part of the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, protests last weekend, saying there were “very fine people” on both sides of the racially charged unrest.

A defiant Trump, just a day after slamming the pro-white groups who organized the two-day protests of the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, appeared to give some of their members cover. “There is blame on both sides,” he told reporters during what amounted to a brief impromptu press conference at Trump Tower in New York.

“I don’t have any doubt about it,” said the president, who has been accused of spreading rhetoric and ideas floated by the alt-right political movement that has ties to white supremacist groups.

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Trump said the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville “bad,” but said the anti-protesters also were “very violent.” He added in a chiding tone: “Nobody wants to say that. … I’ll say that right now.”

Amid calls even from many Republican lawmakers for Trump to be more vocal in denouncing white supremacist groups that were on the ground in Charlottesville, the president broke with his immediate predecessors by saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of the protests in Charlottesville. In doing so, Trump essentially rebuffed most U.S. presidents of the last few decades by implying that neo-Nazis can be “very fine people.”

“What about the alt-left that came charging at the … alt-right?” Trump asked a reporter during a particularly testy exchange that lasted about 20 minutes. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? … What about the fact they came charging … with clubs in their hands?”

“Do they have any problem? I think that they do,” Trump said. “So, you know, as far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.” The left-leaning groups, he contended, lacked a permit to be holding their counter-protest and “were very violent.”

He said the white supremacist groups were “bad.” Some of the white nationalist groups were there to “legally” and “innocently” protest, the president said, arguing the counter-protesters lacked a permit.

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The president told reporters he watched footage of the violence “much more closely than you people watched it,” later adding: “There are two sides to a story.”

Trump’s critics say his initial reluctance to denounce the pro-white groups is a reflection of his political analysis that he needs many among their ranks to win re-election in 2020.

He also questioned taking down a statue of Lee, a Confederate general and icon, in Charlottesville or elsewhere, asking rhetorically if slaveholding founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson might be stripped of their hero status, as well.

Some lawmakers from both parties reacted quickly with critical words about Trump’s remarks.

GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said placing blame on both sides means the president has moved “back to to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists? Just no.”

Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz brought up his own Jewish heritage and said this of Trump: “Not my president.” He added that “words cannot express my disgust and disappointment.”

Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wrote on Twitter that Trump “just erased yesterday's speech and is now back to Saturday's position on Charlottesville. Unbelievable.”

Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California suggested Trump’s Monday statement - which he read quickly at the White House was not reflective of his true feelings on race. “Without a teleprompter Trump just showed us his true colors – we should believe him.” she tweeted.

Reaction continued to pour out over social media:

Former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke was quick to praise Trump’s remarks.

Lindsey McPherson, Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathé contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.