NEW YORK (JTA) — President Donald Trump reverted to blaming left-wing counterprotesters along with white supremacists for the violence that erupted at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In startling, off-the-cuff comments at a news conference Tuesday in New York, the president appeared to backtrack from his statement Monday that explicitly condemned neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the violence on Saturday. On the day of the rally, Trump’s initial statement condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides,” a statement that shocked members of both political parties for neglecting to call out white supremacists.
At the news conference, Trump called out “the left, that came violently attacking the other group.”
“I think there’s blame on both sides,” he said at Trump Tower. “What about the ‘alt-left’ that, as you say, came charging at the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
The Unite the Right rally Saturday saw hundreds of people on America’s racist fringe converge in defense of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and brawl with counterprotesters. After police dispersed the rally, a white supremacist, James Fields, rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring at least 19. Two police officers also died when their helicopter crashed while monitoring the rally.
Rally participants waved Nazi and Confederate flags, and shouted anti-Semitic and racist chants, in addition to giving Nazi salutes. But Trump said at the news conference that not all the attendees were white supremacists.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis,” he said. “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 of Robert E. Lee.”
The president also appeared to equate Confederate generals with the founding fathers in questioning the drive to remove statues and other symbols of the Confederacy. He noted that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said. “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 really have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner.”
David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, thanked Trump on Twitter “for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” references to the Black Lives Matter movement and Antifa, a loose movement that combats white supremacists, sometimes violently.
But congressional leaders shot back at Trump’s comments, calling for an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacists. House Speaker Paul Ryan, like Trump a Republican, called white supremacy “repulsive,” while Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a Democrat, criticized Trump for sowing division in America.