Donald Trump has reverted to his initial assessment of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, condemning the violence on “both sides” and shifting some blame away from far-right groups.
Speaking in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday, the president said not all of the demonstrators who had come to protest against the removal of a statue dedicated to the confederate general Robert E Lee were white supremacists.
“You also had people that were very fine people — on both sides,” Mr Trump said.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me.”
Mr Trump’s comments marked a stark shift in tone from remarks he had delivered just 24 hours earlier. Reading from a teleprompter on Monday, Mr Trump clearly condemned the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and racists for the first time since the violent clashes in Virginia.
That Monday speech, delivered from the White House, had allayed concerns of many in the administration worried about the growing backlash that Mr Trump faced over his initial response to the incident, when he failed to single out the white nationalist protesters.
However, Mr Trump appeared to regret the speech by the end of the day on Monday, criticising the media on Twitter for continuing to harp on his initial assessment, and alleging that the so-called “fake news” outlets would never be happy.
That resentment spilled into the open on Tuesday as Mr Trump and members of his cabinet took questions from reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan.
While the briefing had been expected to focus solely on infrastructure, a combative Mr Trump instead defended his initial assessments of the events in Charlottesville when he asserted that many sides were to blame.
“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,” Mr Trump said on Tuesday. “I think there’s blame on both sides.”
And he went on: “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs. Do they have any problem?”
The president’s U-turn drew an immediate and forceful reaction.
Republican congressman Will Hurd, the son of a black father and white mother, called on the president to apologise. “Nobody should doubt whether or not the leader of the free world is against racism, bigotry, neo-Nazis and anti-Semitism. I think it may be good to stick to the teleprompter and not go off the cuff,” the Texan told CNN.
Other Republicans to speak out included Ohio congressman Steve Stivers, who is leading the House Republican campaign efforts in next year’s midterm elections. “I don’t understand what’s so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn’t be defended,” he said.
Jeff Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona who has been an outspoken critic of the president, added: “We cannot accept excuses for white supremacy and acts of domestic terrorism. We must condemn them. Period.”
Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker, said in a tweet that “@POTUS must stop the moral equivalency! AGAIN, white supremacists were to blame for the violence in #Charlottesville”.
Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, also weighed in shortly afterwards on Twitter. “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tweeted: “Great and good American presidents seek to unite not divide. Donald Trump’s remarks clearly show he is not one of them.”
Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator from Hawaii, said: “As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment. This is not my president. There has to be room for people of all political stripes among the coalition of the sane. We all need to take our country back together.”
African-American basketball star LeBron James tweeted: “Hate has always existed in America. Yes we know that but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again! Statues has nothing to do with us now!”
On the other side of the political spectrum, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Mr Trump’s remarks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists [of Black Lives Matter and the anti-fascist movement],” Mr Duke wrote.
Lawmakers from both parties had praised Mr Trump’s decision to clearly condemn white nationalists on Monday, even as US corporate leaders began distancing themselves from the White House after Mr Trump’s divisive comments.
While some saw Mr Trump’s initial remarks as evidence of the continuing influence of his nationalist-minded chief strategist Steve Bannon, Mr Trump made it clear on Tuesday that the views expressed were his own.
Speaking off the cuff, the president said he had not made more in-depth remarks about Charlottesville before Monday — a full 48 hours after the clashes — because he had been waiting to get all “the facts”.
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“I want to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct and not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements until you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts,” Mr Trump said.
He also appeared to equate Lee, the confederate leader, with America’s first president.
“George Washington was a slave owner. Are we going take down statues of George Washington? . . . You’re changing history, you’re changing culture . . . You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly,” he said.
While the president insists that he does not court white supremacists or neo-Nazis, members of far-right groups say they have felt emboldened by the president and much of his language.
“Donald Trump is not an ‘identitarian’,” Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader said on Monday, using a word white nationalists use to describe themselves. “But we were connected with Donald Trump on this kind of psychic level. He was the first true authentic nationalist in my lifetime . . . We rode that wave.”
Source : https://www.ft.com/content/fb7a5f4e-81f8-11e7-a4ce-15b2513cb3ff