A defiant President Donald Trump on Tuesday reverted to his original sentiment on the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, declaring that “both sides” deserved blame for clashes that centered around a rally involving white supremacists.
Flanked by Cabinet officials in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, the president was expected to make only a brief statement about an executive order on infrastructure.
Instead, he was clearly ready for a fight and invited a Q&A with reporters that reexamined the cause of Saturday’s deadly violence, clearly rebelling against a cadre of advisers who had steered him toward a more unifying message that strongly condemned racist culprits.
Whereas Trump singled out the “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups” in a scripted speech Monday from the White House, on Tuesday he spoke extemporaneously and said it was a much more “complicated” situation.
He explained that his original Saturday statement – which was roundly criticized for not calling out the hate groups that descended upon Charlottesville – was simply an initial reaction until he gathered all the facts.
He then went on to raise the culpability of other side – pointing to what he called the “alt-left” – for participating in the fighting and chaos that led to the death of a young woman and the injuries of many others.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he asked a reporter. “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.”
He continued, “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.”
Trump also said many people unaffiliated with widely reviled factions like neo-Nazis congregated in Charlottesville simply to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and asked whether his opponents believed other monuments to national figures with checkered pasts should be taken down.
“Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down statues to George Washington?” he asked. “How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson – you like him? … Are we going to take down the statue because he was a major slave owner? … You’re changing history, you’re changing culture.”
The entire episode was a striking display of Trump’s raw rebellion against conventional political expectations. While the president seemed agitated by the national outcry that deemed his responses insufficient or late, he also appeared armed for bear to show his critics as partisan or hypocritical.
Trump’s freewheeling and unfiltered answers will infuriate his opponents and are likely to wash away any of the goodwill he regained from his remarks on Monday. But the display will simultaneously galvanize his base of supporters, which ranges from anti-establishment conservatives to the darker corners of the white nationalist movement.
Conservative provocateur Ann Coulter could barely contain her joy Tuesday afternoon, declaring that the president was “not dead yet.”
Shortly thereafter, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tweeted, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.” His abbreviations referred to the Black Lives Matter movement and leftist anti-fascist protesters, who appeared to have a presence in Charlottesville over the weekend.
The fact that Trump’s remarks send a reaffirming signal to white supremacists will only continue to haunt him in the days and weeks to come, opening him up to the charge that he sympathizes with and enables bigotry and discrimination. It will be a line of attack from which even Republicans will struggle to defend him.