President again blames "both sides" for Saturday's violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, defending his original reaction.

US President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, US on August 15, 2017. (Reuters)
US President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, US on August 15, 2017. (Reuters)

Appearing frustrated, angry and irritated at several points, US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday at a news conference that his original reaction to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday was not delayed, but was in fact based on the facts he had at the time.

He emphatically tried to establish again that "both sides" –  anti-racist protesters and white nationalists – were to blame for the violence which left one dead and 19 injured.

What followed appeared to be Trump's unscripted defence of pro-slavery Confederates, their followers and statues, echoing some right-wing talking points and rhetoric from the far-right fringe.

Giving white supremacy a boost?

Trump said on Tuesday there were “very fine people on both sides” of the confrontation.

He seemed to sympathise with the protesters who were seeking to keep a statue of Confederate leader Robert E Lee in place but offered no equivalent remarks for those who favoured its removal.

Confederate leaders fought to separate Southern states from the Union and to maintain slaves and keep them from voting.

“You had people in that group ... that were there to protest the taking down of a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E Lee to another name,” Trump said.

Trump also grouped former presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two of the nation’s founding fathers, together with Confederate leaders such as Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, noting that all were slave owners.

“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 really do have to ask yourself, ‘Where does it stop?‘” Trump asked.

His statements mirrored a post on Monday by the publisher of The Daily Stormer, a notorious neo-Nazi website.

“These ‘protests’ are happening across the country,” Andrew Anglin wrote after a Confederate monument was taken down Monday in Durham, North Carolina.

“And I guarantee you, they are going to go to Washington, and they are going to demand that the Washington Monument be torn down. They might even try to pull it down. Because George Washington owned slaves. More importantly, he was a white man who built something.”

Anglin’s site takes its name from Der Stürmer, a newspaper that published Nazi propaganda.

Trying on both sides

On Tuesday in what became at times a heated exchange with reporters shouting questions, Trump explained his initial restrained response after the violence at the rally by saying: “The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement, but you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts.”

Trump reverted on Tuesday to his original position that both sides were at fault for the violence, a day after bowing to pressure to explicitly condemn the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.

Right-wing protesters had permit

“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 said, referring to right- and left-wing protesters.

“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch,” Trump said of the protest.

Pointing out the white supremacists had a permit for their rally and those protesting against them did not, Trump seemingly attempted to even the field. 

“You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent,” he said.

“There was a group on this side. You can call them the left ... that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”

At Charlottesville protest

The violence erupted on Saturday after white nationalists converged in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally in protest of plans to remove a statue of Lee.

Many of the rally participants were seen carrying firearms, sticks and shields. Some also wore helmets. Counter-protesters likewise came equipped with sticks, helmets and shields.

The two sides clashed in scattered street brawls before a car ploughed into the rally opponents, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.

The same day, Trump denounced hatred and violence “on many sides," similar to the lines he used on Tuesday.

The initial comment drew sharp criticism across the political spectrum for not explicitly condemning the white nationalists whose presence was widely seen as having provoked the unrest.

Yielding two days later to a mounting political furore over his initial response, Trump delivered a follow-up message expressly referring to the “KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups” as “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Critics said Trump’s remarks then belied his reluctance to alienate extreme right-wing organisations, whose followers constitute a devoted segment of his political base despite his disavowal of them.

Democrats seized on Trump’s latest words as evidence that Trump sees white nationalists and those protesting against them as morally equivalent. This was also pointed out by one of the reporters during the chaotic briefing.

“By saying he is not taking sides, Donald Trump clearly is,” Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer of New York, said. “When David Duke and white supremacists cheer your remarks, you’re doing it very, very wrong.”

In a similar vein, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said Trump’s characterisation of the violence missed the mark.

“Neo-Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists came to Charlottesville heavily armed, spewing hatred and looking for a fight. One of them murdered a young woman in an act of domestic terrorism, and two of our finest officers were killed in a tragic accident while serving to protect this community. This was not ‘both sides‘,” he said.

Continuing exits

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labour federation representing 12.5 million workers, became the latest member of Trump’s advisory American Manufacturing Council to resign in protest.

“We cannot sit on a council for a president who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism,” Trumka said. “President Trump’s remarks today repudiate his forced remarks yesterday about the KKK and neo-Nazis.”

More Confederate statues under threat 

Cities and states accelerated their plans to remove Confederate monuments from public property.

Only two statues were taken down immediately, in Gainesville, Florida, where the Daughters of the Confederacy removed a statue of a Confederate soldier known as “Ole Joe,” and in Durham, North Carolina, where protesters used a rope to pull down a Confederate monument dedicated in 1924.

In Maryland, GOP Governor  Larry Hogan said he would push to remove the statue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott ruling in 1857 affirming slavery, from state land.

“While we cannot hide from our history, nor should we, the time has come to make clear the difference between properly acknowledging our past and glorifying the darkest chapters of our history,” said Hogan.

Similar plans were being made in Dallas, Tennessee, Baltimore and San Antonio, as well as Lexington, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Florida; and elsewhere.

When Trump was asked whether Charlottesville’s Lee statue should come down, he said: “I would say that’s up to a local town, community or the federal government, depending on where it is located.”

A law professor and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio called removal a “slippery slope,” saying judging historical figures through a modern lens can be difficult.

Statues, he added, can be moved, but he’s opposed to them being “put in a warehouse never to be seen again because then you’re kind of erasing or rewriting history.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies