Another Reversal: Trump Now Says Counterprotesters Also To Blame For Charlottesville

Aug 15, 2017
Originally published on August 16, 2017 1:02 am

Updated at 7:26 p.m. ET

In a stunning reversal from comments he made just one day prior, President Trump said on Tuesday "there's blame on both sides" for the violence in Charlottesville, Va.

On Monday, Trump specifically called out the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in a choreographed statement read at the White House — but that was two days after his initial statement on the protests, for which he was criticized for not condemning those groups and instead cited violence "on many sides."

On Tuesday, Trump was back home at Trump Tower in New York City and took questions from reporters in an impromptu, highly combative press conference that was expected to be limited to statements by the president and members of his Cabinet about infrastructure.

Instead, he returned to equating the demonstrators — who came to the college town to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, donning Confederate flags and swastikas, some carrying guns and shields, chanting "blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us" — with counterprotesters.

"I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I'm saying is this — 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," Trump said. "But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left, you've just called them the left, that came, violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that's the way it is."

Trump also pointed out that the "Unite the Right" rally had received a permit from the city for their demonstration, while "the other group didn't have a permit."

"So I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country. A horrible moment. But there are two sides," the president said.

"OK, what about the alt-left that came charging ... at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this, 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," the president added. "As far as I'm concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day."

And he also equated Confederate statues with ones of slaveholding Founding Fathers and former presidents.

"Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How 'bout Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK, good," Trump argued. "Are we going to take down the statue because he was a major slave-owner? Now we're going to take down his statue. So you know what, it's fine. You're changing history; you're changing culture."

The gathering of white nationalists over the weekend in Charlottesville resulted in multiple injuries and the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed after a car was rammed into a group of counterprotesters. The suspect has been denied bond and is charged with second-degree murder.

Trump said he hadn't called Heyer's family yet but that he would soon. He thanked her mother for a "beautiful statement" that was "really terrific" in response to his comments Monday.

Of the suspect, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., Trump said he was a "murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing." But he didn't call it domestic terrorism as did Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Trump also took particular umbrage at the idea that he had waited too long to condemn the hate groups.

"I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct. Not make a quick statement," the president said. "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. You still don't know the facts. And it's a very, very important process to me. ... I want to know the facts."

However, in the past Trump has rarely shown restraint in responding to incidents like the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., when he tweeted "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism," and terrorist attacks in London earlier this year, when he criticized the response of the city's mayor. Back in 2011, he began peddling the false birther conspiracy against then-President Barack Obama, at one point tweeting that "An 'extremely credible source' has called my office and told me that @BarackObama's birth certificate is a fraud." He has made plenty of false statements just since entering the Oval Office.

After the press conference, former KKK grand wizard David Duke thanked the president on Twitter for his "honesty and courage" and for being willing to "condemn" Black Lives Matter and anti-fascists (whom Trump did not name).

Trump faced widespread criticism for what was seen as an insufficient statement about the events on Saturday. Seeming to bow to those critiques on Monday, he delivered a new statement and placed blame on white supremacist groups. But after his apparent walkback on Tuesday, some GOP leaders spoke out again.

"We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity," House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted, apparently in reference to Trump's remarks, although he didn't mention the president by name.

"I don't understand what's so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, tweeted.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said on CNN that he "tried to give [Trump] the benefit of the doubt, for just saying the words yesterday. But he just couldn't move on. I think the residents of Charlottesville will be extremely disappointed but not surprised."


Read a transcript of the president's remarks:

TRUMP: Hello everybody. Great to be back in New York with all of our friends and some great friends outside the building, I must tell you. I want to thank all of our distinguished guests who are with us today, including members of our cabinet, treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, OMB director Mick Mulvaney and of course our transportation secretary, who is doing a fabulous, job Elaine Chao. Thank you all for doing a really incredible and creative job on what we're going to be discussing today, which is infrastructure.

We've just had a great set of briefings upstairs on our infrastructure agenda. My administration is working every day to deliver the world class infrastructure that our people deserve and frankly, that our country deserves.

That's why I just signed a new executive order to dramatically reform the nation's badly broken infrastructure permitting process. Just blocks away is the Empire State Building. It took 11 months to build the Empire State Building. But today it could take as long as a decade and much more than that. Many many stores where it takes 20 and 25 years just to get approvals to start construction of a fairly routine highway. Highway builders must get up to 16 different approvals involving nine different federal agencies, governed by 29 different statutes. One agency alone can stall a project for many many years and even decades. Not only does this cost economy billions of dollars but it also denies our citizens the safe and modern infrastructure they deserve. This overregulated permitting process is a massive self-inflicted wound on our country.

It's disgraceful. Denying our people much needed investments in their community and I just want to show you this, because it was just shown [to] me and I [said], I think I'm going to show it to the media, both real and fake media. by the way. This is what it takes to get something approved today. Elaine, you see that? So this is what it takes — permitting process flowchart. That's a flowchart.

So that can go out to 20 years, this shows about 10. But that could go out to about 20 years to get something approved. This is for a highway. I've seen a highway recently in a certain state, I won't mention its name, it's 17 years. I could have built it for four or five million dollars without the permitting process. It cost hundreds of millions of dollars but it took 17 years to get it approved.

And many many many many pages of environmental impact studies.

This is what we will bring it down to. This is less than two years. This is going to happen quickly. That's what I'm signing today. This will be less than two years for a highway. So it's going to be quick. It's going to be a very streamlined process. And by the way, if it doesn't meet environmental safeguards, we're not going to approve it. Very simple.

We're not going to approve it. So maybe this one will say ... let's throw the other one away. Would anybody like it from the media? Would anybody like that long beautiful chart? You can have it.

So my executive order also requires agencies to work together efficiently by requiring one lead agency for each major infrastructure project. It also holds agencies accountable if they fail to streamline their review process. So each agency is accountable. We're going to get infrastructure built quickly, inexpensively, relatively speaking, and the permitting process will go very very quickly.

No longer will we tolerate one job killing delay after another. No longer will we accept a broken system that benefits consultants and lobbyists at the expense of hardworking Americans.

Now I knew the process very well, probably better than anybody. I had to get permits for this building and many of the buildings I built — all of the buildings I built in Manhattan and many other places.

And I will tell you that the consultants are rich people.

They go around making it very difficult. They lobby Congress, they lobby state governments, city governments, to make it very difficult so that you have to hire consultants and that you have to take years and pay them a fortune.

So we're streamlining the process had we won't be having so much of that anymore. No longer will we allow the infrastructure of our magnificent country to crumble and decay. While protecting the environment, we will build gleaming new roads, bridges, railways, waterways, tunnels and highways.

We will rebuild our country with American workers, American iron, American aluminum, American steel. We will create millions of new jobs and make millions of American dreams come true. Our infrastructure will again be the best in the world. We used to have the greatest infrastructure anywhere in the world. And today we're like a third world country. We are literally like a third world country.

Our infrastructure will again be the best and we will restore the pride in our communities, our nation, and all over the United States we'll be proud again. So I want to thank everybody for being here. God bless you. God bless the United States.

And if you have any questions, we have — Mick, you could come up here please. Come on up. Mick Mulvaney. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

REPORTER: Why do you think these CEOs are leaving your manufacturing council?

TRUMP: Because they're not taking their job seriously as it pertains to this country. We want jobs, manufacturing in this country. If you look at some of those people that you're talking about, they're outside of the country, they're having a lot of their product made outside. If you look at Merck as an example, take a look where, excuse me. Excuse me. Take a look at where their product is made. It's made outside of our country. We want products made in the country.

Now I have to tell you, some of the folks that will leave, they're leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside. And I've been lecturing them, including the gentleman that you're referring to, about you have to bring it back to this country. You can't do it necessarily in Ireland and all of these other places, you have to bring this work back to this country. That's what I want. I want manufacturing to be back into the United States so that American workers can benefit.

REPORTER: Why did you wait so long to blast Neo Nazis?

TRUMP: I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct. Not make a quick statement. 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 fact. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don't know the facts. And it's a very, very important process to me. And it's a very important statement. So I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts —

If you go back to my ... in fact, I brought it. I brought it.

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As I said on, remember this, on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. And then I went on from there. Now here's the thing --

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Excuse me. Excuse me. Take it nice and easy. Here's the thing. When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn't even happen yet, as we were speaking. This event just happened. Before I make a statement, I need the facts. So I don't want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent.

In fact, the young woman, who I hear is a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC, her mother wrote me and said through, I guess Twitter, social media, the nicest things. And I very much appreciated that. I hear she was a fine, really actually an incredible, young woman. But her mother on Twitter thanked me for what I said.

And honestly, if the press were not fake, and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. But unlike you —

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But unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.

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REPORTER: The CEO of Wal Mart said you missed a critical opportunity to help bring the country together. Did you?

TRUMP: Not at all. I think the country, look, you take a look, I've created over a million jobs since I'm president, the country is booming, the stock market is setting records, we have the highest employment numbers we've ever had in the history of our country, we're doing record business. We have the highest levels of enthusiasm. So the head of Wal Mart — who I know, who is very nice guy – was making a political statement.

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... I want to make sure, when I make a statement, that the statement is correct. And there was no way, there was no way of making a correct statement that early. I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of REPORTERs. Unlike a lot of REPORTERs -

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I didn't know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts. And the facts as they started coming out were very well stated. In fact, everybody said, his statement was beautiful, if he would have made it sooner, that would have been good. I couldn't have made it sooner because I didn't know all of the facts. Frankly, people still don't know all of the facts.

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Excuse me. Excuse me. It was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly. Because if I would have made a fast statement, and the first statement was made without knowing much other than what we were seeing. The second statement was made after, with knowledge, with great knowledge. There's still things. Excuse me. There's still things that people don't know. I want to make a statement with knowledge. I wanted to know the states.

REPORTER: Was this terrorism?

TRUMP: The driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country. And that is, you can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That's what I'd call it. Because there is a question: Is it murder, is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.

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REPORTER: Do you still have confidence in Steve Bannon?

TRUMP: Look, look. I like Mr. Bannon. He's a friend of mine. But, Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. And I like him, he's a good man, he is not a racist, I can tell you that. He's a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard. But we'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon but he's a good person and I think the press treats him frankly very unfairly.

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REPORTER: Senator McCain has called on you to defend your national security advisor H. R. McMaster against some of these attacks —

TRUMP: I've already done that. I did it the last time.

REPORTER: And he called on it again —

TRUMP: Senator McCain? Senator McCain? You mean the one who voted against Obamacare? Who is Senator? You mean Senator McCain who voted against us getting good health care?

REPORTER: Senator McCain said that the alt right is behind these attacks and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville —

TRUMP: Well, I don't know. I can't tell you. I'm sure Senator McCain must know what he's talking about. But when you say the alt right, define alt right to me. You define it. No you define it for me.

REPORTER: Sen. McCain defined them as —

TRUMP: Ok what about the alt left that came charging — excuse me. What about the alt left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this, 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. As far as I'm concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I'm not finished. I'm not finished, fake news.

That was a horrible day.

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I will tell you something. I watched those very closely. Much more closely than you people watched it. And you have, 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.

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

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REPORTER: Do you think that what you call the alt left is the same as neo Nazis?

TRUMP: All of those people — excuse me. I've condemned neo Nazis. 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, Robert E. Lee. So. Excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups, and you see and you'd know it if you were honest REPORTERs, which in many cases you're not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

So, this week it's Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

But they were there to protest, excuse me, you take a look the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Infrastructure question, go ahead.

REPORTER: Should statues of Robert E. Lee stay up?

TRUMP: I would say that's up to a local town, community or the federal government depending on where it is located.

REPORTER: ... race relations in America and do you think things have gotten worse or better since you took office?

TRUMP: I think they've gotten better or the same. Look, they've been frayed for a long time. And you can ask President Obama about that because he'd make speeches about it. But I believe that the fact that I brought in, it will be soon, millions of jobs, you see where companies are moving back into our country, I think that's going to have a tremendous positive impact on race relations.

We have companies coming back into our country. We have two car companies that just announced, we have FoxConn in Wisconsin just announced. We have many companies, I say pouring back into the country. I think that's going to have a huge, positive impact on race relations. You know why? It's jobs. What people want now, they want jobs. They want great jobs with good pay. And when they have that, you watch how race relations will be. And I'll tell you, we're spending a lot of money on the inner cities. We're fixing the inner cities. We're doing far more than anybody's done with respect to the inner cities. It's a priority for me. And it's very important.

REPORTER: Are you putting what you're calling the alt left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?

TRUMP: I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I'm saying is this. 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 viscous and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left, you've just called them the left, that came, violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that's the way it is.

REPORTER: You said there was hatred and violence on both sides —

TRUMP: Well, I do think there's blame, yes, I think there's blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there's blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it. And you don't have any doubt about it either. And, and if you reported it accurately, you would say it.

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TRUMP: Excuse me. You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group, excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park, from Robert E. Lee to another name.

George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So will George Washington now lose his status — are we going to take down — excuse me. Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How 'bout Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Ok, good. Are we going to take down the statue because he was a major slave-owner? Now we're going to take down his statue. So you know what, it's fine. You're changing history, you're changing culture. And you had people, and I'm not talking about the neo Nazis or the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo Nazis and white nationalists, ok? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You got a lot of bad people in the other group too.

REPORTER: You said the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?

TRUMP: No. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before, if you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I'm sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people. Neo Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. Because I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit. So I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country. A horrible moment. But there are two sides.

TRUMP: Does anybody have a final —

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REPORTER: What makes you think you can get an infrastructure bill, you didn't get health care –

TRUMP: Well, you know, I'll tell you. We came very close with health care. Unfortunately, John McCain decided to vote against it at the last minute. You'll have to ask John McCain why he did that. But we came very close to health care. We will end up getting health care but we'll get the infrastructure and actually infrastructure is something that I think will have bipartisan support on. I actually think Democrats will go along with the infrastructure.

REPORTER: Have you spoken to the family of the victim of the car attack?

TRUMP: No, I'll be reaching out. I'll be reaching out. I was very, I thought that the statement put out — the mother's statement — I thought was a beautiful statement. I will tell you, it was something that I really appreciated. I thought it was terrific and really under the kind of stress that she's under and the heartache that she's under, I thought putting out that statement to me was really something I won't forget.

Thank you all very much. Thank you.

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REPORTER: Will you go to Charlottesville?

TRUMP: I own a house in Charlottesville. Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?

REPORTER: Where is it?

TRUMP: Oh boy. It's in Charlottesville, you'll see.

REPORTER: Is it near the winery?

TRUMP: It is the winery. I mean, I know a lot about Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a great place. It's been very badly hurt over the last couple of days. I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States. It's in Charlottesville.

REPORTER: What do you think needs to be done to overcome the racial divide?

TRUMP: Well, I really think jobs going to have a big impact. I think if we continue to create jobs — over a million, substantially more than a million — and you see just the other day the car companies coming in, I think if we continue to create jobs at levels that I'm creating jobs, I think that's going to have a tremendous impact, a positive impact, on race relations.

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TRUMP: Because the people are going to be working, they're going to be making a lot of money, much more money than they ever thought possible. And the other thing, very important, I believe wages will start going up. They haven't gone up for a long time. I believe wages now, because the economy is doing so well with respect to employment and unemployment, I believe wages will start to go up. I think that will have a tremendously positive impact on race relations.

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