It was inevitable that President Trump’s brief news conference on Tuesday concerning national infrastructure would, instead, be redirected to a discussion of the violent protest in Charlottesville this past weekend and his delayed criticism of the racist and pro-Nazi groups that were central to it.
It did not seem inevitable, though, that Trump’s responses to questions about those protests would cement as correct the general interpretation of his first comments on the matter: He’s sympathetic to the goals of the men who marched Saturday night carrying Confederate and Nazi flags — and even to the “peaceful” torchlight protest on Friday in which marchers chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans.
After those protests spiraled into violence on Saturday and after a counterdemonstrator was killed by a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist from Ohio, Trump offered a wan response to what had happened.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, this has been going on for a long, long time.”
The latter part of that statement is an attempt to distance himself from any blame for the recent increase in visible white nationalist activity. The former? An apparent attempt to equate those vocally defending Nazism and the goals of the Confederacy in Charlottesville with those who showed up in opposition. His critique was not just about the violence that day, but about “hatred” and “bigotry,” which, he suggested, was not just the province of the Nazis and racists.
On Monday, he read another statement, in which he finally and directly condemned the neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
“We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence,” he said. “We must discover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
It was clearly an attempt to stitch up some of the damage done by his initial response. But in the infrastructure news conference on Tuesday, he ripped the stitches open and salted the wound.
First, he tried to argue that he initially hesitated to condemn the explicitly racist elements at Charlottesville only because he didn’t have enough information to do so.
“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,” he said about the timing of his comments on Saturday. “Before I make a statement, I need the facts, so I don’t want to rush into a statement.” In other words, he didn’t know enough at that point to pin blame for the violence (or hatred or bigotry) on the Klan and the Nazis alone.
“I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement,” he said.
That’s nonsense. Trump rushes to comment on nearly everything on Twitter, if he wants to. He regularly makes statements about terrorist attacks that appear to be linked to Islamist extremism shortly after they conclude — or even before they have ended. He has also tweeted about and commented on attacks that he suspects may have been terrorist incidents before all the facts are known, like when he said that an attack in the Philippines attributed by authorities there to a robbery attempt was an example of terrorism.
Below, he tweeted about an attack in London, before British police determined that it was linked to terrorism:
That point didn’t matter, though, because of where Trump’s arguments went next. Right after he tried to argue that the Saturday statement had accused both sides of being at fault solely because he didn’t at the time know enough to pin the blame on the Klan and the Nazis, he then explicitly defended the aims of the original protest — and suggested that the counterprotesters were equally at fault!
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump said. “And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”
Later, Trump repeated the same argument.
“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,” he said. “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.”
This glosses over the question that his first statement raised, though, which was how he felt about the far-right and racist groups that spurred the demonstration in the first place. Those who engaged in violence on Saturday were certainly culpable, but the looming question was whether Trump felt that Nazis and people protesting those Nazis were otherwise equivalent. Such equivalence would suggest that racism and an embrace of Adolf Hitler have a place in America’s political conversation.
Trump gave every indication that he thought that equivalence existed.
“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, Robert E. Lee.”
He made it clear that he supported that goal.
“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” It should go without saying that there is a big difference between Washington’s ownership of slaves and Lee’s leading an army to defend the Confederacy’s insistence on maintaining the practice, but apparently it doesn’t. (In his statement on Saturday, Trump appeared to nod at this same point, saying Americans must “cherish our history and our future together.”)
That torchlight rally on Friday night, when protesters gave the Nazi salute, chanted “blood and soil” — a Nazi slogan — and “Jews will not replace us”?
“I looked the night before,” Trump said. “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. … But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know — I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit.”
Both sides, he said, had some “very fine people” participating Saturday.
After Trump’s initial statement on Saturday, white nationalist groups celebrated his positioning them on the same moral level as their opponents. For racists, that alone is a victory. After Tuesday’s news conference, he got another strong review in that vein.
It was indeed clear Tuesday that Trump’s honest opinion of what happened in Charlottesville was that David Duke and his allies were met by an equivalently immoral and un-American opponent.