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Trump’s dishonest rant about his Charlottesville comments

President Trump gave an insult-laden speech at a campaign rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Alex Brandon/The Washington Post)

President Trump was in rare (okay, well, maybe not for him) form at a campaign-style rally Tuesday night in Arizona, delivering more than an hour-long speech in which he threatened a government shutdown, suggested he will pardon controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and again threatened to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But before he got to all that, he delivered a lengthy, 15-minute-plus defense of his comments about Charlottesville — comments that earned criticism both from the left and from many on the right and reportedly alienated his own staff.

Trump, as he has made clear, doesn't see anything wrong with what he said. But he also completely skirted the most controversial parts of his comments — when he blamed “both sides” and “many sides” for the kind of violence that was perpetrated in this particular case by white supremacists. He also fudged plenty of details.

Below, I break down the relevant sections of Trump's defense.

“But the very dishonest media, those people right up there with all the cameras. … They don't report the facts. Just like they don't want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred, bigotry and violence and strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and the KKK.”

Trump's initial comments on Charlottesville on Aug. 12 were anything but “forcefully” speaking out against neo-Nazis and white supremacists. He did condemn “hatred, bigotry and violence,” but he did not attach it to neo-Nazis or white supremacists. Instead, he blamed “many sides” and didn't even mention those groups.

Here's what he said:

TRUMP: But we're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence — on many sides. On many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country.

Two days later, on Aug. 14, he did offer a more forceful denunciation in a prepared statement, saying, “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.”

But the following day, Aug. 15, he seemed to revert to his initial comments. In a news conference with reporters, he again suggested there was blame to be shared. He was asked repeatedly about neo-Nazis and white supremacists and kept alluding to the fact that there was blame on “both sides” of the situation.

A sampling:

Q: Mr. President, 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 vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side.
Q: You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides.
TRUMP: Well, I do think there's blame, yes. I think there's blame on both sides. You look at — 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 you have some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.

Trump did eventually mention neo-Nazis and white nationalists and say they should be “condemned totally,” but it was literally an aside — a brief departure from his “both sides” comments:

TRUMP: And you had people — and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Okay? 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.

His second and final mention of neo-Nazis and white nationalists called them “bad people” but again quickly returned to both-sides-ism.

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 you know — 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 to the country.

Trump did, at one point, forcefully denounce neo-Nazis and white nationalists. But that wasn't his initial response, and the totality of his comments suggests he doesn't think they are particularly culpable or their actions are unique in this whole situation. That's the source of the controversy that had even many Republicans speaking out.

“I openly called for unity, healing and love, and they know it because they were all there.”

Trump's initial comments made no mention of these things. He did mention unity and love in his Aug. 14 comments.

“So what I did is I thought, I'd take just a second, and I'm really doing this more than anything else, because you know where my heart is, okay? … So here's what I said, really fast, here's what I said on: 'We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia' — this is me speaking. 'We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.' That's me speaking on Saturday. Right after the event. So I'm condemning 'the strongest, possible terms,' 'egregious display,' 'hatred, bigotry and violence.' ”

Trump dishonestly truncates his comments here. The next six words out of his mouth on Aug. 12 were " … on many sides. On many sides.” Without those words, his comments wouldn't have been so controversial. To leave that part out is to ignore to source of the entire controversy.

“So this is me — 'It has no place in America' — I'm talking about hatred, bigotry and violence — 'It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety, security in our society, and no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play or be with their parents and have a good time.' This is me speaking.”

This is the part after “on many sides” which, again, he conveniently left out.

“So in my second statement, I got really specific, and they said, why didn't he do it faster? The — I'm telling you folks, look, look, I know these people probably better than anybody.”

Trump did get more specific in his second statement on Aug. 14, and he earned praise for it. It also came two days after a very high-profile case of racial violence that dominated the news and gripped the country, and with controversy swirling around his “many sides” comment. In that context, two days is a long time. And then Trump's comments the following day, Aug. 15, reverted to his initial “many sides"/"both sides"-ism.

“So, I said here's my — this is, by the way folks, this is my exact words — 'I love all the people of our country. We're going to make America great again, but we're going to make it great for all of the people of the United States of America.' And then they say, is he a racist? Is he a racist? Then, I did a second one. So then I did a second one. … So on August the 14th — so that was it, and I said all people, I love all people, everything, right? Now I figure I'm going to do it again. I'll be even more specific. So I said, based on the events that took place over the last weekend in Charlottesville, I'd like to provide the nation with an update. Because that was right after the event, the first one, right? An update on ongoing federal response to the horrific attack and violence that was witnessed by everybody. To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence, you will be held fully accountable, justice will be delivered. That's what I said. Listen to that, I said that, but they don't show that. They don't show it. They take — they'll take one thing, like, seriously, he was late was the best thing. He was late.”

Trump's comments on Aug. 14 were widely broadcast. It's unclear what he thinks was skirted over.

“Then I said, 'Racism is evil.' Do they report that I said that racism is evil?”

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. This was the headline and chyron for many major national news outlets.

“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 true as Americans. Now let me ask you, can it be any better than that, in all fairness?”

That's a very strong statement that bears no resemblance to what Trump said on Aug. 12 and Aug. 15.

“But they also said that he must be a racist because he never mentioned the driver of the car, who is a terrible person, drove the car and he killed Heather, and it's a terrible thing. But they said I didn't mention, so these are my words. 'The driver of the car is a murderer, and what he did was a horrible, inexcusable thing.' They said I didn't mention it.”

Trump didn't mention this until his Aug. 15 comments, three days after the tragedy. And his lack of mentions of the woman killed, Heather Heyer, is a stark contrast to Trump's regular highlighting of victims of immigrant crime and Islamic terrorism.