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Pence joins in the effort to rewrite Trump’s Charlottesville history

Vice President Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) squared off on Oct. 7. Here are five fact checks from the debate. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate featured plenty of falsehoods and revisionist history. But none of them were on a topic more sensitive than Charlottesville.

Vice President Pence joined in a frequently revisited effort by President Trump and his allies to change the narrative of what Trump said about the 2017 tragedy in which a white supremacist killed a protester. Trump, you may recall, repeatedly suggested there was blame on “both sides” or “many sides” for what happened.

To hear Pence tell it, though, Trump has gotten a bad rap.

“You know, I think this is one of the things that makes people dislike the media so much in this country,” Pence said, “is that you selectively edit, just like Sen. [Kamala] Harris did, comments that President Trump and I and others on our side of the aisle make. I mean, Sen. Harris conveniently omitted, after the president made comments about people on either side of the debate over monuments, he condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and has done so repeatedly.”

Pence didn’t go as far as others in arguing that Trump’s “both sides” didn’t lump in the white supremacists, but it glossed over the fact that Trump’s denunciation was bookended by his both-sides commentary.

Back in 2019, I looked at this topic in-depth after the Biden campaign made it the focal point of its launch video and the Trump Team fought back. Given Pence’s new comments — and what some were saying last week following the White House for 48 hours declining to directly and forcefully condemn white supremacists — it’s a post that’s worth resurfacing:

Joe Biden’s presidential launch has again cast a spotlight on President Trump’s comments about the 2017 tragedy in Charlottesville. And in doing so, it has unearthed a surprising amount of revisionist history from Trump’s supporters.

And now from Trump himself, too.

In his announcement video, Biden prominently featured scenes from the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally that resulted in an avowed neo-Nazi killing a woman and injuring dozens of other by driving into a crowd of counterprotesters. Trump would soon condemn what happened “on many sides” and later argue there were “very fine people on both sides” of the scenes that weekend.

That led to an instant backlash, including by some in the White House, who felt Trump was downplaying the racism on display on that tragic day.

But some Trump supporters — and now Trump himself — have argued that he was taken out of context. They say he wasn’t referring to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists when he referred to “very fine people” on both sides, but rather some other people who shared their cause of saving a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

“If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly,” Trump said Friday. “I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee — a great general, whether you like it or not."

The argument makes little sense when you consider the facts on the ground, and it ignores Trump’s regular use of dog whistles and exploitation of plausible deniability.

Let’s recap what happened.

After the death of Heather Heyer, Trump on Aug. 12 condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence — on many sides.” He then repeated “on many sides,” apparently seeking to emphasize the idea that the counterprotesters (which included many who were peaceful and some who weren’t) needed to be condemned, as well.

After an outcry, Trump on Aug. 13 offered a more forceful denunciation of the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and white nationalists who had rallied in Charlottesville. But then, on Aug. 15, he again returned to the “both sides” commentary, saying there was both “blame” and “very fine people” on each side that day.

Contained in that third set of comments is a quote that Trump supporters, including Trump surrogate Steve Cortes and Breitbart News, have argued is exculpatory, They note that Trump, at one point, explicitly excluded neo-Nazis and white nationalists from his “very fine people” formulation.

Here’s a brief transcript (key parts bolded):

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.
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.

As you can see, Trump does say those groups should be “condemned totally.” This is the basis for what some call the “Charlottesville hoax.”

But it leads to the question: Which “very fine people” was he talking about? The “Unite the Right” rally was partly organized by a well-known white nationalist, Richard Spencer, and included both neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups. Former Ku Klux Klan head David Duke was a scheduled speaker. The cause they were protesting — the removal of Lee’s statue — is one supported by many non-white supremacists and non-white nationalists, but this rally was clearly not one for your average supporter of Confederate monuments.

And indeed, if you look at what Trump says next, it seems that he totally misconstrues who was actually protesting in Charlottesville. Here’s the next part:

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.

There was indeed another protest the night before the deadly rally, but it could hardly be described as “very quiet” or “fine people.” Here’s how The Post described the scene:

At their Friday night rally at the University of Virginia, the white nationalists brandished torches and chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans, including “blood and soil” (an English rendering of the Nazi “blut und boden”) and “Jews will not replace us” — all crafted to cast Jews as foreign interlopers who need to be expunged. The attendees proudly displayed giant swastikas and wore shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. One banner read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”

Vice News showed footage of these Friday-night protesters chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil."

For the Trump defense to make any sense, there would have had to be some other group of people who didn’t subscribe to these awful ideals but for some reason decided to march in common cause with neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists. It’s theoretically possible there might have been some such people there, but you would think they’d quickly become pretty uncomfortable marching next to people chanting “Jews will not replace us” — and people who appeared prepared for violence, even donning helmets.

And even if such people were somehow there, the overwhelming thrust of the rally was clearly not so innocuous. It was organized by well-known figures in those movements, and the turnout seemed to follow accordingly.

Trump does this a lot. He will say something suggestive — in this case, suggestive that the violence in Charlottesville wasn’t really such a clear-cut result of resurgent racism — and then he will later say something else to give himself plausible deniability. But the plausibility here is basically nil. Trump seemed to find something redeeming in a group of protesters that was clearly full of racists. And even though a person in this group actually killed someone, he decided the blame needed to be shared with another group that wasn’t nearly so monolithic or hateful — and didn’t kill anyone.

Oh, and even if you think the media has oversold these comments in some way, Biden’s summary was careful. Here’s how he portrayed it:

Charlottesville is also home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years. It was there on August of 2017 we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open, their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging and bearing the fangs of racism. Chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ‘30s. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued and a brave young woman lost her life.
And that’s when we heard the words from the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were some very fine people on both sides. Very fine people on both sides?
With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.

Biden correctly described who was marching that day, and then he correctly characterized Trump’s comments. The idea that he’s launching his campaign on the “Charlottesville hoax” or the “Charlottesville lie” is a rather amazing contention.

The lesson is similar with Pence’s comments Wednesday. It’s easy to isolate comments meant to insulate oneself — including last week, when Trump eventually and explicitly condemned white supremacists two days after his debate — but it’s also very possible to do so while sending plenty of other signals that point in a very different direction. And Trump’s history on this is anything but a matter of selective editing.