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Trump’s illuminating defense of Kyle Rittenhouse

President Trump on Aug. 31 refused to criticize people involved in recent deadly clashes in Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis. (Video: The Washington Post)

At the start of and throughout his news conference Monday evening, President Trump attacked Joe Biden for condemning violence but not specifically left-wing perpetrators of it.

By the end of the news conference, Trump not only pointedly declined to condemn right-wing violence at the same demonstrations, he voluntarily defended it.

The president offered his first public comments about Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter who was charged with murder in Kenosha, Wis., as well as other Trump supporters who converged on Portland, Ore., and apparently fired paintball guns and pepper spray at protesters.

Trump found little fault with any of them. He noted that at least the paintballs weren’t bullets and called it a “peaceful protest.”

Well, I understand that had large numbers of people that were supporters, but that was a peaceful protest,” he said. “And paint is not — and paint as a defensive mechanism, paint is not bullets. … These people, they protested peacefully. They went in very peacefully."

Trump then pointed to a man who identifies as an anti-fascist and who is under investigation in the killing of a right-wing demonstrator after a Trump rally in Portland.

Trump said the man “shot a young gentleman and killed him — not with paint, but with a bullet. And I think it’s disgraceful.”

The president offered no such condemnation, though, when it was noted that one of his supporters, Rittenhouse, has been charged with killing with actual bullets in Kenosha. Trump indicated he thought Rittenhouse’s actions might have been warranted.

“That was an interesting situation,” he said. “You saw the same tape as I saw. And he was trying to get away from them. I guess it looks like he fell and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now, and it’s under investigation. But I guess he was in very big trouble. He would have been — probably would have been killed, but it’s under investigation."

The exchanges highlighted the similarities and the differences between Trump’s and Biden’s approaches to the unrest.

The Washington Post toured the Kenosha, Wis., neighborhood where the latest police shooting of a Black resident sparked protests across the nation. (Video: Sam Paakkonen/The Washington Post)

Biden has repeatedly condemned the violence that has occurred in cities across the country, often in broad terms. He has drawn criticism from Trump and his allies for not more specifically highlighting left-wing violence or mentioning antifa, but Biden has referenced “anarchists” and said he condemns violence on both sides of the political spectrum. “I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right,” Biden said Sunday.

Trump was given his own chance to acknowledge and condemn violence perpetrated by his supporters, and he notably took a hard pass — failing to even offer the broad type of denunciation that Biden has stated.

It bears noting that there is much we don’t know about the Rittenhouse situation. Multiple videos show him being chased by demonstrators, though it’s not clear what preceded that. Prosecutors charged him with two counts of murder and one count of attempted homicide. Trump’s comments echoed the defense put forth by the 17-year-old’s attorneys, who said he “did nothing wrong” and “exercised his God-given, constitutional, common law and statutory law right to self-defense.”

The contrast between how Trump spoke about that situation vs. the others is telling. In the Portland case, he called the actions of someone who hasn’t been charged “disgraceful”; in the case of Rittenhouse and the supporters who apparently fired paintballs and pepper spray at protesters, he defended them and suggested they were acting understandably under the circumstances.

Trump offered similar comments Sunday after videos surfaced showing his supporters in Portland.

“The big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected after 95 days of watching and incompetent Mayor admit that he has no idea what he is doing,” Trump tweeted in response to a video posted by New York Times reporter Mike Baker, who said Trump backers “shot me too.”

“The people of Portland won’t put up with no safety any longer. The Mayor is a FOOL. Bring in the National Guard!” the president wrote.

Trump offered similar comments on Fox News on Monday night, saying, “I want to leave it to law enforcement. But my supporters are wonderful, hardworking, tremendous people, and they turn on their television set and they look at a Portland or they look at a Kenosha ... They are looking at all of this and they can’t believe it. They can’t believe it.”

He added, despite the scenes of paint balls and pepper spray, that “it’s a peaceful protest.”

To some degree, this is how personal biases work. It’s easier to sympathize with someone who agrees with you and with whom you associate. You’re much more liable to question the motives of someone who you don’t align with, and you’re much more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to someone you sympathize with.

It’s evident to whom Trump gives the benefit of the doubt, from Charlottesville through today. And in the course of a couple of minutes Monday night, that benefit of the doubt applied to a supporter who has been charged with a crime — in a way it very much didn’t apply to another person who hasn’t. Trump’s comments about supporters who fire paintballs and pepper spray are also notably different from how he has talked about those who have used other nonlethal blunt instruments. Just because it’s not deadly doesn’t mean it’s not violent.

It’s one thing to decline to denounce someone more forcefully — particularly when there is an ongoing legal case; it’s another to volunteer defenses for them. And for a president who has criticized his opponent for supposedly failing to condemn people on his political side specifically enough, it was instructive that Trump declined to provide a similar statement.

Mark Berman contributed to this post. The post has been updated with Trump’s comments Monday night.