NEW YORK — President Trump on Tuesday revived his declaration that “both sides” were to blame for deadly violence at a white supremacist rally over the weekend in Charlottesville, abandoning his message from a day earlier that had emphasized the culpability of the groups that organized and participated in the event.
In a remarkable show of defiance, Trump insisted during a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan that there were “two sides to a story” just a day after he had belatedly condemned racist hate groups for the mayhem that left a woman dead and many other people injured.
Trump — clearly chafing at the political backlash over his handling of the situation and his aides’ attempts to rein him in — also appeared eager to cast aspersions on the counterprotesters, who he said acted “very, very violently” and “came charging with clubs in their hand” at the rally participants.
“Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he asked rhetorically. “Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
The president also made clear that he believes that many of the participants in the Unite the Right rally were taking part in a lawful demonstration against the Charlottesville city council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public square.
“You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay?” Trump said. “And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
There were some “fine people” among the counterprotesters, he added, but also “troublemakers” in “black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. . . . You had a lot of bad people in the other group.”
Trump’s remarks represented a rebuke of the broad array of political, civic and cultural leaders who had called on him over the past several days to clearly and firmly denounce the hate groups and offer support for the victims of the violence. Under mounting pressure to set a clear moral tone for the nation, he instead lashed out defensively against criticism that he had fanned the flames of racial divisions and, in doing so, failed a crucial test of his presidency.
During the remarks — which caught senior aides watching from the lobby by surprise — Trump appeared far more passionate in defending many of the rally participants than he had in his more muted denunciation of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis a day earlier at the White House, where he read from prepared remarks. Visibly irritated, he parried with reporters and spoke over them, refusing several times to let them cut him off.
Speaking off the cuff, Trump compared Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Lee and Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Confederate commanders during the Civil War. He suggested that the former presidents might face the same fate and have their memorials removed because they owned slaves.
“You’re changing history,” Trump said. “You’re changing culture.”
Asked if he was putting the left-leaning counterprotesters on the same moral plane as the white supremacists, he replied: “I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. . . . 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.”
Lawmakers from both political parties quickly denounced the president’s remarks, with Republicans growing more vocal in their criticism than they had been in recent days. In a six-part Twitter message, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) declared the rally organizers to be “100% to blame,” and he pleaded with Trump to hold them accountable.
“Mr. President, you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame,” he wrote. He added: “The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win. We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected.”
But the president’s performance also won raves from white nationalist leaders, some of whom had begun to criticize him after he called their groups “repugnant to all we hold dear as Americans” in a statement Monday.
Trump reiterated Tuesday that neo-Nazis and white nationalists should be “totally condemned.” But he spent little time talking about those groups and instead pivoted repeatedly to defending the “alt-right,” a loose coalition of conservative and fringe groups that back a nationalist agenda and have been widely criticized as racist and xenophobic.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the alt-right?” Trump said.
David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, praised the president on Twitter for his “honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa” — using shorthand for the Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist movements.
The result was that a president whose seven months on the job have been marked by scandal, West Wing infighting and a stalled legislative agenda found himself again on the defensive — at least in part because of his stubbornness and willingness to step on his intended message.
Trump had come down to the Trump Tower lobby to announce a new executive action on infrastructure, hoping to pressure lawmakers on a key agenda item.
The plan was for the president, flanked by Cabinet members, to make a brief announcement and display a complicated flow chart of regulatory requirements for builders that his administration hopes to streamline, said a person familiar with Trump’s schedule. Then, the president would step aside and allow his deputies to answer reporters’ questions about the specifics of the plan.
Instead, Trump began fielding questions. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly — a former homeland security secretary brought in two weeks ago to help bring order to a chaotic and undisciplined White House — stood on the side looking grim-faced, his head bowed and arms crossed during some of the question-and-answer session.
“People inside the White House are aware the press conference did not go well,” said one Republican operative who is in frequent contact with senior West Wing officials. “Trump had a bad day here.”
It is not clear whether the president would agree. As his approval ratings have plummeted to well below 40 percent, he has moved to appeal directly to his base of hard-core supporters.
On Tuesday morning, he retweeted a doctored cartoon image of a Trump train running into a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head. The tweet was soon deleted after criticism that it was insensitive in the wake of the death of Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed in Charlottesville when a car plowed into a group of counterprotesters. Prosecutors have charged James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio in the case.
In the Trump Tower lobby, Trump seized on a “beautiful” Monday statement from Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who had thanked the president “for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred,” to make the case that he has handled the situation with care.
“It was something I really appreciated,” he said. “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.”
He promised to reach out to her but did not say when.
Nakamura reported from Washington.