It took one day for President Trump to take Joe Biden’s bait.
Departing the White House on Friday morning, Trump defended the comments he made in the aftermath of the violent 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. when he claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Biden had focused on those comments Thursday as he announced his presidential candidacy. The former vice president cited Trump’s comments as evidence of the president’s corrosive impact on what he called “the soul of the nation.”
Trump did not back away from what he said nearly two years earlier, despite the criticism he has gotten from lawmakers in both parties.
“If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly,” Trump said Friday, after being asked about Biden’s reference to his Charlottesville response.
“I was talking about people who went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general — whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals.”
“I’ve spoken to many generals here right at the White House, and many people thought, of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general. People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.”
The August 2017 violence in Charlottesville began with a “Unite the Right” march organized by white nationalist groups upset over plans to remove a statue of the Confederate general from a local park. The march drew several hundred torch-bearing men and women to the University of Virginia campus, where many took part in an evening march across the quadrangle at which they shouted, among other things, “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Several fights broke out between anti-racism activists and far-right attendees, many of whom carried shields, weapons and Nazi and Confederate battle flags. One woman was killed when a driver plowed a car into a crowd of protesters.
As much as the president relishes engaging directly with his adversaries, his controversial response to Charlottesville and his hesitation in forcefully repudiating white nationalist groups appears to be a part of his record that won’t help him with swing voters heading into next year’s campaign.
Biden, seeking to separate himself from a sprawling 20-candidate primary field by presenting himself as Democrats’ strongest general-election candidate, sought in his announcement video to frame the 2020 race as a “battle for the soul of the nation.”
Recalling Trump’s response to Charlottesville in his three-and-a-half minute video, Biden said: “In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.”
“If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen,” Biden said.
Trump, in his remarks to reporters before leaving the White House to address the National Rifle Assn.’s annual convention in Indianapolis, expressed confidence about beating Biden, should he win the Democratic nomination.
“I think we beat him easily,” he said.
Trump, 72, also questioned if Biden, 76, may be too old to seek the presidency.
“I still feel like a young man,” he said. “I’m still young. I’m a young, vibrant man.”
During the rally, Trump continued to demonstrate that he would play offense with his perceived political liabilities, attacking special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report as a corrupt and illegal attempted “overthrow.”
“They tried for a coup — didn't work out so well,” Trump told the boisterous crowd. “And I didn't need a gun for that one, did I?”