President Trump on Tuesday forcefully blamed counter-protesters as well as white supremacist groups for the weekend’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., abandoning his scripted condemnation just a day earlier of the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups widely seen as responsible.
Trump reverted instead to his initial stance, which he articulated just after a woman died on Saturday when a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist sped through counter-protesters and pedestrians. In that first reaction, he faulted “many sides” for the violence — igniting two days of bipartisan criticism that Trump sought to answer with Monday’s unequivocal denunciation of white supremacists.
On Tuesday, the president called his Saturday response “a fine statement.”
In a combative and caustic exchange with reporters at Trump Tower, the president described what he saw televised from Charlottesville: “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.
“And nobody wants to say that,” he continued, “but I’ll say it right now.”
Trump also expressed common cause with Confederate sympathizers and others working in a number of Southern communities to preserve monuments to Confederate heroes, as many locales act to take them down as a gesture of racial healing. It was a plan in Charlottesville to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that brought the white supremacists there from all over the nation for the rally on Saturday.
His statements brought a “thank you” from former Klan leader David Duke, but once again provoked widespread opposition, including among many Republicans who expressed anguish at Trump’s rhetoric.
The remarks amounted to another surreal moment in a presidency that has been full of them, in this case driving a new wedge into the nation’s racial divide. Trump, standing in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower in New York for the first time since his inauguration, beside two Cabinet secretaries and two economic advisors there to discuss infrastructure, grew defensive and angry when reporters asked him repeatedly about his initial failure, for two days, to unequivocally condemn the white supremacists.
He defended himself for the delay — “I didn’t wait long; I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct” — yet he in effect disavowed the Monday statement denouncing the white supremacists in Charlottesville that he’d made after presumably getting “the facts,” as he put it.
Then he reached into his suit coat, brandished a copy of his prepared remarks from Saturday, and approvingly read the most pertinent line: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.”
But Trump omitted the next phrase — “on many sides, on many sides” — that he had ad-libbed on Saturday, and which provoked the firestorm of criticism.
The president then explicitly and aggressively made the case for why the anti-racism counter-protesters were as much as fault as the armed white militias — a contention at odds with local police accounts.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say — the alt-right?” Trump challenged the reporters. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?
“What about the fact they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do,” he said of the counter-protesters.
From there, the exchange became chaotic, as Trump sparred with reporters about the clash and the state of racial relations. He addressed reporters as “fake news” and repeatedly called them dishonest, in a performance that was at turns abrasive, defensive and cutting. Intermittently, he remembered what he had initially intended to talk about.
“How about a couple of infrastructure questions?”
Nearby, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the retired general newly brought in to enforce discipline in the White House, clasped his hands and looked at the floor.
Trump even suggested some added culpability on the side of the counter-protesters, noting that the white supremacists had permits to demonstrate.
At one point the president echoed the sentiments of the white nationalists in his political coalition who often express fears of a lost heritage and traditions, as symbolized by moves against Confederate monuments..
“Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington lose his status?” he said. “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? Do you like him?” he asked, adding, “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
Trump condemned the alleged white supremacist in Charlottesville who was charged with murder for driving into a crowd of counter-protesters on Saturday and killing a woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring others. But he declined to label it specifically as an act of terrorism.
“The driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and his country,” Trump said. “You can call it terrorism, you can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.”
Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, wrote on Twitter: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists.”
Democrats and many Republicans renewed their criticisms.
“What he did today again goes back on what he said yesterday and that’s unacceptable,” tweeted Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado. “The President was wrong to do that.”
Other Republicans, including Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida and Dean Heller of Nevada, simply retweeted their weekend comments distancing themselves from Trump’s equivocal Saturday statement.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, may have had the most visceral reaction, tweeting that he read Trump’s remarks after stopping on the side of the road. “I nearly threw up,” he wrote. “An American President offering a defense of white supremacists. My god.”
Trump, asked about race relations during his presidency, said, “I think they’ve gotten better or the same,” adding, “Look, they’ve been frayed for a long time. And you can ask President Obama about that, because he’d make speeches about it.”
Jobs will unite the country, he said, promising to bring more of them, “great jobs, with good pay.”
Trump had seemed eager to move past the controversy over his leadership amid the violence, but even before Tuesday’s diatribe, he could not let his grievances go.
Up early as usual, the president retweeted a cartoon depicting a “Trump train” mowing down a CNN reporter, a particularly ill-timed gesture after the chilling images from the fatal car attack in Charlottesville.
The posting was quickly deleted along with one other. A White House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the retweets were “inadvertently posted” but did not say who removed them. The deletions were a rare move for a White House that is loath to admit error.
At the same time, the since-deleted postings seemed part of a pattern in which Trump lately has said or done things to appeal to his most ardent supporters on the right, as if to signal solidarity with them especially after his Monday criticism of the white hate groups.
Subsequently there were his tweets and remarks lambasting the media, and in particular CNN. He told Fox News that he was considering a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona county sheriff and Trump campaign supporter who was recently convicted of defying a judge’s order to stop racial profiling of Latinos when he was sheriff. Trump tweeted Fox’s report, and that tweet remained on his feed.
And Trump did not back down from his much-criticized attack a day earlier, on Twitter, against the African American chief executive of Merck & Co., Kenneth C. Frazier, who left the president’s advisory council on manufacturing in protest of Trump’s initial failure Saturday to specifically blame the hate groups for the violence in Charlottesville.
On Tuesday, after two more corporate chief executives resigned from his council, the president lashed out at the group on Twitter for their “grandstanding.”
But if Trump’s tweet was meant to intimidate other would-be defectors, it seemed to backfire.
After he sent it, another member of the council, Scott Paul, president of the trade group Alliance for American Manufacturing, withdrew. Wal-Mart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, did not resign his position on a different advisory panel, but said in a statement that Trump on Saturday had “missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists.”
Javier Palomarez, president and chief executive of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who serves on Trump’s National Diversity Coalition, denounced the president’s handling of the Charlottesville violence and called for the ouster of Stephen K. Bannon, the White House strategist who served as a conduit to white nationalists when he was head of Breitbart News.
They’re leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside [the United States], and I’ve been lecturing them,” Trump said Tuesday.
His remarks to reporters prompted a fifth defection from the manufacturing council, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
“President Trump’s remarks today repudiate his forced remarks yesterday about the KKK and neo-Nazis,” the union said in a statement. “We must resign on behalf of America’s working people, who reject all notions of legitimacy of these bigoted groups.”
Times staff writers Sameea Kamal and Jim Puzzanghera contributed to this report.