(CN) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday said that counterprotesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville over the weekend acted violently and should share the blame for the mayhem that left a woman dead and 19 others injured.
During a testy, often angry exchange with reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, the president described the events that unfolded Saturday as “horrible thing to watch,” but he stressed repeatedly that both sides were to blame for the violence.
“You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch,” the president said. “I think there’s blame on both sides.”
Asked about violence from the so-called “alt-right” that had occurred, Trump angrily responded, “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?”
“Do they have any semblance of guilt?” the president asked.
Within minutes of Trump’s remarks, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tweeted, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
Trump was widely criticized over the weekend for mentioning violence “on many sides” when giving a statement on the violent protests in Charlottesville, when white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups descended on the town to voice their objection to the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park that in a related move the city council also renamed Emancipation Park.
James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio man who has been tied to white nationalist groups, allegedly drove a car into a crowd of protesters in downtown Charlottesville during the protests, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring scores of others.
Fields was charged with second-degree murder on Saturday.
Trump did acknowledge it could be possible to deem Field’s alleged crime an act of terrorism or of murder, but he said the difference would purely be a semantic one.
While other politicians on both sides of the aisle condemned white supremacist organizations in the wake of the killing, Trump on Tuesday said he waited until Monday to specifically do so because he wanted to have all of the facts about the incident before delivering a statement.
“I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts,” Trump said. “Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts. It was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly.”
Trump said some of the people who gathered to protest the removal of the statue were not white nationalists, but were “innocently protesting.” He also questioned why more of the coverage of the event has not focused on the counter-protesters, whom he deemed “the alt-left.”
“I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it,” Trump said. “And you had a group on one side and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that but I’ll say it right now.”
Trump also questioned the removal of the statute that launched the protests, wondering whether movements will rise up to remove statues of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson because they owned slaves.
“You’re changing history, you’re changing culture,” Trump said. “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, okay.”
He added: “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” he said, noting that the first American president had owned slaves.
House Speaker Paul Ryan was the first Republican leader to comment on President Donald Trump’s remarks Tuesday, declaring in a tweet that “We must be clear, white supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio also faulted Trump’s remarks in a series of six tweets.
“The organizers of events which inspired & led to #charlottesvilleterroristattack are 100% to blame for a number of reasons,” Rubio began.
“Mr. President,you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame.They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain,” he continued. “They are adherents of an evil ideology which argues certain people are inferior because of race, ethnicity or nation of origin…When entire movement built on anger & hatred towards people different than you,it justifies & ultimately leads to violence against them…These groups today use SAME symbols & same arguments of #Nazi & #KKK, groups responsible for some of worst crimes against humanity ever.”
He concluded: “Mr. President,you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame.They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain…The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win.We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also reacted strongly to the president’s remarks, telling the president he is “embarrassing our country and the millions of Americans who fought and died to defeat Nazism. The violence in Charlottesville was not caused by the ‘alt-left,’ (whatever that may be). It was caused by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists who are attempting to spread their hateful and racist ideology.”