By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and MAGGIE HABERMAN
President Donald Trump angrily defended himself on Tuesday against criticism that he did not specifically condemn Nazi and white supremacist groups following the weekend’s deadly racial unrest in Virginia, and at one point questioned whether the movement to pull down statues of Confederate leaders would escalate to the desecration of George Washington.
In a long, combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan, the president repeatedly rejected a torrent of bipartisan criticism for waiting several days before naming the right-wing groups and placing blame on “many sides” for the violence on Saturday that ended with the death of a young woman after a car crashed into a crowd.
He said that “before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”
And he criticized “alt-left” groups that he claimed were “very, very violent” when they sought to confront the nationalist and Nazi groups that had gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park. He said there is “blame on both sides.”
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “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.
The president’s breathtaking statements inflamed and stunned people across Twitter.
“Blaming ‘both sides’ for #Charlottesville?! No,” wrote Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. “Back to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists? Just no.”
“No words,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, praised Trump’s comments as a condemnation of “leftist terrorists.”
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” Duke said in a Twitter post.
Trump defended those gathered in the Charlottesville park to protest the statue’s removal, saying, “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
Trump unleashed a torrent of frustration at the news media, saying they were being “fake” because they did not acknowledge that his initial statement about the Charlottesville protest was “very nice.”
Again and again, Trump said that the portrayal of nationalist protesters in the city were not all Nazis or white supremacists, and he said it was unfair to suggest that they were.
“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch,” he said, adding that blame for the violence in the city – which also took the lives of two Virginia state troopers when their helicopter crashed – should also be on people from “the left” who came to oppose the nationalist protesters.
“You had a group on one side and the other, and they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious and horrible. It was a horrible thing to watch,” the president said. “There is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. You can say what you want. That’s the way it is.”
He also called the alleged driver of the car that crashed into the crowd, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, “a disgrace to himself, his family and this country. You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.”
Fields is being held without bail on charges of murder and malicious wounding in the death of Heather Heyer. His first court appearance was on Monday.
The president’s raw and emotional eruption during a news conference about repairing infrastructure was a rejection of the more measured language about the unrest that Trump offered in a brief statement on Monday from the White House.
In that statement, Trump appeared to distance himself from his earlier claims on Saturday that two sides were to blame for the weekend violence. But on Tuesday, Trump returned to his initial feelings about the subject, which poured out without much prompting from reporters at Trump Tower.
“There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country,” the president said.
Trump said his initial statement on Saturday was shaped by a lack of information about the events on the ground in Charlottesville, even though television statements had been broadcasting images of the violence throughout the morning.
“There was no way of making a correct statement that early,” the president said. “I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters. I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts.”
But Trump also made it clear that even now – with the benefit of hindsight – he does not accept the overwhelming criticism that he should have reserved his condemnation for the white supremacist and Nazi groups.
Referring to the reporters assembled, he insisted that he had watched the protests “much more closely than you people watched it.” He said that he believes there were “bad” people on both sides, and he criticized others for being unwilling to say that.
“You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” the president said. “Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”
Asked whether he considers the alt-left as the same as neo-Nazis, Trump said: “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups.”
And he said it should be “up to a local town, community” to say whether the statue of Robert E. Lee should remain in place.