For the white supremacists who have been roundly vilified since their rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, Donald Trump’s news conference on Tuesday came as validation: The president used many of their talking points, condemning the left-wing groups that animate their rage and defending monuments to Confederate leaders who tried to protect slavery.
Democratic and Republican politicians quickly decried Trump’s impromptu question-and-answer session. But for the so-called alt-right, whose nationalistic and anti-immigrant views helped fuel Trump’s rise, Tuesday’s remarks served as encouragement at a perilous moment for the movement, after a white nationalist rammed his car into counterprotesters amid the demonstration, killing one and wounding more than a dozen.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” Trump said. “You can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”
The gratitude from the fringes of the American right came quickly.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists,” tweeted David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and outspoken Trump supporter who attended the Charlottesville protest.
The “Unite the Right” rally in the Virginia college town dissolved into chaos over the weekend as marchers — wielding Confederate and Nazi flags and bearing tiki torches and rifles as they denounced Charlottesville’s decision to remove a public statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — clashed with counterprotesters, including some from Black Lives Matter and a group that goes by “antifa,” short for anti-fascist.
Trump issued a statement Saturday condemning the violence on “many sides” but did not specifically address the racist groups at the center of the events. (On Tuesday, he said he’d been waiting for more facts; he said he hadn’t known Duke was present, for example.)
On Monday, Trump gave brief prepared remarks in which he called out the KKK and neo-Nazis by name and declared racism “evil,” though white nationalists said they didn’t take the condemnation seriously.
But by Tuesday he was back to arguing that the white nationalists ought not bear all the blame.
“I think there is blame on both sides. You look at, you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides,” Trump said.
He assailed the counterprotesters for not having a permit.
“You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent,” he said.
And he said many of the people in Charlottesville weren’t hate-filled, just showing their opposition to the city council’s vote earlier this year to remove the statue. (The statue remains in place for now while the issue is tied up in court.)
“It looked like they had some rough, bad people, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call ‘em,” Trump said. “But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.”
In fact, Trump argued, if statues of Confederate leaders like Lee — who led a rebellion against the United States — were removed, it might not be long before monuments to Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were also removed, since those men were slave-owners. That argument is a common talking point on the right, with Pat Buchanan recently making just that case on Newsmax, a right-wing website run by Trump’s friend Chris Ruddy.
“President Trump is right! One side had a permit to speak, one side charged with clubs & weapons! Look at the facts people,” tweeted Tim Gionet, a vocal alt-right activist who goes by “Baked Alaska” online.
On Breitbart, the nationalist website once run by senior Trump aide Steve Bannon (who called it a “platform” for the alt-right), the headline blared: “POTUS comes roaring back with press smackdown at Trump Tower.”
Richard Spencer, another outspoken white supremacist who supports Trump, also cheered on the address, calling it “fair and down to earth.”
“We came in peace,” he wrote later.
Mainstream Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, have defended Trump’s “both sides” argument.
“The president has good reason to also blame, or point the finger, at antifa and BLM. They are not innocent groups,” Fleischer said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m a purist on this. I’m all for counterprotest, but you cannot resort to violence. … If anyone engages in violence, they deserve condemnation.”
“Clearly all sides got at it in Charlottesville on Saturday,” he said.
But he said he was troubled by Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
“There are no very fine Nazis or Klan members, zero,” Fleischer said.
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