President Donald Trump lashed out about the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tuesday in what largely sounded like a defense of the alt-right.
In a short, impromptu press conference, flanking a speech on infrastructure, Trump defended some of the white supremacy rally’s participants, made the case for Confederate statues, and equated neo-Nazis to leftist activist groups.
At the end, he threw in a plug for the Trump Winery in Charlottesville — “one of the largest wineries in the United States.”
On Saturday, a Nazi sympathizer at a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville — whose mother identified as a Trump supporter — rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racism counterprotesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen. In the immediate aftermath, Trump refused to condemn white supremacy specifically, prompting angry calls from Republican lawmakers and voters.
By Monday, Trump had answered his party’s demands, condemned racist hate groups by name, and announced a Department of Justice investigation into the act of domestic terrorism. But it didn’t take long for him to walk back his stronger condemnation once again.
Here are five telling quotes that reveal what Trump really thought about the events in Charlottesville:
“Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch”
Trump made a concerted effort to normalize the participants of the white supremacy rally.
“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. “Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
Instead, he argued that at both the Friday night tiki torch rally on the University of Virginia’s campus and the white supremacy rally in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday, there were people there simply protesting taking down Confederate statues:
Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee. You take a look at some of the groups and you see — and you would know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases, you are not — many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
You take a look. The night before — they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
While the protests were nominally about the statues, at both events, crowds were chanting, “Sieg Heil,” and, “Blood and Soil” — strong neo-Nazi rallying cries.
“You are changing history and culture”
In justifying these rally-goers, Trump also attempted to make the case for the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville — and Confederate statues around the nation.
“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?” Trump said, as reporters asked him what he thought of Confederate memorializations.
Trump’s case was simple. “You are changing history and culture,” he said:
You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name. George Washington as a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me. Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him. Good. Are we going to take down his statue. He was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue? It is fine. You are changing history and culture.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp pointed out, most of these Confederate statues were put up at times of racial tension: around the turn of the 20th century, and about 50 years later.
It’s not an accident that these statues were mostly built when the South was busy establishing Jim Crow and defending it from the civil rights movement. This is because the purpose of Confederate monuments, as Princeton historian Kevin Kruse argues on Twitter, is not to serve as pure historical markers — but to glorify the Confederate cause.
While George Washington did own slaves, as Trump said, the purpose of his statues isn’t simply to memorialize the pro-slavery cause.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?”
Trump’s very first statement about the events in Charlottesville was to condemn the violence on “many sides” — he refused to call out white nationalists and white supremacists by name.
That continued in full force Tuesday, as he pushed back against a reporter’s question about the “alt-right,” which espouses many of these far-right white nationalist views, with a retort about the “alt-left.”
“What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?” Trump said. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
He went on to paint a picture of antifa and anti-racism protesters attacking the permitted rally-goers with “swinging clubs”:
What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. That was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute. I'm not finished. I'm not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day. I will tell you something. I watched that very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. 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.
“You had some very bad people in that group,” Trump said. “You also had some very fine people on both sides”:
You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit. So I only tell you this. There are two sides to a story.
To be clear: One side of that story comes from neo-Nazis.
“I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.”
Trump was criticized for not responding to the Charlottesville incident quickly or vigorously enough. It took him two days to condemn the white supremacist hate groups by name.
Instead, he tacked on a “sad!” to a tweet about his meetings in Bedminster, New Jersey, and issued a statement denouncing the hate “on many sides.”
But Trump said he “didn't wait long” — rather, he was waiting for all the facts:
I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement, but you don't make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don't know the facts. It is a very, very important process to me. It is a very important statement. So I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts. If you go back to my statement, I brought it.
Having to wait for the facts hasn’t stopped Trump from tweeting his reaction before. He has in fact on two occasions condemned terror attacks abroad — in Sweden and Manila — that didn’t actually happen.
“I own, actually, one of the largest wineries in the United States; it's in Charlottesville”
“I mean, I know a lot about Charlottesville,” Trump said, walking out of the press conference. “Charlottesville is a great place that's been very badly hurt over the last couple of days. I own, actually, one of the largest wineries in the United States; it's in Charlottesville.”