President Donald Trump is again defending his comments about the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, saying that the “very fine people on both sides” he was referring to did not include Neo-Nazis and white nationalists, but those who were protesting the removal of a Confederate statue.
“People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee—everybody knows that,” Trump told reporters outside the White House on Friday. Trump called the Confederate army commander “a great general” and said his comments were “about people who attended the rally because they felt very strongly about the monument.”
The Unite the Right rally had been advertised as an action to defend the Lee statue against the city’s plans to remove it, but throughout the weekend some white nationalist attendees terrorized the local community, marching with torches and shouting racist chants. The events of the weekend ended in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, when James A. Fields Jr. drove his car through a crowd of people in the city’s downtown pedestrian mall. In December 2018, a jury found the 21-year-old self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi guilty of first-degree murder.
The president’s remarks come the day after former vice president Joe Biden announced his 2020 presidential bid in a video that has been criticized by some for using footage of the violence in Charlottesville.
Biden said in the video that “the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” when he praised both sides of the protests.
“We are in the battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden said. “If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
Some white nationalist groups have latched on to Trump’s comments, like those on the Charlottesville Rally, to build momentum and recruit new members.
In private chat logs leaked to the decentralized non-profit media collective, Unicorn Riot, one white nationalist group leader encouraged others to present themselves as Trump supporters, and not broadcast their “radical views.”
“Today I decided to get involved with my county’s Republican party,” he said. “The GOP is essentially the White man’s party at this point (it gets Whiter every election cycle), so it makes far more sense for us to subvert it than to create our own party…if you’re unable to do activism for various reasons, I’d like to encourage you to join your local Republican party.”
Separating his campaign from these groups will be an important task for Trump leading up to the 2020 presidential election if he wants to win cross-party votes.