US President Donald Trump declared anew on Tuesday “there is blame on both sides” for the deadly violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, appearing to once again equate the actions of white supremacist groups and those protesting against them.
The president’s comments effectively cancelled out the more conventional statement he delivered at the White House a day earlier when he branded members of the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who take part in violence as “criminals and thugs”.
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Trump’s advisers had hoped those remarks might quell a crush of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. But the president’s retorts on Tuesday suggested he had been a reluctant participant in that cleanup effort.
During an impromptu press conference in the lobby of his Manhattan skyscraper, he praised his original response to the Charlottesville clashes and angrily blamed liberal groups in addition to white supremacists for the violence.
Some of those protesting the rally to save a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee were “also very violent,” he said.
“There are two sides to a story,” he said. He added that some facts about the violence still aren’t known.
Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from Washington, DC, said it was a “really a breathtaking reversal of the damage control” that Trump had tried to accomplish with a second statement on Monday.
“Again you’re seeing Donald Trump on the defensive – when he is on defence he does not stay on script, you never know what he’s going to say and today many were surprised to see him reverse and doubling down on saying blame for Charlottesville again falls on ‘both sides’,” she said.
“What many have been concerned about [is that] Trump’s words – despite coming off the cuff – do have meaning, they are coming out of the mouth of an American president, and they encourage and inflame – depending on who the recipient is,” said Zhou-Castro.
“And we’re seeing here one white supremacist leader who has already reacted positively to the president’s latest comments,” she said.
Trump’s remarks were welcomed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth.”
New and troubling questions
Trump’s handling of the weekend violence has raised new and troubling questions, even among some supporters, about why he sometimes struggles to forcefully and unequivocally condemn white supremacist groups.
Members of his own Republican Party have pressured him to be more vigorous in criticising bigoted groups, and four business leaders have resigned from a White House jobs panel in response to his comments.
Democrats were aghast at Trump’s comments on Tuesday. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said on Twitter that the Charlottesville violence “was fueled by one side: white supremacists spreading racism, intolerance & intimidation. Those are the facts.”
Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said on Twitter that he no longer views Trump as his president.
“As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment,” Schatz said. “This is not my president.”
‘Is it George Washington next week?’
Violence broke out Saturday in Charlottesville, a picturesque college town, after a loosely connected mix of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right figures assembled to protest the city’s decision to remove a towering statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee.
Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a man ploughed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Trump appeared to defend both the far right’s right to protest, noting they had a permit, and Confederate statues.
“So, this week it’s Robert E Lee,” he said. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself where does it stop?”
As Trump talked, his aides on the sidelines of the lobby stood in silence. Chief of staff John Kelly crossed his arms and stared down at his shoes, barely glancing at the president. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders looked around the room trying to make eye contact with other senior aides. One young staffer stood with her mouth agape.
Trump, who has quickly deemed other deadly incidents in the US and around the world acts of “terrorism”, equivocated when asked whether the car death was a “terrorist attack”.
“There is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism?” Trump said. “And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”
Trump said he had yet to call Heyer’s mother, said that he would soon “reach out.” He praised her for what he said was a nice statement about him on social media.
As Trump finally walked away from his lectern, he stopped to answer one more shouted question: Would he visit Charlottesville? The president’s response was to note that he owned property there and to say it was one of the largest wineries in the United States.