President Trump reverted to blaming left-wing counter protesters as well as white supremacists for the violence that erupted at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In startling, off-the-cuff comments at a press conference Tuesday, the president appeared to backtrack from his statement Monday that explicitly condemned neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the violence on Saturday.
On the day of the rally, Trump’s initial statement condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides,” a statement that shocked members of both parties for neglecting to call out white supremacists.
On Tuesday, Trump called out “the left, that came violently attacking the other group.”
“I think there’s blame on both sides,” Trump said at the news conference Tuesday in New York. “What about the alt-left that, as you say, came charging at the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
The “Unite the Right” rally Saturday saw hundreds of people on America’s racist fringe converge in defence of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and brawl with counter protesters.
After the rally was dispersed by police, a white supremacist, James Fields, rammed his car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one woman and injuring at least 19.
Two police officers also died when their helicopter crashed while monitoring the rally.
You can watch Donald Trump’s press conference here, in which he’s accused of ‘doubling down’ on his claim that “many sides” were to blame:
Attendees at the rally waved Nazi and Confederate flags, and shouted anti-Semitic and racist chants, in addition to giving Nazi salutes. But Trump said at the press conference that not all of the attendees were white supremacists.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis,” he said. “I’ve condemned many different groups. but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.”
The president also appeared to equate Confederate generals with the founding fathers in questioning the drive to remove statues and other symbols of the Confederacy. He noted that George Washington owned slaves.
Far right figure David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, thanked Trump on Twitter “for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” references to the Black Lives Matter movement and Antifa, a loose movement that combats white supremacists, sometimes violently.
But American Jewish politicians shot back at Trump’s comments, calling for an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacists.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, a Republican, called white supremacy “repulsive” while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, criticised Trump for sowing division in America.
We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) August 15, 2017
Great and good American presidents seek to unite not divide. Donald Trump’s remarks clearly show he is not one of them.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 15, 2017
Earlier in the week, Jewish groups in the UK reacted in “horror” to violence after the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Simon Johnson told Jewish News: “The events in Charlottesville over the weekend filled every decent human being with horror. It is deeply disturbing to see such displays of Nazi and other far-right symbols paraded on the streets in the 21st century.”
Last week Gerry Gable, the Jewish editor of anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, said the situation in the United States meant that “we are in the worst situation since 1945,” adding: “There are a growing number of alt-right people from the US and Canada now operating here.”
This week, Johnson said: “Groups which incite racial hatred have no place in British society and therefore we were encouraged when National Action became the first far-right group to be banned under UK anti-terror legislation last year.”
Richard Verber, senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies, said: “We live in an age where polemic, populism and post-truth anti-rationalism have seen a growth of support on the far-right and far-left.”
The internet had facilitated this, he argued, but the Jewish community now had a “crucial” role in fighting back, because “Jews are well-placed to remind society of the worst excesses that can emerge in this situation,” and because Jews are often “the canary in the coal-mine, detecting these trends before others”.
He added: “When we fight anti-Semitism, we support all communities in fighting back. But some things are very simple. When we see neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans we need to call a spade a spade and condemn it unequivocally as racist and beyond the pale.”
Dr Edie Friedman, Executive Director of the Jewish Council On Racial Equality (JCORE) said: “The fact that we’re even having this conversation is unbelievable. If this is the new normal – that the only person to praise the President’s behaviour is the head of the Ku Klux Klan, heaven help us”.
Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust added that: “The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers, it started with words; with hate-filled rhetoric. To therefore see Neo-Nazi, racist and antisemitic symbols and language used in Charlottesville should shock and horrify all of us. Such hate has no place in our society and we all have a responsibility to act wherever it rears its head.”