Trump defiant: 'Blame on both sides' in Charlottesville

NEW YORK — President Trump on Tuesday defiantly asserted that there is “blame on both sides” for the deadly violence over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va., remarks that inflamed his critics and reignited debate over his hesitance to condemn white supremacists.

At a wild, impromptu press conference at Trump Tower, the president defended his initial response that “many sides” were to blame to the violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia, saying he needed to "know the facts" before calling out neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. 

In extended remarks on the rally, Trump bulldozed through a statement he made at the White House one day earlier, when he declared that “racism is evil” and decried the white supremacists responsible for fomenting the violent clashes as “criminals and thugs.” 

The second statement was designed to quell a firestorm of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike who assailed him for failing to unequivocally condemn the white supremacist groups. 

But on Tuesday, facing a barrage of questions from reporters about why he did not immediately condemn racist protesters by name, Trump doubled down, saying that his first response was “excellent” and that liberal counterprotesters — whom he dubbed the “alt-left” — were just as much to blame as white supremacists for the violence. 

“What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right?” Trump asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I am concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.”

That comment drew praise from David Duke, a former KKK leader who attended Saturday’s rally. 

“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” Duke tweeted. 

Democrats reacted furiously at Trump’s latest comments, calling them a sign he was not sincere when he condemned racism on Monday.

“The president’s press conference today made plain that the statement he gave on Saturday is what he really believes,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “There is only one side to be on when a white supremacist mob brutalizes and murders in America. The American people deserve a president who understands that.”

Criticism also came from the president’s own party.

Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd said he was not proud of how Trump had handled himself at the press conference.

“Apologize,” Hurd said on CNN. “Racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism of any form is unacceptable. The leader of the free world should be unambiguous about that.” 

“I don't think anybody should be looking at getting props from a grand dragon of the KKK as any kind of sign of success,” he added.

Some Trump aides appeared to be surprised by the president’s comments, which he made after an announcement about infrastructure. Reporters were told before the event that National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoBiden rejects universal basic income idea popular in Silicon Valley Trump transportation chief to join Biden for jobs event Dems ask feds to look into airfare price gouging amid Irma threat MORE would take questions on the infrastructure plan — but that Trump would not. 

White House chief of staff John Kelly stood to the side of the golden elevator bank close to where Trump spoke, looking down and clasping his hands. Cohn, who stood beside the president, smiled and tried to steal glances with other aides. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whispered to top communications aide Hope Hicks.  

After being cloistered inside his Manhattan high rise all day, Trump appeared determined to get his feelings and thoughts off his chest. 

He bristled at critics who have said he should have condemned white supremacist groups and neo-Nazis immediately and that he didn’t because he feared alienating extremist elements of his base.

“I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it,” Trump said. “And you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But 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.” 

Violent clashes erupted Saturday in Charlottesville, a college town, during a large gathering of white supremacists and far right demonstrators. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and at least 19 were injured when a car drove into a crowd of counterdemonstrators. The alleged driver, a 20-year-old Ohio man, is accused of having ties to white supremacist groups.

Trump called the driver a “disgrace” but declined to say unequivocally whether he committed an act of terrorism.  

“You can call this terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want,” he said. "The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”  

The president said he has not yet contacted the family of Heyer, but said a statement made by her mother “was a beautiful statement … I really appreciated it." 

When he was asked whether he would visit Charlottesville, the president said he owns "one of the largest wineries in the United States" in the area. Trump purchased the winery in 2011 and later turned it over to his son, Eric. 

Trump has been quick to condemn terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremist groups. But he stressed Tuesday he wanted to take his time with the Charlottesville incident.  

He said that not all of the white nationalists protesting were racists. Some, Trump said, had gathered to protest the taking down of a Confederate statue. 

“I have condemned neo-Nazis. I have condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” Trump said.

“Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”

A reporter asked whether Trump believes white supremacists were “treated unfairly.”

“You had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest,” Trump said. “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.” 

He accused the media of trying to whitewash history, asking if they would support removing statues of former presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they owned slaves. 

“You're changing history, you're changing culture,” Trump said.

- This story was updated at 6:38 p.m.