President Donald Trump told reporters Tuesday that the counter-protesters demonstrating against white nationalism were also to blame for the violence at race-fueled riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.
“There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for the country, but there are two sides to a story,” the president said at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
He also said the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, which city officials have proposed removing, was "very important" to the people who participated in the march, and asked whether opponents of such monuments were also prepared to take down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they also owned slaves.
"This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself: 'Where does it stop?'" Trump asked.
His remarks doubled-down on his immediate reaction to the riots Saturday, threatening to undo any goodwill the president received by denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis during a statement at the White House on Monday. The president was criticized for what many, including politicians from both parties, saw as an initially equivocal response in which he said “many sides” were to blame for the violence that killed one woman and injured 19 other people.
Trump defended the 48-hour delay Tuesday, saying he "wanted to know the facts" before condemning the white nationalists, though he has often been quick and vocal when denouncing Islamic terrorism. He then equated the white supremacists on the right to the “alt-left.”
"You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now,” Trump said.
Trump said those protesting the white nationalists “came charging with clubs in hands” and repeatedly said they did not have a permit to be there. He said that it was unfair to suggest that all the torch-wielding marchers at the rally were Nazis or white supremacists.
“I think there is blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either,” Trump told the media. “And if you reported it accurately, you would say it.”
Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas did tell reporters Monday that many of the weekend confrontations were "mutually engaged attacks" fueled by "mutually combative individuals." But only one side, as countless observers have noted, included Nazi sympathizers.
The president also called the suspect who is believed to have driven his car into the group of counter-protesters “a murderer” for the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
"You can call it 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 assessed that race relations in American have gotten “better or the same” since he took office, noting that President Barack Obama also struggled at times to address the country’s racial divide. Trump said growing jobs and the country will have a “tremendous” impact on race relations.
He also defended senior strategist Steve Bannon, who has been tied to the “alt-right” movement and has come under fire for friction with other members of the West Wing.
“I like him, he’s a good man, he is not a racist, I can tell you that, he’s a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard. But we’ll see what happens to him,” Trump said.
The rowdy question-and-answer session came after Trump announced a new executive action on infrastructure aimed at reducing the time it takes to review projects.
A senior White House official told NBC News Tuesday that President Trump wasn't supposed to answer any questions Monday. His team went into the event with the understanding that they would discuss infrastructure only and the president would take no questions.
But once in front of reporters, the president "went rogue," the official said, and members of the team were stunned by the president's actions.
After the chaotic presser, the White House put out a "talking points" memo for allies, which was obtained by NBC News. It led with the sentence, "The President was entirely correct," and included various references to violent acts "on the left," including the shooting at a Congressional baseball practice in June.
Some residents of Charlottesville were dismayed by Trump's comments.
"What's upsetting is there isn't two sides here," local Jay Lester told NBC News, adding that he was so shocked by the news of Trump's remarks that he had to leave work. "He's heading in a direction that is quite scary. The nation will be watching very closely."
Meanwhile, former KKK leader David Duke tweeted thanks to Trump for his comments.
"Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa," Duke wrote, referring to Black Lives Matter and the anti-fascist movement.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers swiftly condemned Trump's comments.
“From the beginning, President Trump has sheltered and encouraged the forces of bigotry and discrimination," Pelosi said. “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.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that Trump's comments show he is not a "great and good" American president who seeks to unite.
"When David Duke and white supremacists cheer your remarks, you’re doing it very, very wrong," Schumer said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said there was "no moral equivalency" between the two sides in Charlottesville.
"There's no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate& bigotry," McCain said in a tweet. "The President of the United States should say so."
Former Attorney General Eric Holder said now is "a time to choose sides."
And even some members of the president's own party, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, took issue with Trump's remarks.
"We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity," he tweeted.