U.S. President Donald Trump reversed himself loudly on Tuesday, insisting that both left- and right-wing groups used force in the aftermath of a white supremacist rally and that all of the facts were not yet in about street clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It was the unpopular position that he took on Saturday, that invited much umbrage for him across party lines and from business leaders.
Trump, taking questions from reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, reverted to his initial comments on Saturday blaming “many sides” for the violence, but on Monday had explicitly condemned the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. He labelled the extremist groups criminals.
“They came at each other with clubs … it was a horrible thing to watch,” Trump told reporters at what was supposed to be an announcement and news conference on his administration’s infrastructure policy. He said left-wing protesters “came violently attacking the other group.”
Trump has faced a storm of criticism from Democrats and members of his own Republican Party over his initial response to the violence around the rally in the Southern college town of Charlottesville. His remarks on Tuesday began a new round of outrage.
“Blaming ‘both sides’ for #Charlottesville?! No. Back to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathisers, white supremacists? Just no,” Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said on Twitter.
White supremacists in the United States have been emboldened by the election of Trump. His campaign last year drew their support and that of other right-wing groups, despite his disavowals of them.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke wrote on Twitter after Trump’s latest remarks, referring to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and anti-facists.
Saturday’s violence erupted after hundreds of white nationalists converged in Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, commander of the pro-slavery Confederate army in the U.S. Civil War.
In his remarks, Trump sympathized with protesters who opposed removing the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, but offered no equivalent remarks for those who favored its removal.
“You had people in that group … that were there to protest the taking down of a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
Trump grouped former presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who fought to create the United States, together as “slave owners,” with southern leaders Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson.
“Was George Washington a slave owner? Will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? … Because he was a major slave owner,” Trump said.
In Virginia, street brawls broke out as the white nationalists were met by crowds of anti-racism demonstrators. A car then plowed into a group of the counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others. A 20-year-old Ohio man, James Fields, said to have harbored Nazi sympathies, was charged with murder, malicious wounding and leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
On Tuesday, Trump explained his initial restrained response by saying: “The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement, but you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts.”
In a sometimes heated exchange with reporters shouting questions, Trump said, “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
He said that while neo-Nazis and white nationalists “should be condemned totally,” Trump said protesters in the other group “also had trouble-makers. And you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You got a lot of bad people in the other group too.”
His ambivalence about White Supremacists and racist bigots made some leading businessmen quit some advisory roles in his administration.
The head Merck & Co Inc, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, was the first to quit a presidential business panel , saying he was taking a stand against intolerance and extremism.
The chief executives of two other prominent companies – sportswear manufacturer Under Armour and semiconductor chip maker Intel Corp – followed suit hours later.
On Tuesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Deputy Chief of Staff Thea Lee resigned on Tuesday from President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council, slamming his remarks about protests in Virginia and saying he “tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism.”
The statement by the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, cited Trump’s remarks at the news conference on Tuesday in which he said both left- and right-wing groups were to blame for violence in Virginia after a white supremacist rally on Saturday.
“President Trump’s remarks today repudiate his forced remarks yesterday about the KKK and neo-Nazis. We must resign on behalf of America’s working people, who reject all notions of legitimacy of these bigoted groups,” Trumka and Lee said.