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Jerry Falwell Jr. is defending President Trump’s response to the violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.
“The only groups he identified by name and causing what happened in Charlottesville were the Nazis, the KKK and the white supremacists,” Falwell said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “That’s what I thought was bold and truthful.”
Trump first asserted that “many sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, where white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters during a rally protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old legal assistant, was killed when police say a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer drove his car through a group of counterprotesters.
Under pressure from Republicans and several advisers, the president made a second statement condemning the hate groups by name at the White House two days later. But on Tuesday, a defiant Trump defended his initial statement blaming both the neo-Nazis and counterprotesters for the violence.
“You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump told reporters. “And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.”
“I think there’s blame on both sides,” the president continued. “If you look at both sides — I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either.”
He added, “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
Those remarks were widely condemned by both GOP and business leaders, who distanced themselves from Trump.
“One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi,” former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tweeted. “The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.”
“We must be clear,” House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote on Twitter. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
“Your words are dividing Americans, not healing them,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. “President Trump took a step backward by again suggesting there is a moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally and people like Ms. Heyer.”
But evangelicals like Falwell stood by the president.
On Sunday, Falwell suggested Trump may have known there were some “fine people” in Charlottesville despite visual evidence to the contrary.
“He has inside information I don’t have,” Falwell said. “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statues.”
The Liberty University president and evangelical leader is one of Trump’s most loyal supporters. In May, Trump delivered his first commencement speech as president at the Lynchburg, Va., school.
But Falwell’s continued support of Trump despite the president’s controversial remarks isn’t sitting well with some Liberty graduates, who say they are preparing to return their diplomas in protest.
“I’m sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists,” Chris Gaumer, a former Student Government Association president and 2006 graduate, told NPR. “And in defending the president’s comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents complicit.”
Falwell dismissed Gaumer’s criticism.
“He completely misunderstands my support,” Falwell said. “My support for the president is [for] his bold and truthful willingness to call terrorist groups by their names.”
Trump, though, did not characterize Heyer’s killing as domestic terrorism, as several members of the GOP had urged him to do.
Yet Falwell insisted Trump did.
“He did. He said that is something for the officials to determine,” Falwell said. “He said you can call it terrorism, you can call it evil, you can call it murder. I’m not sure exactly what his words were. But he never said it was not terrorism.”
Falwell conceded that when it comes to Trump, supporters like him are sometimes deaf and blind to those the president offends.
“After I heard his statement the other day, I didn’t hear anything there that would offend somebody,” Falwell said. “But then I started speaking with some of my friends in the Jewish community in Charlottesville. … They started explaining to me how insecure and how scared they felt that day, when terrorists, these groups, these terrorist groups were walking up and down the sidewalk, right outside their synagogue.”
“I understood, after talking to them, how good people could hear the same statement and take away different things from it,” he said. “After hearing that, I understand how some people could misunderstand his words.”
Still, he said, Trump’s tendency to spout fiery rhetoric is part of his appeal.
“One of the reasons I support him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct — he says what’s in his heart,” Falwell said. “Sometimes that gets him in trouble. But he does not have a racist bone in his body. I know him well.”
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