Nick Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing teen at the center of Friday’s highly publicized stand-off with Native American activist Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C., believes his actions were “not disrespectful.”
Footage of the Covington Catholic High School student ― and his Kentucky peers ― went viral following the incident, showing the group surrounding Phillips on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as he performed an American Indian Movement song.
Sandmann, who is seen in the video smiling just inches away from the Native American elder’s face, told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in an interview that aired Wednesday on the “Today” show that he “had every right” to stand before Phillips.
“My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him, I would like to talk to him,” he said. “In hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing.”
Sandmann’s sit-down interview comes after an earlier statement was released on his behalf by a public relations firm in which he claimed to have been singled out by Phillips.
"Do you feel from this experience that you owe anybody an apology? Do you see your own fault in any way?”
Tune in to @NBCNightlyNews for a preview of @SavannahGuthrie's interview with Nick Sandmann. Full interview tomorrow on TODAY. pic.twitter.com/7Croh0Toyj
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 22, 2019
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to [defuse] the situation,” it read. “I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”
Sandmann told Guthrie that removing himself from the situation would have been better in hindsight, but he claimed he didn’t want to be “disrespectful” to Phillips.
“I was surrounded by a lot of people I didn’t know that had their phones out, had cameras, and I didn’t want to bump into anyone or seem like I was trying to do something,” Sandmann said.
Asked about his facial expression during the encounter, which many viewers have perceived as a smirk, Sandmann said it was a “smile.”
“I see it as a smile saying that this is the best you’re going to get out of me, you won’t get any further reaction of aggression, and I’m willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face,” he said.
“Why didn’t you walk away?” -@savannahguthrie
“Well, now I wish I would’ve walked away. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to Mr. Phillips and walk away if he was trying to talk to me.” -Nick Sandmann pic.twitter.com/TMSBsDj6et
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 23, 2019
The viral incident has prompted nationwide outrage at both ends of the political spectrum, with the situation becoming only more complicated after more than an hour of footage from the encounter emerged Sunday.
In various interviews, Phillips said he had approached the teens from the school group in an attempt to thwart any potential violence between them and a group of several black men identifying themselves as Hebrew Israelites. He has said he heard the teens shouting “build the wall,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’” he told The Washington Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat [Sandmann] stood in my way, and we were at an impasse.”
Sandmann denied blocking Phillips and said in a statement that he is “a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me ― to remain respectful of others and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.”
In his “Today” interview, Sandmann claimed none of his classmates are racist and that he never heard any of them say “build the wall” during the incident.
″We’re a Catholic school,” he told Guthrie. “They don’t tolerate racism. And none of my classmates are racist people.”
“Did anyone shout any insults back or any racial slurs at the group?” -@SavannahGuthrie
“We’re a Catholic school, and it’s not tolerated. They don't tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people.” -Nick Sandmann talks confrontation with protesters pic.twitter.com/EoFYTLtzvZ
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) January 23, 2019
A teaser released Tuesday that previewed Guthrie’s one-on-one with Sandmann drew mixed reactions from Twitter users.
Seriously, the rehabilitation tour by the media is going to backfire on those who continue to enable this bullshit. We saw the VIDEOS, now Savannah wants us to be forgiving of him even without an apology. They even dressed him so he looked like a misunderstood kid. DONE WITH THEM
— Sylvia 🔥🔥 (@Tellall2012) January 22, 2019
They were wearing hats that embody racism, bigotry and misogyny. They were most certainly looking to provoke people
— Chacmool (@jjwilson23) January 22, 2019
— Amy Siskind 🏳️🌈 (@Amy_Siskind) January 23, 2019
NBC, Savannah Guthrie and the Today Show severely under estimated how unpopular a move it is giving this young man with an expensive PR firm a platform. As a mother of 5 boys, I recognize that smirk, that boy needs a lesson in empathy and humility, #shameonNBC
— luckyme6 (@jblakefinn) January 23, 2019
Gonna give y'all some media/PR game:
- They filmed him from above to make him look smaller.
- His clothes are a little big.
- The lighting makes his face look like Shirley Temple.
Malcolm said the media will make you hate the oppressed and love the oppressor. Peep game. https://t.co/BBynd47W6x
— Torraine Walker (@TorraineWalker) January 23, 2019
Do not do this.
Do not let your kids do combative interviews with media figures.
I would never in a million years allow these fucking vultures do this to my kid. https://t.co/lnwsgbQhsj
— PoliMath (@politicalmath) January 22, 2019
— Kenna P. Parker (@lifesnotes) January 23, 2019
This story has been updated with more details from the “Today” show interview.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.