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NEW YORK — President Trump appeared at his Manhattan skyscraper to deliver a statement on infrastructure on Tuesday and ended up in a heated debate with reporters over the protests and violence that took place in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.
Trump said there was “blame on both sides” for the clashes, which involved white nationalists and neo-Nazis fighting against counterprotesters. He praised some of the people who showed up to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the town as “fine people.”
Trump told Yahoo News the question of whether Confederate memorials should stay standing should be left up to local officials, and suggested that eliminating Confederate memorials would open the door to the removal of other historical monuments such as those honoring George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
“George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump pointed out.
Charlottesville’s bloody weekend began Friday evening when a group of people protesting the Lee statue’s removal held a torchlit march at the University of Virginia. The group, which included prominent white supremacists and neo-Nazis, was marching as a prelude to a planned rally on Saturday.
The rally was preempted by violence that left three people dead, including two Virginia police officers who were killed in a helicopter crash while patroling the situation. Heather Heyer, a young woman who was with a group of counterprotesters, died after she was hit by a car that authorities say was driven by a demonstrator with Nazi sympathies. The president has not yet reached out to the woman’s family to offer condolences.
Trump was widely criticized for his initial response to the violence, in which he laid blame on both sides while avoiding any specific mention of white nationalism or neo-Nazis. On Tuesday, he called his reaction “excellent,” saying he was speaking without knowing all the facts. In comments Monday from the White House, he gave a more explicit denunciation of racism as “evil” and called out groups including the Ku Klux Klan.
Many of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were involved in the clashes in Charlottesville have praised Trump, before and after his Monday denunciation. Yahoo News asked Trump why he thinks Nazis like him.
“They don’t,” Trump said.
Trump moved on to other questions and did not respond as Yahoo News listed examples of neo-Nazis and white supremacists who have expressed support for him.
Trump appeared before the reporters in the Trump Tower lobby to discuss an executive order he signed on Tuesday that he said would “dramatically reform the nation’s badly broken infrastructure permitting process.” Staffers told reporters he would not be taking questions. The president dismissed the current state of American infrastructure as “Third World” and said his order would bring the country “world-class infrastructure.”
Although Trump, visibly agitated, kept trying to turn the subject back to infrastructure, the events in Charlottesville and his response dominated the session. The first question from reporters was about the four CEOs who quit the White House Manufacturing Council to protest his remarks. Trump, who had earlier dismissed the CEOs as “grandstanders,” replied they were “not taking their job seriously.”
Two more members of the council, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, resigned later on Tuesday afternoon.
Trump was then asked why he waited until Monday to make a statement about Charlottesville that explicitly denounced white nationalism and racism as “evil.” The president said he could not have made that comment “sooner” because he “didn’t know all of the facts.”
“I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. … The statement I made on Saturday was a fine statement,” Trump said.
Trump contrasted his response to reporters who do not take the time to ascertain accurate information.
“I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters,” said Trump.
Trump was also asked about the car that plowed into the protesters and whether he thinks it was an act of terrorism. He denounced the alleged perpetrator, who has been identified in court as James Alex Fields Jr., and expressed hope the man would face a swift punishment.
“I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country,” Trump said, adding, “You can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That’s what I’d call it.”
Trump went on to suggest the question of whether it was an act of terrorism is “semantics.”
“There is a question, Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing,” Trump said.
The car attack left 19 people injured in addition to killing Heyer. Fields, who was denied bail on Monday, is charged with hit and run, three counts of malicious wounding, and second degree murder in Heyer’s death.
In his comments on Tuesday, Trump said he had heard Heyer was “a fantastic young woman.” While Trump said he had not called Heyer’s family to give his condolences, he implied he would do so. Trump also noted that Heyer’s mother posted a tweet thanking him for his second statement that denounced white supremacists. He expressed happiness that Heyer’s mother had said the “nicest things” about him.
“I very much appreciated that,” Trump explained.
Trump also addressed questions about his strategist, Steve Bannon, who has reportedly fallen out of favor in the notoriously fractious White House. Bannon, who joined Trump’s campaign after running the conservative website Breitbart, has been labeled a white supremacist by liberal critics for his strident nationalism and for boasting that he wanted Breitbart to be a “platform for the alt-right.” While Trump was noncommittal about Bannon’s future in the administration, the president defended his adviser as “not a racist.”
The president was also asked about a push for the firing of his national security adviser H.R. McMaster that has gained momentum from right-wing websites and social media pages. Specifically, Trump was questioned about a comment from Sen. John McCain blaming both the attacks on McMaster and the violence in Charlottesville on the “alt-right.”
As soon as a reporter mentioned McCain’s name, Trump noted the senator cast a crucial vote against his health care bill. Trump accused McCain of having “voted against us getting good health care” before addressing the senator’s claim that the “alt-right” led the campaign against McMaster.
“I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I’m sure Sen. McCain must know what he’s talking about,” said Trump.
Trump then asked the reporter who brought up McCain’s remarks to define the term “alt-right.”
“But when you say ‘the alt-right,’ define ‘alt-right’ for me,” demanded Trump, as the reporter tried to cut in. “You define it. No. Define it for me. Come on. Let’s go. Define it for me.”
The term “alt-right” has been used to describe various strains of extreme conservatism, including both white nationalists and others who back Trump’s populist and nationalist agenda. White supremacist Richard Spencer initially coined the phrase.
Without allowing an answer to his alt-right question, Trump then suggested the “alt-left” was also to blame for the violence in Charlottesville.
Trump began his answer: “What about the alt-left that came charging at —” but was cut off by the reporter. “Excuse me what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
To some observers it sounded as if Trump had said, “charging at us,” and there was a flurry of criticism over his seeming to identify with the demonstrators. But the official White House transcript doesn’t include the word “us” and recordings by reporters are ambiguous owing to the crosstalk between Trump and the reporter.
As Trump noted, some of Saturday’s violence was perpetrated by members of “antifa,” or antifascist, groups attacking the white nationalists. The term “alt-left” has been coined by some conservative commentators to suggest an equivalence with the alt-right.
“Let me ask you this, what about the fact they came charging? That they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs. Do they have any problem? I think they do,” Trump said.
After his comments, Trump was pressed by multiple reporters about whether he was claiming the “alt-left” is just as abhorrent as neo-Nazis. He suggested there was violence on both sides and the media was ignoring the aggressive actions of some leftist counterprotesters.
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” said Trump. “Nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it.”
Trump also admonished the counterprotesters for going to Charlottesville without a permit. The white nationalists did obtain a permit from the city for the planned rally.
Reporters pressed him on whether he was saying the alt-left is “as bad” or “the same” as neo-Nazis.”
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis. Believe me.”
Yahoo News then asked Trump if he believes the “alt-left” is “as bad as white supremacy.”
“I will tell you something. I watched those very closely — much more closely than you people watched it — 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,” Trump said.
Trump noted some of the people who came for the rally were protesting the removal of the Confederate statue, which he framed as a separate issue.
“Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.”
“You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park,” Trump said. The park, which had been named for Lee, was renamed Emancipation Park.
Trump suggested the removal of historical statues is “changing history.”
“George Washington was a slave owner. … Are we going to take down statues of George Washington?”
As incredulous reporters attempted to interrupt him, Trump continued:
“How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? … Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner.”
Trump accused the media of treating people who were concerned about the Lee statue “absolutely unfairly.”
Related slideshow: Confederate monuments removed in wake of Charlottesville violence >>>
Asked by Yahoo News if statues of Robert E. Lee should “stay up,” Trump replied: “I would say that’s up to a local town, community or the federal government depending on where it is located.”
Yahoo News then questioned Trump about whether he is “against the Confederacy.” He did not answer. Asked if he believes race relations have improved since he took office earlier this year, Trump responded: “I think they’ve gotten better. Look, they’ve been frayed for a long time and you can ask President Obama about that, because he’d make speeches about it. But I believe the fact that I brought in, it will be soon millions of jobs … I think that’s going to have a tremendous, positive impact on race relations.”
Trump was asked if he was putting the alt-left and white supremacists “on the same moral plane.”
“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” said Trump. And later: “I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it. And you don’t have any doubt about it,” he said, addressing reporters. “And if you reported it accurately you would say so.”
Trump conceded there were “very bad people” who showed up for the rally protesting the statue’s removal.
“But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
At last Trump turned to a reporter who promised “an infrastructure question.” The reporter asked Trump why he is confident he can make serious infrastructure improvements since earlier parts of his agenda were defeated in Congress. Trump indicated he believes the infrastructure push will have bipartisan support before stepping out from behind his podium.
As he departed the Trump Tower lobby, the president took additional questions, including one about whether he plans to visit Charlottesville.
“I have a house in Charlottesville,” Trump said. “Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”
The president’s family owns a winery in the city.
“I mean I know a lot about Charlottesville,” said Trump. “Charlottesville is a great place that’s been very badly hurt over the last couple of days.”
After Trump left the lobby, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and the president’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, attempted to discuss his infrastructure policy. The pair were also peppered with questions about the incidents in Charlottesville as they stood behind the podium. Yahoo News asked Chao “as a woman of color” and Cohn “as a Jewish man” what they think about the “Nazi support for President Trump and his reaction to it.”
“As the president has already said in his statement, it is intolerable. We are a country of tolerance, and it is hateful behavior, and it is not who we are as Americans,” Chao said.
Yahoo News pressed the pair about whether they are troubled to see some “Nazis supporting this administration.”
“We’re talking about infrastructure today,” said Chao.
Yahoo News pointed out that the press conference had been mostly about Nazis.
“And I’m here to talk with the president about infrastructure,” Chao said.
Cohn did not respond.
This story was last updated at 7 p.m.
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