President Trump on Friday again defended the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and who prompted violence that led to the death of Heather Heyer at the hands of one of the neo-Nazis.
“People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of [Confederate army commander] Robert E. Lee — everybody knows that,” Trump told reporters outside the White House, making no reference to the white supremacists who organized the event.
Trump also used his comments on Friday to defend his remarks from a press conference shortly after the deadly riot, in which he said that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the incident.
“I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals,” Trump said.
While the Unite the Right rally was nominally centered around the removal of the statue, the rally was in fact organized by white supremacists and white nationalists. Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke even attended and spoke, having previewed the rally as an event to "take our country back."
The night before the violence, white marchers also carried torches through the streets of Charlottesville and chanted "Jews will not replace us" and the Ku Klux Klan slogan "blood and soil," which is a translation of a Nazi slogan.
Trump insisted Friday that his 2017 reaction was "answered perfectly,” and added that “many generals here right at the White House and many people thought — of the generals — they think that [Lee] was maybe their favorite general.”
According to journalist Bob Woodward's book, Fear: Trump in the White House, then–White House chief of staff John Kelly, himself a former military general, considered resigning after Charlottesville. Then–White House economic adviser Gary Cohn also threatened to quit in response to Trump's comments at the time, according to Woodward's book.
Cohn did tell the Financial Times shortly after the violence that he had been distressed and that the Trump administration must do more to condemn hate groups.
"Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK," he said in a veiled criticism of the president.
Cohn ultimately did not resign in response to Charlottesville, saying that “as a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job.” (He later left his role due to disagreements with Trump over trade.)
Trump’s latest comments on Charlottesville come a day after Joe Biden announced that he was entering the 2020 race for president with a video calling out Trump’s “moral equivalence" in response to the Virginia rally.
“With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime."