In his campaign announcement video Thursday, Joe Biden reminded the viewers of a particularly shocking moment from the Trump presidency. In August 2017, after violence during a rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis left one counterprotester dead and dozens injured, President Trump defended the marchers during a press conference and argued that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
Biden’s reference put Trump on the defensive, and in a new statement on Friday, the president indicated he doesn’t regret his remarks about the Unite the Right rally, a white supremacist gathering organized to bring together a large number of far-right groups that had risen in prominence after Trump’s election and pegged to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
“If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly,” Trump said. “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.”
Technically, Trump had mentioned Lee—later on, after he had already weathered a backlash for his initial comments. The press conference in which he first drew moral equivalence between anti-racist protesters and avowed white supremacists came on Aug. 12. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said, placing an emphasis on the last three words. He repeated: “On many sides.”
He gave another more diplomatic response the next day, but the president doubled down on the “both-sides” position three days later, tossing aside his more carefully scripted remarks about condemning hatred to blast his critics in a combative exchange with reporters.
“You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he said. “And nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now. You had a group—you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”
It was at that point that he wove in his material about Lee:
But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. 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, Robert E. Lee. If you look at some of the groups and you see—and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not—but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?
This argument did not reflect the reality of the situation—there were white supremacists shouting “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us.” Instead, he attempted to reduce this violent hatred to an issue of statue preservation.
The president then uttered a phrase that would become a rallying cry for his critics. “Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides,” he said. “And you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
He suggested that some of the white supremacists were there simply to harmlessly protest the removal of “to them, a very, very important statue.” Trump furiously criticized the “alt-left” as being “very, very violent” and “swinging clubs” and demanded to know if the “alt-left” had “any semblance of guilt.”
Trump was grasping for a defense, furious about the bipartisan and nearly universal criticism of his earlier statements. As the New York Times put it: “Venting, his face red as he personally executed the defense of his own actions that no one else would, Mr. Trump all but erased any good will he had earned Monday when he named racist groups and called them ‘repugnant to everything we hold dear.’ ”
Biden, in his video, held up Charlottesville and Trump’s poor response to the violence that broke out there as representative of why he is seeking the presidency. Some have accused Biden of using the city and the traumatic event as a prop, but others believe that evoking one of the president’s worst moment of the past two and a half years will speak to a certain segment of the electorate. If nothing else, Biden’s video did get Trump talking—and digging that hole ever deeper.