A defiant President Trump doubled down Tuesday on his initial claim that activists on both the left and the right were responsible for violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and he warned that eradicating public monuments linked to slavery could diminish the legacies of Founders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Defending his first, roundly criticized assessment that “many sides” were guilty of violence during Saturday’s clashes, the president said he didn’t single out white supremacists initially because he didn’t have all the facts at the time and didn’t want to rush to judgment for the sake of political correctness.
“I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct,” the president said. “Unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”
But Mr. Trump also said at a contentious news conference at Trump Tower in New York that leftists committed much of the violence, while the media blamed only the “alt-right” movement.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right?” Mr. Trump asked reporters. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
He said both sides contributed to “a horrible, horrible day.”
“You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Mr. Trump said. “And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say it right now: You had a group on the other side [leftists] that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”
The president’s decision to wade into the racially charged controversy for the third time in four days, eclipsing his announcement that he had issued an executive order to speed up infrastructure projects, drew more heated condemnation from Democrats and Republicans.
Some White House advisers were said to be stunned by Mr. Trump’s latest comments on the violence in Charlottesville.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Mr. Trump’s comments show that his condemnation of white supremacist groups on Monday wasn’t sincere.
“The president’s continued talk of blame ‘on many sides’ ignores the abhorrent evil of white supremacism and continues a disturbing pattern of complacency around acts of hate from this president, his administration and his campaign for the presidency,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “There is only one side to be on when a white supremacist mob brutalizes and murders in America. The American people deserve a president who understands that.”
Rep. A. Donald McEachin, Virginia Democrat, said the president “has abrogated his moral authority.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez urged Americans: “Do not be intimidated by this sad excuse for a president.
“To all those Americans who feel disgusted, disturbed or frightened by President Trump’s latest disgraceful display of bigotry, do not lose hope. Do not give in to fear,” Mr. Perez said.
Rep. Gwen Moore, Wisconsin Democrat, went further, calling on Congress to remove the president from office.
“The time has come for Republicans and Democrats to put aside our political differences and philosophical debates for a higher cause,” she said. “My Republican friends, I implore you to work with us within our capacity as elected officials to remove this man as our commander in chief and help us move forward from this dark period in our nation’s history.”
While there was no immediate indication that major Republican lawmakers would heed her call, there was quick criticism of Mr. Trump for equivocation and for reluctance to condemn white nationalism unconditionally.
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney responded to Mr. Trump on Twitter: “No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.”
“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, tweeted shortly after the news conference, though he didn’t name Mr. Trump.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, was not so reticent, taking to Twitter for a six-post thread specifically rebutting Mr. Trump’s claims and calling on him to be firmer.
“The organizers of events which inspired & led to #charlottesvilleterroristattack are 100% to blame for a number of reasons. They are adherents of an evil ideology which argues certain people are inferior because of race, ethnicity or nation of origin. When entire movement [is] built on anger & hatred towards people different than you, it justifies & ultimately leads to violence against them,” Mr. Rubio wrote.
“Mr. President, you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame. They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain,” he continued. “The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win. We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected.”
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, said Mr. Trump “is acting like the white supremacist in chief.”
“To be clear: There is only one side to this hate and violence, and the president is choosing to stand with the white nationalists, the confederates, the neo-Nazis and people like [White House advisers] Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka,” he said. “This is an intolerable failure to govern our diverse nation, and we urge all Americans to hold this president accountable.”
Among those sticking up for the president was David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“What drives the media & their Leftist collaborators insane is that .@realDonaldTrump wants fairness for all Americans, even White Americans,” he said on Twitter.
“Thank You Mr. President & God Bless You for setting the record straight for ALL AMERICANS,” he later continued.
The unscripted moment at Trump Tower had been building since Mr. Trump’s remarks on Saturday shortly after a white man drove a car at a high rate of speed into a crowd of leftist protesters in downtown Charlottesville, killing one woman and injuring about 20 others.
Mr. Trump blamed the violence “on many sides.” That comment drew widespread condemnation from both parties for failing to call out white supremacists by name.
On Monday, at the White House, the president gave in to his advisers under tremendous pressure and issued a second statement, this time blaming white supremacist groups and saying their hateful ideology had no place in America.
But as protests continued and more criticism rolled in that his follow-up comments were too little too late, particularly from Democrats and the mainstream media, Mr. Trump seemed eager on Tuesday to defend his actions and lash out at the media.
When a CNN reporter interrupted one of his answers, the president shot back with contempt: “I’m not finished, fake news.”
Within hours of the president’s freewheeling commentary, more people had resigned in protest from his manufacturing council. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and labor official Thea Lee said they could not “sit on a council for a president who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism.”
“President Trump’s remarks today repudiate his forced remarks yesterday about the KKK and neo-Nazis,” they said. “We must resign on behalf of America’s working people, who reject all notions of legitimacy of these bigoted groups.”
The president blamed the media for lumping in all of the protesters on the right as white supremacists, saying many of them traveled to Charlottesville only to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“Not all of those people are neo-Nazis, not all of those people are white supremacists, by any stretch,” Mr. Trump said. “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee. You had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
He said the “alt-left” demonstrators, also known as “antifa” or anti-fascists, consisted of “some fine people, but you also had troublemakers.”
“You see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats,” Mr. Trump said. “You had a lot of bad people in the other group.”
The president argued that the movement to erase public monuments to the Confederacy could be part of a slippery slope toward laundering tributes to Founding Fathers who owned slaves.
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down,” Mr. Trump said. “You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? George Washington was a slave owner. So will George Washington now lose his status? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner.
“You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
Asked whether the Lee statue should stay up in Charlottesville, the president said, “That’s up to a local town, community or the federal government, depending on where it is located.”
Throughout the four-day test of his moral and civic leadership, Mr. Trump has emphasized that the U.S. economy is gaining strength every month thanks to his policies and that prosperity will help to bridge social and racial divides
He noted again that Foxconn has pledged to invest billions of dollars in a plant in Wisconsin and that other companies are “pouring back into the country.”
“I think that’s going to have a huge, positive impact on race relations,” Mr. Trump said. “You know why? It’s jobs. What people want now, they want jobs. They want great jobs with good pay. And when they have that, you watch how race relations will be. And I’ll tell you, we’re spending a lot of money on the inner cities. It’s a priority for me.”