Donald Trump's "Very Fine People"
More than five years after it happened, let's remember Trump's response to the Unite The Right Rally.
This is the first installment in a two-part series. This post details the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and then-President Donald Trump’s multiple attempts to respond to it. Part two will be published next week, and will deal with the right-wing attempt to rewrite this history. If you enjoy or appreciate my work, please consider becoming a subscriber. Thanks!
On the evening of August 12, speaking from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., then-president Donald Trump delivered a short statement about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Hours earlier, neo-Nazi James Fields drove a car through a crowd of protesters, killing a woman named Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. (Fields would eventually be found guilty of federal hate crimes and sentenced to life in prison.) Perhaps unprepared and unwilling to acknowledge the vile actions of Fields and other right-wing rally attendees, Trump tried to pin blame on “many sides.”
But we're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Va.. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society. And no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play or be with their parents and have a good time.
From there, Trump went on to brag about the unemployment rate and took credit for Foxconn’s plan to open a $10 billion factory in Wisconsin (this project would eventually fall apart), adding, “We have so many incredible things happening in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad. (It’s also worth keeping in mind that as this was less than seven months since taking office, none of Trump’s economic policies had actually done much to affect the unemployment rate, but rather, just continued along the trend line established by the prior administration out of the Great Recession.)
Trump circled back to Charlottesville:
Above all else, we must remember this truth, no matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first. We love our country. We love our God. We love our flag. We're proud of our country. We're proud of who we are. So, we want to get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville, and we want to study it. And we want to see what we're doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen. My administration is restoring the sacred bonds of loyalty between this nation and its citizens, but our citizens must also restore the bonds of trust and loyalty between one another. We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together. So important. We have to respect each other. Ideally, we have to love each other.
Those prepared remarks were… well… a bit lacking. From his “on many sides, on many sides” excuse to his bizarre, “We love our God. We love our flag. We’re proud of our country,” line, which suggests that people who don’t “love our God” or “our flag” are somehow not actually part of the group he’s referring to when he says “we are all Americans first.”
On Twitter, Trump made a similarly vague comment by refusing to identify the people responsible for the attack and simply saying that “We ALL must be united and condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let’s come together as one.” Naturally, white nationalists like Richard Spencer interpreted this as Trump denouncing “antifa.”
As New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi noted at the time, this was pretty rich coming from “the same president who devoted so much time to lancing any political leader who wouldn’t use the phrase ‘radical Islamic terror.’”
On August 14, Trump tried to address the rally a second time, this time with a prepared speech from the White House. He opened by talking about how “our economy is now strong, the stock market continues to hit record highs, unemployment is at a 16-year low,” and so on. This pre-written speech was a bit better, though he still danced around some of the details.
Here’s an excerpt. You can read the entire transcript here. Again, though, generally speaking, this was much better (and more carefully worded) than his August 12 comments.
I just met with FBI director Christopher Wray, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the deadly car attack that killed one innocent American, and wounded twenty others. To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered.
As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence – it has no place in America. And as I have said many times before, no matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws. We all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.
Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator, we are equal under the law and we are equal under our constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry, strike at the very core of America.
Anyway, that brings us to August 15, another chance for Trump to clean up the mess he made with his “many sides” claim, which had been widely criticized.
Three days later, standing in front of reporters at Trump Tower, the president had a chance to clarify his remarks, which had been widely criticized for treating this as a “both sides” issue and condemning non-specific “hate.” Whatever problems there were with his August 12th and 14th remarks, he made them worse on August 15.
Let’s go through the full exchange one question at a time.
Reporter: "Let me ask you, Mr. President, why did you wait so long to blast neo-Nazis?"
Trump: "I didn’t wait long. I didn’t wait long."
Reporter: "Forty-eight hours."
Trump: "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, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. And it’s a very, very important process to me, and it’s a very important statement.
"So I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts. If you go back to --
Reporter: "So you had to (inaudible) white supremacists?"
Trump: "I brought it. I brought it. I brought it."
Trump got asked by a reporter why he waited 48 hours to denounce neo-Nazis. Somewhat laughably, he argued that he took so long because he “wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what [he] said was correct.” Trump is the same guy who just months before this, opened a Rose Garden speech about his decision to take the US out of the Paris climate accord by saying, “I would like to begin by addressing the terrorist attack in Manila. We’re closely monitoring the situation, and I will continue to give updates if anything happens during this period of time. But it is really very sad as to what’s going on throughout the world with terror.” The attack, officials came to believe in the days that followed, was not terrorism-related, and was actually a robbery gone wrong. But whether he was right or wrong, he can’t possibly act as though his delay in condemning the neo-Nazis had anything to do with making sure he was "correct.” Okay, continuing on…
Reporter: "Was it terrorism, in your opinion, what happened?"
Trump: "As I said on -- remember, Saturday -- we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America. And then it went on from there. Now, here’s the thing --"
Trump: "Excuse me. Excuse me. Take it nice and easy. Here’s the thing: When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet, as we were speaking. This event just happened.
"Before I make a statement, I need the facts. So I don’t want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent. In fact, the young woman, who I hear was a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC -- her mother wrote me and said through, I guess, Twitter, social media, the nicest things. And I very much appreciated that. I hear she was a fine -- really, actually, an incredible young woman. But her mother, on Twitter, thanked me for what I said.
"And honestly, if the press were not fake, and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. But unlike you, and unlike -- excuse me, unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts."
Trump’s statement on that Saturday (August 12th) was the one where he said there was blame on “many sides,” and didn’t specifically address that this was a white nationalist rally. Yes, Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, did issue a statement thanking Trump “for those words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred.” After watching Trump’s August 15th comments, however, she changed her tune in a big way. And again, there is absolutely no way that Trump’s delay in his response to the Charlottesville attack had anything to do with him wanting to be “correct.” Whenever he has concluded that an attack would help him politically, he has repeatedly rushed to not only declare something a terrorist attack, but to ascribe motive to it. And again, the problem with that is not whether he ends up being right (as he was when he tweeted “Appreciate the congrats for being right about radical Islamic terrorism” before the bodies at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016 had even been identified) or wrong (as was the case with the Manila attack), but that this flies in the face of his claim that he waits until he has confirmation on these things. This was a shameful, repeated lie.
Reporter: "The CEO of Walmart said you missed a critical opportunity to help bring the country together. Did you?"
Trump: "Not at all. I think the country -- look, you take a look. I’ve created over a million jobs since I’m President. The country is booming. The stock market is setting records. We have the highest employment numbers we’ve ever had in the history of our country. We’re doing record business. We have the highest levels of enthusiasm. So the head of Walmart, who I know -- who’s a very nice guy -- was making a political statement. I mean -- I’d do it the same way. And you know why? Because I want to make sure, when I make a statement, that the statement is correct. And there was no way -- there was no way of making a correct statement that early. I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters. Unlike a lot of reporters --
Here he is, again lying about his reason for not more quickly and forcefully denouncing the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who organized this rally and carried out this attack. For all his years of screaming about how Obama or Clinton or any other Democratic politician were somehow weak on terror because they wouldn’t repeatedly say the words “radical Islamic terror,” he’s lying about a commitment to principle.
Reporter: "Nazis were there."
Reporter: "David Duke was there."
Trump: "I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts. And the facts, as they started coming out, were very well stated. In fact, everybody said, ‘His statement was beautiful. If he would have made it sooner, that would have been good.’ I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts. Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts.
"It was very important -- excuse me, excuse me -- it was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly. Because if I would have made a fast statement -- and the first statement was made without knowing much, other than what we were seeing. The second statement was made after, with knowledge, with great knowledge. There are still things -- excuse me -- there are still things that people don’t know. I want to make a statement with knowledge. I wanted to know the facts."
Again, Trump waited two full days before actually addressing and pushing back on the movement that carried out this attack. The facts had been established by then. The rally itself was organized by Jason Kessler, a self-proclaimed “white civil rights” activist, was promoted using Nazi iconography, and featured a number of prominent white nationalist and neo-Nazi speakers.
Reporter: "Two questions. Was this terrorism? And can you tell us how you’re feeling about your chief strategist, Stephen Bannon?"
Trump: "Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country. And that is -- 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. Because 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.
Reporter: "Can you tell us broadly what your -- do you still have confidence in Steve?"
Trump: "Well, we’ll see. Look, look -- I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late. You know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. And I like him, he’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard. But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon. But he’s a good person, and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly."
Asked whether this was terrorism for a second time, Trump danced around this question yet again. During the 2012 election, one of the biggest late-campaign controversies was whether Obama had been sufficiently fast and forceful in calling the Beghazi attack “terrorism” or not. What Trump did here, where he never actually got around to denouncing this as a terrorist attack, was worse. Naturally, the people who were outraged about the former didn’t care about the latter. Then Trump went on to get wildly defensive over a question about whether he still supported Steve Bannon, making the shrug of a response to the “terrorism” question that much more irritating and dishonest.
Reporter: "Sen. (John) McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville."
Trump: "Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I’m sure Senator McCain must know what he’s talking about. But when you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me. You define it. Go ahead."
Reporter: "Well, I’m saying, as Senator --"
Trump: "No, define it for me. Come on, let’s go. Define it for me."
Trump’s feigned ignorance about the “alt-right” was annoying, to say the least.
Reporter: "Senator McCain defined them as the same group --"
Trump: "Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at -- 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?
"Let me ask you this: What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute. I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day --
" I will tell you something. I watched those very closely -- much more closely than you people watched it. And you have -- 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, but 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."
Trump jumped from even pretending like he was going to let the reporter finish asking the question to veering into an attempt to steer this back to being a “many sides” situation, as he said on the 12th. “What about the alt-left…” “What about the fact that they came charging with clubs…?” Whataboutwhataboutwhatabout! Again, just for a moment, imagine if a president did this with literally any other terrorist attack. They’d be smeared as anti-American monsters who probably hate the troops or something along those lines. But because this is Trump — who then went from acting as though he was only vaguely aware of what was happening at the rally to claiming that he “watched those very closely - much more closely than you people watched it” and went on to deliver a play-by-play breakdown of the version of Charlottesville that existed in his head — he didn’t get that sort of criticism.
Instead, Trump began what he would do for the rest of this press conference: he would say that “both sides” were to blame, but then complain near exclusively about the counterprotesters while making excuses for people who went to the neo-Nazi rally. Oh, also, his complaint that the counterprotesters didn’t have a permit was also false.
Reporter: "Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?"
Trump: "Those people -- all of those people – excuse me, I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. 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 of Robert E. Lee."
Uh oh! Here’s where things start to get interesting. Again, this was a rally that was organized by neo-Nazis and white nationalists. That’s a fact. There were people who went to Charlottesville to take part in the neo-Nazi/white nationalist rally who may not self-identify as neo-Nazis or white nationalists, but the fact remains that they went to a neo-Nazi rally. Maybe they went to the white nationalist rally by mistake. Maybe they really did just care a whole lot about a statue of Robert E. Lee. But let’s talk about that for a quick second…
It’s not as though the Lee statue was coming down that day. Or… any day near then. The Charlottesville city council voted in February of that year to remove the Lee statue, however, a state law blocked the statue’s removal. At the very earliest, the statue could have possibly come down that November. Whether it stayed up or came down would be determined by the results of a court case, not another vote by the city council. The judge who issued that injunction would eventually rule in favor of the pro-statue side, though Virginia’s Supreme Court would ultimately overturn that decision in April 2021.
Reporter: "Should that statue be taken down?"
Trump: "Excuse me. If you take a 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? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
"But they were there to protest -- excuse me, if you take a look, the night before they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Infrastructure question. Go ahead."
This is the line people always miss. “If you take a look, the night before they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”
“The night before” was this:
Yes, that was “the night before” that Trump was referring to. The tiki torch march, with people chanting “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” This is important to keep in mind as Trump starts to find a way to defend some of the attendees of the neo-Nazi rally.
Reporter: "Should the statues of Robert E. Lee stay up?"
Trump: "I would say that’s up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located."
This is exactly what happened. So no, Trump didn’t actually believe that it should be up to the “local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located.” He was lying about this. You’ll see this tactic used quite a bit in conservative arguments, like when people go on and on about “parental rights,” but then decide that if other parents raise their children in a way they don’t approve of, those parents should have their kids taken away. This was a statue that the city of Charlottesville decided to take down. And if not for a 1997 law specifically designed to make it more difficult for cities to carry out these sorts of decisions, it would have been gone in early 2017. Charlottesville had spoken, but that wasn’t good enough for Trump.
Reporter: "How concerned are you about race relations in America? And do you think things have gotten worse or better since you took office?"
Trump: "I think they’ve gotten better or the same. 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 that the fact that I brought in -- it will be soon -- millions of jobs -- you see where companies are moving back into our country -- I think that’s going to have a tremendous, positive impact on race relations.
"We have companies coming back into our country. We have two car companies that just announced. We have Foxconn in Wisconsin just announced. We have many companies, I say, pouring back into the country. I think that’s going to have a huge, positive impact on race relations. 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. We’re fixing the inner cities. We’re doing far more than anybody has done with respect to the inner cities. It’s a priority for me, and it’s very important."
The fact that Trump hears the words “race relations” and immediately starts talking about “inner cities” is… uh… telling. But also, man, give it a rest with these answers where you distract from the actual question by answering something unrelated about the economy!
Reporter: "Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?"
Trump: "I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this: You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs -- and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch.
"But there is another side. There was a group on this side. You can call them the left -- you just called them the left -- that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
Here, Trump made clear that he understood that all of the people, both the ones who went to the neo-Nazi rally because they wanted to stop the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue and the counterprotesters there to protest against the Nazis, were on one of two sides. “You had one group on one side and you had a group on the other.”
Two sides. Two groups. Not some splintered groups of four or five gatherings. At least he acknowledged that. Unfortunately, he also continued to omit criticism of the neo-Nazi side of this rally, instead deciding to accuse counterprotesters of “violently attacking the other group.” It’s clear that not only is this a case where he’s “both sides”-ing what happened, but he’s insisting that it was actually the counterprotesters who were mostly to blame. This was vile.
Reporter: (Inaudible) "… both sides, sir. You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides. Are the --"
Trump: "Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. If you look at both sides -- I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. And if you reported it accurately, you would say."
There, he repeated his “both sides” claim three separate times in a two sentences. And again, there were two (not three, four, or five) groups here being discussed. Two. If you attended that rally and you weren’t working there as a journalist or as law enforcement, you were in one of those two groups: the white nationalist/neo-Nazi rally or the counterprotesters.
Okay, and now for the moment we’ve been waiting for…
Reporter: "The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest --"
Trump: "Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves -- and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group. Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. 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 from Robert E. Lee to another name."
Okay, so, here we are. In response to a reporter trying to correct Trump’s lie about the violence being the result of counterprotesters “violently attacking the other group,” Trump jumped in to say that while there were “some very bad people in that group,” there were also “very fine people, on both sides.”
Both. Two. According to Trump, there were “very fine people” in both of the two groups, which we’ve repeatedly established were the people who went to the rally organized by neo-Nazis and people who protested the neo-Nazis. Those are your “sides.” Trump, here, says that within the group of people at the neo-Nazi rally, where “the night before” they were marching with tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” there were “very fine people.”
It’s never been a matter of whether every single person who went to that rally self-identified themselves as a neo-Nazi or a white nationalist, but that he said there were “very fine people” within each of the two groups. Unite the Right was a neo-Nazi rally. It did not matter whether every attendee called themselves neo-Nazis. If you show up to an event where there are people walking around with swastikas and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” then you’re absolutely not a “very fine” person.
Reporter: "George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same."
Trump: "George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down -- excuse me, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?"
Reporter: "I do love Thomas Jefferson."
Trump: "Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
"So you know what, it’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And 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. Okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
"Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people. But you also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad people in the other group."
Setting aside the fact that yes, Lee and Jefferson both owned slaves, and yes, that’s something we should obviously condemn and shouldn’t celebrate, it’s extremely bizarre that Lee’s decision to take up arms against the United States and lead an army in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts to that point isn’t seen as a reason to rethink whether he should be treated as a hero. Also, it’s worth noting that this statue was commissioned around the time that a lot of confederate statues were being installed around the country as a show of support for Jim Crow-era policies. But sure, heritage… or something.
But anyway! Here’s the part that the right seems to have latched onto: “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. Okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
Again, this was Trump saying that there were people at the neo-Nazi rally who didn’t self-identify as either neo-Nazis or white nationalists, and that those people, in attendance in support of the neo-Nazi rally, were “very fine people” who were treated “absolutely unfairly” by the press.
But don’t worry, he was given a chance to clean it up…
Reporter: "Sir, I just didn’t understand what you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? I just don’t understand what you were saying."
Trump: "No, no. There were people in that rally -- and I looked the night before -- if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people -- neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.
"But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest -- because, I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So I only tell you this: There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country -- a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country.
"Does anybody have a final --
One of Trump’s strategies has always been to stake out every possible position on any given topic. That’s exactly what he did here. He talked himself into a knot.
But again, he went back to saying that he “looked the night before — if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.” That was not true. “The night before” was the tiki torch march. People were chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.” There were “very fine people” within that group? No. There weren’t. Trump referred to some of the attendees of a neo-Nazi rally as “very fine people.”
Wow, great breakdown.
Amazing writing as always. Great breakdown. Looking forward to part 2