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Trump reverses course: ‘There’s blame on both sides’ for Va. violence

President Donald Trump speaks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

NEW YORK — President Donald Trump on Tuesday said that “very violent” counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia  — whom he dubbed “the alt-left” — share in the blame for the violence that left three people dead.

“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,” the president told reporters.

“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, alt-right?” Trump asked reporters. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? what about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands? As far as I’m concerned that was 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.”

The president’s comments effectively wiped away the more conventional statement he delivered at the White House one day earlier when he branded members of the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who take part in violence as “criminals and thugs.” Trump’s advisers had hoped those remarks might quell a crush of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

The president’s retorts Tuesday suggested he had been a reluctant participant in that cleanup effort. During an impromptu press conference in the lobby of his Manhattan skyscraper, he praised his original response to Charlottesville and angrily blamed liberal groups in addition to white supremacist for the violence.

Some of those protesting the rally to save a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee were “also very violent,” he said.

Trump said he was initially slow to condemn hate groups after the violence over the weekend in Virginia because he didn’t know all the facts, and said that some facts remain unknown.

“I didn’t wait long,” he said. “I want to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct and not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements until 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 an important statement.”

“Unlike you and unlike the media, before I make the statement, I like to know the facts.”

A day after a speech in which he had condemned white supremacists for what happened, he held a news conference at which he reverted to the view he first expressed on Saturday, when he said there was violence on “many sides.”

On Tuesday, Trump said the groups protesting against white supremacists were “also very violent.”

“I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and his country. And that is — you can call this terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want.”

But Trump rejected the notion that neo-Nazis were supporting him.

“They don’t,” he said.

And he was noncommittal about the future of White House adviser Steve Bannon, who critics argue is a  proponent of many of the views of the alt-right.

“I like Mr. Bannon, he’s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late,” Trump said. “I like him. He is a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets a lot of unfair press. But we will see what happens with Mr. Bannon. But he is a good person and I think the press treats him very unfairly.”

Trump also said that one group on Friday had been “protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”

Then he noted that the “alt left” had violently attacked the other side on Saturday.

And he questioned why statues of Confederates needed to come down because of their ties to slavery, but not statues of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

“George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump said. “Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington?”

“You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. … It was a horrible moment for our country, but there are two sides to the story.”

Trump pointed out that the group that gathered to oppose removing the statue of Lee “had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit.”

Trump also shrugged off the string of business leaders leaving his White House jobs council in protest of his response to the situation.

“Because they’re not taking their jobs seriously as it pertains to this country,” Trump said. “I will tell you, some of the folks that will leave, they’re leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside and I’ve been lecturing them … you have to bring this work back to this country.”

The president’s latest remarks were welcomed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth.”

As Trump talked, his aides on the sidelines of the lobby stood in silence. Chief of staff John Kelly crossed his arms and stared down at his shoes, barely glancing at the president. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders looked around the room trying to make eye contact with other senior aides. One young staffer stood with her mouth agape.

Contributing: Associated Press