The president spoke outside the White House a day after former Vice President Joe Biden launched his presidential bid with a video condemning Trump for the controversial remarks.
“I was talking about people that felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general whether you like it or not,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn before departing for the National Rifle Association’s annual convention.
The president claimed he had spoken to active-duty generals who told him that Lee, a U.S. Army officer who defected to the Confederate side and led the Army of Northern Virginia, was their “favorite general.”
“People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee,” Trump added. “Everybody knows that.”
The weekend of “Unite The Right” protests in Charlottesville in August 2017 were organized by a group of white supremacists.
Though nominally about the preservation of a statue honoring Lee, the underlying objective of Unite the Right was to bring various factions of the largely internet-based alt-right movement together in real life. The rallies began with neo-Nazis marching through the University of Virginia campus carrying tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us!”
Heather Heyer, 23, was killed when a car driven by a neo-Nazi plowed into a group of counterprotesters. Two state police officers were also killed when their helicopter crashed while monitoring the clashes.
Trump’s response that blamed “both sides” for the violence, which was widely criticized, was the centerpiece of Biden’s campaign launch video.
“He said there were ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides,” Biden said in the video posted to YouTube Thursday. “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. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
At the time, Biden said, the events in Charlottesville convinced him we were in a “battle for the soul of this nation.” He predicted “history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.”
“But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are,” the former vice president added. “And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.” Dylan Stableford
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