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Trump: ‘Not All of Those People Were White Supremacists’

President Trump, in a long, combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower, insisted that he did nothing wrong on Saturday when he declined to specifically condemn Nazi and white supremacist groups.

Photo by Al Drago for The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

WASHINGTON — President Trump reverted Tuesday to blaming both sides for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., and at one point questioned whether the movement to pull down Confederate statues would lead to the desecration of memorials to George Washington.

Abandoning his precisely chosen and carefully delivered condemnations of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis from a day earlier, the president furiously defended his initial reaction to the unrest in Charlottesville. He drew the very moral equivalency for which a bipartisan chorus, and his own advisers, had already criticized him.

“I think there is blame on both sides,” the president said in a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”

Mr. Trump defended those gathered in a Charlottesville park to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups,” he said. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”

He criticized “alt-left” groups that he claimed were “very, very violent” when they sought to confront the white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups that had gathered in Charlottesville.

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“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Trump said. “This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” he said, noting that the first American president had owned slaves.

It was a remarkable rejection of the criticism he confronted after waiting two days before naming the right-wing groups in the bloodshed that ended with the death of a young woman after a car driven by a white supremacist, who was later charged with second-degree murder, crashed into a crowd of protesters.

Mr. Trump accused people he called the “alt-left” of “swinging clubs” as they “came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right.” He said some of the right-wing members of the crowd in the Virginia park were “bad.” But he added that the other side came “charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”

Aides had urged him for days to take the high ground, persuading him on Monday to read a brief statement condemning the neo-Nazi groups from the Diplomatic Room in the White House. But over the past day, back in his private New York residence for the first time since becoming president, Mr. Trump was alone, without his wife and young son, and consuming hours of television, with many on cable news telling him he had not done enough.

On Monday night, he was tweeting his frustration, accusing the “fake media” of never being satisfied. But by Tuesday morning, the president was fuming again. At a scheduled event about the permitting process for infrastructure, Mr. Trump asked for questions — contrary to the wishes of his aides, including John F. Kelly, his new chief of staff, who stood to the side, looking grim.

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 on Monday when he named racist groups and called them “repugnant to everything we hold dear.”

His largely unprovoked presidential rant on Tuesday instantly sparked an even more intense critique, especially from Republicans.

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John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, on Tuesday during Mr. Trump’s news conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Credit Al Drago for The New York Times

Speaker Paul D. Ryan called white supremacy “repulsive” and said “there can be no moral ambiguity.” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, tweeted: “Blaming “both sides” for #Charlottesville?! No.” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said white nationalists in Charlottesville were “100% to blame” and wagged his finger at the president for suggesting otherwise.

“The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement moments after Mr. Trump’s remarks. “We cannot allow this old evil to be resurrected.”

Senator Todd Young of Indiana, a freshman Republican, wrote: “This is simple: we must condemn and marginalize white supremacist groups, not encourage and embolden them.”

Even members of Mr. Trump’s own military appeared to take quick offense to their commander’s words. The Marine Corps commandant, General Robert B. Neller, said hours after the president spoke that racial hatred and extremism had no place in the Marines, citing its code of courage, honor and commitment.

He did not name Mr. Trump, but in a tweet wrote that there is “no place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act.”

Mr. Trump delivered his remarks in the lobby of Trump Tower, where officials had spent much of the day trying to erase certain telltale signatures of the brand that would be caught on TV — most significantly a blue curtain over the Ivanka Trump display in the lobby.

If Mr. Trump was aware of the reaction that would ensue after his clearly improvised remarks, he appeared immune to the consequences of those words, which electrified the lobby of his signature office building. It was there in 2015 that he launched his presidential campaign with a furious assault on illegal immigrants and a declaration that Mexicans were “rapists” bringing crime into the United States.

Instead, the president seemed determined to convince any doubters that he did not misspeak in his first reaction to the events in Virginia, on Saturday.

Mr. Trump said his initial statement was shaped by a lack of information about the events on the ground in Charlottesville, even though television statements had been broadcasting images of the violence throughout the morning.

“There was no way of making a correct statement that early,” the president said. “I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters. I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts.”

Within minutes, Mr. Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, praised Mr. Trump’s comments as a condemnation of “leftist terrorists.”

“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” Mr. Duke said in a Twitter post.

But Mr. Trump also made it clear that even now — with the benefit of hindsight — he does not accept the overwhelming criticism that he should have reserved his condemnation for the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

Mr. Trump called the driver of the car that the authorities said crashed into the crowd, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, “a disgrace to himself, his family and this country. You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.”

Speaking bluntly about an active investigation in a way that presidents rarely do, Mr. Trump said Mr. Fields, who is being held without bail on charges of murder and malicious wounding in the death of Heather Heyer, is “a murderer. What he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”

But he refused to explicitly say that the killing of the young woman was a case of domestic terrorism, saying only that “you get into legal semantics.”

The president also gave himself a pat on the back from Ms. Heyer’s mother, who thanked him in a statement for “words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred” after Monday’s remarks. Mr. Trump said, “I thought it was terrific. Under the kind of stress that she is under and the heartache she is under, I thought putting out that statement to me was really something I won’t forget.”

The president’s raw and emotional eruption during a news conference about infrastructure was a near-complete rejection of the more measured language about the unrest that Mr. Trump offered in his brief statement on Monday from the White House.

In that statement, Mr. Trump appeared to distance himself from his Saturday claims that two sides were to blame for the weekend violence. But on Tuesday, Mr. Trump returned to his initial feelings about the subject, which poured out without much prompting from reporters at Trump Tower.

Mr. Trump unleashed a torrent of frustration at the news media, saying they were being “fake” because they did not acknowledge that his initial statement about the Charlottesville protest was “very nice.”

Again and again, Mr. Trump said that the portrayal of nationalist protesters in the city were not all neo-Nazis or white supremacists, and he said it was unfair to suggest that they were.

And he said blame for the violence in the city — which also took the lives of two Virginia state troopers when their helicopter crashed — should also be on people from “the left” who came to oppose the nationalist protesters.

He said it should be “up to a local town, community” to say whether the statue of Robert E. Lee should remain in place.

Soon after the president was done, he wandered close to the velvet rope line which held the small group of about 20 reporters and photographers, his mood noticeably brighter. A reporter asked if he planned to go to Charlottesville in the wake of the tragedy there. He replied by saying he has a house there. He stood and provided an endorsement of the Trump Winery, located near there.

Then he disappeared into Trump Bar, taking a shortcut to his residence next door.

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