By James D. Agresti
August 22, 2017
In the wake of President Trump’s comments about the killing and mass violence in Charlottesville, media outlets and politicians have alleged that Trump said some of the white supremacists are “very fine people” and that both sides are equally to blame. Based on those claims, they are accusing Trump of supporting neo-Nazis and drawing moral equivalence between the two sides. Those assertions are demonstrably false, and Trump said the polar opposite of what these people allege.
“Very Fine People”
When Trump used the phrase “very fine people” during a press conference on Monday, he repeatedly stated that he was not referring to the white supremacists. A reporter at the conference even tried to put these words in Trump’s mouth, and he rejected them. The full record of comments about this matter in chronological order is as follows:
Trump: “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.”
Trump: “Those people were also there, because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.”
Trump: “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”
Trump: “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
Trump: “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.”
Trump: “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.”
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.”
In sum, Trump explicitly condemned the white supremacists/nationalists two times, said they were “very bad people,” and emphasized that he was not calling them “very fine people.” Still, a reporter at the conference then tried to put this spin on his words, and Trump responded, “No, no.”
Nevertheless, after the press conference:
- The Atlantic reported, “President Trump defended the white nationalists who protested in Charlottesville on Tuesday, saying they included ‘some very fine people,’ while expressing sympathy for their demonstration against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.”
- ABC News reported that Trump “blamed both sides for the conflict, adding that there were ‘very fine people’ among both the protesters—which included white supremacists and white nationalists—and the counterprotesters.”
- Esquire reported that Trump said “there were ‘very fine people’ on both sides—this would include the white supremacists.”
- Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen, ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, announced that he is introducing articles of impeachment against Trump, because, “Instead of unequivocally condemning hateful actions by neo-Nazis, white nationalists and Klansmen following a national tragedy, the President said ‘there were very fine people on both sides.’ There are no good Nazis. There are no good Klansmen.”
- the New York Times reported that Trump “spoke of ‘very fine people on both sides.’ And of the demonstrators who rallied on Friday night, some chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, he said, ‘You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.’”
- NPR in Rhode Island aired a commentary stating, “President Donald Trump only made things worse by saying that some of the white nationalists were ‘very fine people.’”
- National Review contributor Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote that Trump was “raving at the press about how there were some good and decent folks among those chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’”
- during an exchange on Fox News, Marie Harf, a former strategic communications adviser for the Obama State Department, declared that Trump said “there were very good people among the neo-Nazi protestors.” She then said to Fox News host Melissa Francis, “Don’t roll your eyes. He did say those words.” Francis replied, “He didn’t say there were very good people among neo-Nazi protestors.” Harf interrupted, “He said there were very good people on the other side.” Francis responded, “There were people who were opposed to the statues.” Harf interrupted again, “It was clear what he was talking about.”
The list of such examples goes on and on, but given the clarity of Trump’s words, there is no honest way to allege that he called white supremacists “very fine people.”
Also, Trump is correct that the event’s organizers “didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis.” On the day before the protest, the local NBC news station in Charlottesville reported that this event was a “protest of the City Council’s decision to remove the statue of confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.” The NBC report contains no mention of white supremacy or anything similar, and it states that the ACLU supported the court order that allowed the event to move forward.
Likewise, the court order itself describes the event as a protest of “the City’s decision to rename the Park, which was previously known as Lee Park, and its plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the Park.”
Contrary to the Associated Press, opposing the removal of Confederate statues is not “right-wing rhetoric.” Just after the violence in Charlottesville, an NPR/PBS/Marist Poll found that 62% of U.S. residents do not want “statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy” taken down, because they are “historical symbols.” In contrast, 28% want them “removed because they are offensive to some people,” and 11% are unsure about this issue.
Some prominent people have alleged that no decent person would have stayed at the event once they saw that neo-Nazis and white nationalists were there. For example, comedian Jimmy Kimmel (while not joking) said, “If you’re with a group of people and they’re chanting things like ‘Jews will not replace us’ and you don’t immediately leave that group, you are not a very fine person.”
Such arguments are based on the irrational assumption that people would abandon a protest they believed in if others showed up and expressed views that they detest. Moreover, extensive pictures and videos of the event show that it was not a sea of Nazi flags and racist chants. Instead, these displays of racism were limited to specific people and groups. They were not rampant among the entire throng of protestors.
Despite widespread media claims, the full transcript and video of Trump’s press conference show that he never assigned equal blame to both sides of the Charlottesville violence. To the contrary, he had much harsher words for the white supremacists. In addition to his universal denunciations of them, Trump singled out the driver of the car who killed Heather Heyer as “a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country.” He emphasized, “The driver of the car is a murderer. And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”
Unlike others, however, Trump also criticized the “alt-left” for “charging with clubs in their hands.” He said that “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.”
During these statements, the reporters fired questions at Trump like:
- “Is the alt-left as bad as Nazis? Are they as bad as Nazis?”
- “Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?”
- “Are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?”
Trump directly replied:
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.
Trump also distinguished the violent counter-protestors from the peaceful ones by describing the latter as “fine people” and stating that Heather Heyer was “a fantastic young woman.”
Throughout all of this. Trump never used the word “equal” or any synonym for it. Nor did he make an explicit or implied declaration of moral equivalency.
Yet, in direct contradiction to what Trump stated:
- the Los Angeles Times published a headline that reads, “Trump provokes new furor by giving foes of white supremacists equal blame for Charlottesville violence.”
- Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wrote, “Through his statements yesterday, President Trump took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally and people like Ms. Heyer.”
- the New York Times editorial board wrote, “Mr. Trump angrily insisted, as he had suggested on Saturday, that both sides were equally to blame—a false equivalency that not just his critics but also an increasing number of his supporters have urged him to abandon.”
- the New York Times reported that “President Trump buoyed the white nationalist movement on Tuesday as no president has done in generations—equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rampaged in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.”
- Republican governor John Kasich tweeted, “Let’s get real. There is no moral equivalency to Nazi sympathizers. There can be no room in America—or the Republican party—for racism, anti-Semitism, hate, or white nationalism. Period.”
- Washington Post political correspondent James Hohmann wrote that Trump’s “comments suggest very strongly that the president of the United States sees moral equivalence between Nazis and those who oppose Nazis.”
Again, the list of such falsehoods extends far beyond the examples above.
Do Counter-Protesters Have Any Blame?
New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg—who was present at the Charlottesville protest—initially made the same point as Trump by writing, “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”
Corroborating Stolberg, these pictures by Joshua Roberts of Reuters show a counter-protestor using a club to beat the face of an old man lying on the ground.
Likewise, this picture published by the Chicago Tribune shows a counter-protestor throwing a metal newspaper box at protesters.
After being criticized for her statement, Stolberg amended it eight hours later at 4:20 AM: “Rethinking this. Should have said violent, not hate-filled. They were standing up to hate.” Stolberg’s revision follows the dominant narrative of the media and politicians, who won’t condemn any of the counter-protestors, because they were engaged in a righteous cause.
Antifa, the so-called anti-fascists who counter-protested in Charlottesville, use that same rationale to justify assaulting anyone that they deem to be a fascist, which includes roughly half of the U.S. population. Per a sympathetic profile of antifa in the leftist magazine The Nation:
As organizers from anti-fascist research and news site Antifa NYC told The Nation: “Antifa combines radical left-wing and anarchist politics, revulsion at racists, sexists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes, with the international anti-fascist culture of taking the streets and physically confronting the brownshirts of white supremacy, whoever they may be.”
Who is “whoever they may be?”
- Law enforcement officers: As the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported, the antifa protestors in Richmond chanted, “Cops and the Klan go hand in hand.”
- Journalists who film the actions of antifa: A counter-protestor in Charlottesville demanded that a reporter for The Hill stop filming, and when she did not, he punched her in the face. One day later, antifa attacked a local CBS reporter in Richmond, Virginia, who refused to stop filming them. The reporter was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he was treated with four staples in his head.
- Anyone who opposes Obamacare. Many Charlottesville counter-protestors carried signs reading, “No! The Trump/Pence Regime Must Go!” These signs displayed the antifa website RefuseFascism.com, which details “crimes against humanity” like this: “Republicans are moving to end Obamacare, which will result in an additional 217,000 deaths over the next decade and 22 million more people without health insurance—hitting poor, Black, Latino, and Native American people hardest.”
- The millions of people who regularly watch Fox News, which has been the most-watched cable news station in the U.S. for 15 years. Per RefuseFascism.com, “Fox Fascist News” is “a vehicle for stirring up racism, xenophobia and irrational fear of other peoples and countries among its overwhelmingly white audience. Fox has worked to turn millions into easy prey for leaders like Trump—who has had virtually unlimited access to airtime there—and to cohere them into a fanatical fascist movement.”
- President Trump and anyone who supports him: The Nation’s glowing profile of antifa says that “Trumpism” is “fascism,” and this “demands a different sort of opposition” that involves “violence.” The antifa website ItsGoingDown.org contains a printable poster that equates Trump supporters with Nazis and likens antifa to the World War II soldiers who fought the Nazis. This is ironic given that older veterans, who are the people who actually fought the Nazis, overwhelmingly support Trump:
In the view of antifa, anyone who stands in the way of their self-described “radical left-wing” agenda is a “fascist” and is therefore a justified target of violence. These are not mere words. Antifa has repeatedly assaulted Trump supporters, and they injured six police officers while trying to shut down Trump’s inauguration. On the day before the inauguration, The Nation broadcast antifa’s call to action:
Meanwhile on January 20, the call for the actual inauguration day is unequivocal protest. More than 50 anarchist, anti-fascist, anti-racist groups from across the country have called for a #J20 Disruption. “We call on all people of good conscience to join in disrupting the ceremonies. If Trump is to be inaugurated at all, let it happen behind closed doors, showing the true face of the security state Trump will preside over,” the announcement reads, “We must take to the streets and protest, blockade, disrupt, intervene, sit in, walk out, rise up, and make more noise and good trouble than the establishment can bear. The parade must be stopped.”
Hundreds of antifa heeded this call by violently rioting around the White House on inauguration day. Thus, RefuseFascism.com lists the following among Trump’s “crimes against humanity”: “Over 200 protesters arrested at Trump’s inauguration were charged with multiple felonies, including federal riot charges, and 211 defendants face up to 75 years in prison.”
For these reasons and others, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness classifies antifa as a terrorist threat, noting that “antifa groups have become active across the United States, employing a variety of methods to disrupt demonstrations.”
Regardless of what antifa has done, many people take issue with Trump’s statement that they share some blame for what happened in Charlottesville. They contend that antifa was innocent in this case since they were there to fight racism and Nazism. For example, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney responded to Trump, “No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.”
Besides embracing the unjustified assumption that every protestor was a racist, bigot, or Nazi, Romney’s words echo antifa’s rhetoric. Antifa contends that they are right to physically attack people who utter racist words, make violent overtures, or support an ideology like Nazism that has killed millions of people. However, under these anarchist standards, people would also be justified in assaulting:
- antifa, because they embrace “radical left-wing and anarchist politics,” which have caused the deaths of tens of millions of people.
- the “black lives matter” protestors who marched through the streets of New York chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!”
- Missouri Democratic state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who wrote, “I hope Trump is assassinated!”
- Montclair State University professor Kevin Allred, who wrote that “until the entire system changes—There are no good white people. There are only less bad white people!!!” Allred also wrote, “Trump is a f–ing joke. This is all a sham. I wish someone would just shoot him outright.”
- Yusra Khogali, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, who wrote that “Whiteness is not humxness. In fact, white skin is sub-humxn. … White ppl are recessive genetic defects. This is factual.”
- the Dartmouth University chapter of the NAACP, which tried to shut down a library while confronting and yelling at white students, “F–k your white asses.”
- Fresno State University professor Lars Maischak, who wrote that “Trump must hang” and “Justice = The execution of two Republicans for each deported immigrant.”
- actor Johnny Depp, who said, “When was the last time an actor killed a President? I want to clarify, I am not an actor. I lie for a living. However, it has been awhile and maybe it is time.”
- the Chicano Student Movement, which has declared, “Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and who struggles against the foreigner “gabacho” [a pejorative for whites] who exploits our riches and destroys our culture. … For La Raza todo. Fuera de La Raza nada [For the Race everything. Outside of the Race nothing.]”
- The curators of the University of Alaska Anchorage art gallery, who displayed art professor Thomas Chung’s painting of “Captain America” holding a decapitated, bloody depiction of Trump’s head.
- Nebraska Democratic Party official Phil Montag, who after a former Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer shot Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, said, “His whole job is to get people, convince Republicans to f—ing kick people off f—ing healthcare. I hate this motherf—er. I’m glad he got shot. … I wish he was f—ing dead.”
In the United States—unlike Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Korea—the right to free speech is constitutionally protected. This includes racist speech, hateful speech, and offensive speech. Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, government at all levels is required to respect free speech and to equally enforce the law for all U.S. citizens. These laws don’t allow people to physically attack one another for voicing their views, no matter how detestable anyone finds them to be.
Under the U.S. Constitution—which is the nation’s supreme legal authority that all elected officials are sworn to uphold—the facts of this event show that the violent antifa counter-protestors have some blame. Moreover, the public figures who excuse antifa’s actions and adopt their logic are supporting anarchy, which is one of antifa’s stated doctrines.
Scores of politicians, journalists, and commentators have twisted beyond recognition Trump’s words about the violence in Charlottesville. Trump did not say that some of the white supremacists are “very fine people” or that both sides are equally to blame. In fact, he said the exact opposite.
Furthermore, despite the publicly available facts above, many people refused to condemn all of the illegal and unconstitutional violence in Charlottesville—and when Trump did so—they condemned him instead.