President Trump backtracks to blame both sides in Charlottesville violence
HARI SREENIVASAN: Yesterday we reported on President Trump's updated statement criticizing violent neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups for the violence over the weekend in Charlottesville. That was yesterday.
Today, in an impromptu news conference originally about an executive order on infrastructure, Trump defended his statements from over the weekend and went even further.
For more on all this, I'm joined by the NewsHour's John Yang.
John, at first, it was about infrastructure. There were visual aids. There were flowcharts. And then:
JOHN YANG: It was a remarkable performance, Hari.
Reporters were initially told that the president wouldn't take questions. It was just going to be a statement. But he's described as fuming at the press and the coverage of his reaction to Charlottesville, and this afternoon he came out swinging, first on CEOs quitting White House advisory panels.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Take a look at where their product is made. It is made outside of our country. We want products made in the country.
Now, I have to tell you, some of the folks that will leave, they're leaving out of embarrassment, because they make their products outside. And I have been lecturing them, including the gentleman that you are referring to, about you have to bring it back to this country.
HARI SREENIVASAN: He was referring to the Merck CEO, but there were many other CEOs.
JOHN YANG: There were three CEOs altogether and also the head of another panel, CEOs of Intel, of Under Armour, and then the head of a manufacturing alliance.
And then, just a few moments ago, Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, announced that he's quitting. He said that Mr. Trump's today, in his words, repudiate his forced remarks yesterday.
HARI SREENIVASAN: He doubled down. This was kind of the person that almost was forced, as Richard Trumka says. You could see how uncomfortable he was in front of the teleprompter yesterday. But, today, he was incredibly confident. He was sure of himself. And this is what he thinks.
JOHN YANG: Yesterday, we are told that especially Chief of Staff John Kelly pressed for what happened yesterday. They wanted to get this behind them, so they could move on to their agenda in September, but the president brought it right back today, back to square one.
HARI SREENIVASAN: He was also defending — he took sort of several moments and opportunities to defend the alt-right in not so many words, by really pointing out there were other good and decent people there, and even how he perceived the protests on Friday night, where those men were carrying torches.
JOHN YANG: And he sort of also defended why it took him more than 48 hours to specifically condemn white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long.
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 fact.
And it takes a little while to get the facts. You still don't know the facts. And it is a very, very important process to me. It is 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.
HARI SREENIVASAN: This is not the same person that tweets within minutes. When he's angry about something, he takes to Twitter very quickly. He makes statements sometimes too quickly.
And here he is sort of saying the opposite, that he's deliberate, that he waits for facts and information.
JOHN YANG: Critics pointed out, have already been pointing out that this is the same man who went to Twitter to criticize, accused President Obama of wiretapping him in Trump Tower without any evidence, and make a number over claims that — without any evidence.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And even in the remarks about the Merck CEO who left the council, it was an incredibly short amount of time, as soon as he left the council, that he sort of took Merck through the ringer.
JOHN YANG: He went — yesterday, after Kevin Frazier resigned from the council, he took to Twitter and said, great. Now we have more time to secure these ripoff high drug prices, even though, at Merck, Frazier has led the way in sort of being transparent about drug costs.
And he also accused him today of manufacturing drugs overseas.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Which makes you wonder, why did you have him on, on the commission in the first place, right, if you thought these things about him?
And there's also this equivalency that he's making throughout this defense of what happened in Charlottesville.
JOHN YANG: He went back to the original statement on Saturday, that this was something — he criticized what he called the alt-left.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let me ask you this. What about the fact they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.
I am not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I'm saying is this. You had a group on one side and a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch.
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.
HARI SREENIVASAN: It's because, really, what — when you see the statement that was constructed yesterday, and when you see how forthright he is, this is what he believes, and Saturday is what he believed.
JOHN YANG: People — some at the White House have been telling me that, talking about the Saturday statement, that he saw this as an issue of law and order, that he saw unrest, he saw civil unrest and violence.
He didn't really distinguish which side. He saw this more as an issue of law and order, not ideology.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And, you know, there was also kind of a fallacy of the slippery slope here with George Washington.
JOHN YANG: That's right.
He was asked about this whole controversy of removing Confederate memorials like the Robert E. Lee statue that sparked Saturday's violence in Charlottesville.
Mr. Trump, in response, brought up the founding fathers who were slave owners.
PRESIDENT DONALD 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 — are we going to take down statues to George Washington?
How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK, good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
So, you know what? It's fine.
HARI SREENIVASAN: There has already been reaction.
JOHN YANG: There has been reaction.
House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted just a little bit ago, saying that — I have lost it on my phone here, but that there can be no moral ambiguity.
He was — also won praise. David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted: "Thank you, President Trump, for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville and condemn the leftist terrorists in Black Lives Matter and Antifa, anti-fascists."
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, these are the people that are happy with the president and his remarks today?
JOHN YANG: They — our colleague P.J. Tobia talked to Matthew Heimbach, who is the head of the Traditionalist Worker Party, described him as being ecstatic on the phone when he spoke to him.
He says that what the president called the alt-left: "These were actual anarchists, radical leftists, not your daddy's Democrats. And they talk about violence and commit violence and terror acts on a daily basis."
HARI SREENIVASAN: The Traditional Worker Party.
All right, there was also a moment with John McCain and how he sort of referenced him as somebody that was questioning him about a critique by John McCain and kind of threw him under the bus at that moment.
And then there was this — all I can say is this sort of bizarre promo for a winery that Trump owns in Charlottesville.
Anyway, it's fascinating insight into the president. John Yang, thanks so much.
JOHN YANG: Thank you.
HARI SREENIVASAN: We have only scratched the surface of the president's press conference. You can watch the whole event on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour.