President Donald Trump on Friday called Robert E. Lee a "great general" as he defended his comments about a deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, one day after former Vice President Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign by citing Trump's response to the events.
Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Friday, Trump was asked if he still believed that there were "very fine people on both sides" of the Aug. 11-12 rallies and counterprotests, during which civil rights activist Heather Heyer was killed by a Nazi sympathizer who drove his car into a crowd. The perpetrator, James Alex Fields Jr., was found guilty of first degree murder and several other crimes in December.
"I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general," Trump told reporters Friday.
"Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals. I have spoken to many generals here, right at the White House, and many people thought — of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general," Trump said of the Confederate military leader.
"People were [in Charlottesville] protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee," Trump continued. "Everybody knows that."
The president's remarks Friday also appeared to bolster Biden's argument the day before. Biden, in making his 2020 pitch, described a deep divide between his view of Charlottesville as a clash between "those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it," and Trump's own view that there were "very fine people on both sides." Biden, in his announcement video, said Trump's response to the rally was evidence of a "battle" underway "for the soul of this nation."
Trump's comments Friday all but ensured that the former vice president will continue to attack him over Charlottesville and link him to some of the most extreme elements of the far right – which could put Trump on the defensive in the 2020 race much earlier than he had anticipated.
"We can't forget what happened in Charlottesville," Biden said toward the end of his announcement video Thursday. "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 — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen."
The 2017 rally was organized by a self-described white supremacist, Jason Kessler, under the pretense of a protest against the proposed removal of a statue of Lee in a small, Charlottesville city park. At the time, the statue was one of several monuments in the south honoring Confederates that were under consideration for removal in response to the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting.
Despite its stated purpose of peacefully protesting the proposed removal of a statue, from the start, the events were organized and promoted almost entirely by white supremacists, militia groups and leaders of the American neo-Nazi movement. These included high profile white supremacists such as Richard Spencer and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
In the wake of the deadly rally, Trump issued a succession of statements, including several that condemned what he said was hate and violence "on many sides."
"Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me," Trump said on August 15, three days after Heyer was killed. "Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch." In fact, Trump said, there were "very fine people on both sides."
Two days later, conservative economist Stephen Moore, who was recently announced as Trump's choice to join the Federal Reserve Board, argued in a CNN appearance that Robert E. Lee "hated slavery," despite the fact that Lee owned hundreds of slaves whom he treated brutally. "He abhorred slavery, but he fought for his section of the country," Moore said.
When CNN host John Berman pointed out that Lee ordered the beating of his slaves, the recapture of fugitive slaves and that he fought a war to preserve the southern system of slavery, Moore interjected. "The Civil War was about the South having its own rights," he said. Slavery "was a big part of it, but it wasn't only that."