Defiant Trump blames 'both sides' over Charlottesville violence
US president Donald Trump has blamed "both sides" for the weekend violence between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators in Virginia.
The American leader had sought to rebuff criticism of his handling of the emotionally-charged protests in Charlottesville, during which 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed, while showing sympathy for a fringe group's efforts to preserve Confederate monuments.
Mr Trump's remarks amounted to a rejection of the Republicans, business leaders and White House advisers who had urged the president to more forcefully and specifically condemn the KKK members, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who took to the streets of Charlottesville.
The angry exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in New York City stunned senior advisers, with some - including Mr Trump's new chief of staff John Kelly - standing by helplessly as the president escalated his rhetoric.
Standing in the lobby of Trump Tower, the president acknowledged that there were "some very bad people" among those who gathered to protest on Saturday.
But he added: "You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides."
The Charlottesville rally was organised by white supremacists and other groups under a "Unite the Right" banner.
Organisers said they were initially activated by their objections to the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, but the larger aim was to protest against what they saw as an "anti-white" climate in America.
In his remarks, Mr Trump condemned bigoted ideology and called James Alex Fields Jr, who allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Ms Heyer, "a disgrace to himself, his family and his country".
But Mr Trump also expressed support for those seeking to maintain the monument to Lee, equating him with some of the nation's founders who also owned slaves.
"So, this week it's Robert E Lee," Mr Trump said. "I noticed that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"
He continued: "You're changing history. You're changing culture."
The president's comments effectively wiped away the more conventional statement he delivered at the White House a day earlier when he branded white supremacists who take part in violence "criminals and thugs".
Mr Trump's advisers had hoped those remarks might quell criticism of his initial response, but the president's retorts on Tuesday suggested he had been a reluctant participant in that effort.
Senior Republicans were quick to respond to the comments. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said Mr Trump should not allow white supremacists "to share only part of the blame".
House Speaker Paul Ryan declared in a tweet that "white supremacy is repulsive" and there should be "no moral ambiguity", though he did not specifically address the president.
Mr Trump's remarks were welcomed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who tweeted: "Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth."
White House officials were caught off-guard by the president's remarks on Tuesday. He had signed off on a plan to ignore questions from journalists during an event touting infrastructure policies, according to a White House official. But once he was behind the lectern and facing the cameras, he overruled the decision.
During Mr Trump's speech, chief of staff John Kelly folded his arms and stared down at his shoes, barely glancing at the president.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders looked around the room trying to make eye contact with other senior aides. One young staffer stood with her mouth agape.
Democrats were aghast at Mr Trump's comments. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said on Twitter that the Charlottesville violence "was fueled by one side: white supremacists spreading racism, intolerance & intimidation. Those are the facts."
Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said on Twitter: "As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment. This is not my president."