One year later, Trump's 'both sides' response to Charlottesville still elicits anger

Senior Editor
Yahoo News

The following is part of our project Charlottesville: One Year Later. Yahoo News spoke to over a dozen people connected to the deadly August 2017 rally about how things have changed over the past 12 months. To read their stories, click here.

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President Trump was excoriated by countless critics, including members of his own administration, for blaming “both sides” for the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August. Nearly a year later, some of those deeply affected by the events of that weekend haven’t forgiven him.

Susan Bro, whose daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car plowed into a group of counterprotesters, says the White House tried to contact her three times on the day of Heyer’s funeral. That was Aug. 15, three days after her death and the same day Trump angrily defended his initial statement during a contentious press conference with reporters at Trump Tower.

“My phone was turned off that entire day,” Bro told Yahoo News in a recent interview. “By the time I turned it on, it was like 10:30, and then I sat down and watched the news and heard he said there were good people on both sides, and I said, ‘Screw that. I’m not talking to him.’”

On Aug. 12, Trump had addressed the violence in Charlottesville during a previously scheduled press event at his golf club in New Jersey, saying “many sides” were to blame.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” Trump said. “On many sides,” he repeated. Notably, he did not condemn the demonstrations by the alt-right and neo-Nazis.

The statement shocked then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who had briefed Trump on the escalating situation earlier in the day.

“I had told him we have white supremacists, neo-Nazis and alt-right screaming vulgarities and all types of things against fellow citizens down there.” McAuliffe said. “I was astounded, because in my conversation with him, I had briefed him on the situation, told him about these horrible people. They are hateful people. I won’t even mention to you what they were screaming at the African-American members of the community as well as members of the Jewish community. I just wondered to myself, ‘How did we get to this place in America?’ These folks used to wear hoods to disguise themselves. But here they were in Charlottesville. They didn’t feel like they needed to wear hoods.”

This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo shows people thrown into the air as a car rams a group counterprotesting a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug.12, 2017. (Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/Daily Progress via Reuters)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo shows people thrown into the air as a car rams a group counterprotesting a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug.12, 2017. (Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/Daily Progress via Reuters)

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was equally appalled.

“My first thought last August was that we have some people trying to drag us back,” Kaine said. “There are people who want to drag us back, sadly even including the president, who stokes division and hatred, who couldn’t tell who was on the right side and wrong side in a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, which demonstrates a level of moral confusion that almost certainly is intentional rather than accidental.”

For both Kaine and McAuliffe, the violence in Charlottesville was personal, and not just because of where it occurred. Two Virginia state police officers who were monitoring the clashes from the air — Jay Cullen and Berke Bates — died in a helicopter crash.

“To lose their lives because of an incident, because people came in to spew hatred — it has to be a learning moment,” McAuliffe said. “How do we go on? How do we go forward from here?”

At his press conference in Trump Tower, the president placed equal blame on the counterprotesters.

“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said. “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.”

The president also defended those who had gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis; I’ve condemned many different groups,” Trump said. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”

Neo-Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists encircle counterprotesters after marching with torches through the University of Virginia campus on Aug. 11, 2017. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Neo-Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists encircle counterprotesters after marching with torches through the University of Virginia campus on Aug. 11, 2017. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

But anyone who witnessed the torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus would beg to differ. A Vice News documentary captured protesters shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”

“One reason why the documentary got so much attention was that it was used to fact-check the president’s statements,” said Elle Reeve, a Vice News correspondent who embedded with a group of white supremacists for the film. “There are people who wanted to give the idea that this was just like history buffs or, like, people who were Civil War reenactors, people who love that Confederate statue — and that’s not what it was about.”

Kaine agrees.

“Why would they have chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’? That didn’t have anything to do with statues,” Kaine said. “Some of these folks have wanted to pretend it’s about statues because that makes it seem a little more benign. It was about hatred. That’s what August 12th was about, and that’s the way people in Charlottesville experienced it, and that was what led to the violence. It wasn’t about statues at all.”

Even Christopher Cantwell, a self-described white nationalist who was featured in the Vice documentary, didn’t like Trump’s response. Cantwell says the president caved to pressure from the left to condemn the neo-Nazis.

“He eventually threw us under the bus,” Cantwell said. “And shockingly enough, that didn’t do him any good because everybody still accuses him of being Adolf f***ing Hitler. So it accomplished absolutely nothing.”

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