In Context: Donald Trump’s ‘very fine people on both sides’ remarks (transcript)
On Aug. 15, 2017, President Donald Trump held a press conference to discuss an executive order he had signed on infrastructure permitting. Reporters shortly began asking questions about Trump’s initial response to violent protests in Charlottesville, Va. It was at this press conference that Trump said that "you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides."
On April 25, 2019, former Vice President Joe Biden declared his 2020 candidacy for the Democratic nomination and the presidency by recalling the events in Charlottesville and Trump’s comments. "With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it," Biden said.
The next day, Trump responded, saying "If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly. And I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals." Trump also said he would defeat Biden "very easily."
We wanted to look at Trump’s comments in their original context. Here is a transcript of the questions Trump answered that addressed the Charlottesville controversy in the days after it happened. (His specific remarks about "very fine people, on both sides" come in the final third of the transcript.)
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Reporter: "Let me ask you, Mr. President, why did you wait so long to blast neo-Nazis?"
Trump: "I didn’t wait long. I didn’t wait long."
Reporter: "Forty-eight hours."
Trump: "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 facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. And it’s a very, very important process to me, and it’s 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. If you go back to --
Reporter: "So you had to (inaudible) white supremacists?"
Trump: "I brought it. I brought it. I brought it."
Reporter: "Was it terrorism, in your opinion, what happened?"
Trump: "As I said on -- remember, Saturday -- we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America. And then it went on from there. Now, here’s the thing --"
Trump: "Excuse me. Excuse me. Take it nice and easy. Here’s the thing: When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet, as we were speaking. This event just happened.
"Before I make a statement, I need the facts. So I don’t want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent. In fact, the young woman, who I hear was a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC -- her mother wrote me and said through, I guess, Twitter, social media, the nicest things. And I very much appreciated that. I hear she was a fine -- really, actually, an incredible young woman. But her mother, on Twitter, thanked me for what I said.
"And honestly, if the press were not fake, and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. But unlike you, and unlike -- excuse me, unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts."
Reporter: "The CEO of Walmart said you missed a critical opportunity to help bring the country together. Did you?"
Trump: "Not at all. I think the country -- look, you take a look. I’ve created over a million jobs since I’m President. The country is booming. The stock market is setting records. We have the highest employment numbers we’ve ever had in the history of our country. We’re doing record business. We have the highest levels of enthusiasm. So the head of Walmart, who I know -- who’s a very nice guy -- was making a political statement. I mean -- I’d do it the same way. And you know why? Because I want to make sure, when I make a statement, that the statement is correct. And there was no way -- there was no way of making a correct statement that early. I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters. Unlike a lot of reporters --
Reporter: "Nazis were there."
Reporter: "David Duke was there."
Trump: "I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts. And the facts, as they started coming out, were very well stated. In fact, everybody said, ‘His statement was beautiful. If he would have made it sooner, that would have been good.’ I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts. Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts.
"It was very important -- excuse me, excuse me -- it was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly. Because if I would have made a fast statement -- and the first statement was made without knowing much, other than what we were seeing. The second statement was made after, with knowledge, with great knowledge. There are still things -- excuse me -- there are still things that people don’t know. I want to make a statement with knowledge. I wanted to know the facts."
Reporter: "Two questions. Was this terrorism? And can you tell us how you’re feeling about your chief strategist, Stephen Bannon?"
Trump: "Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country. And that is -- you can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That’s what I’d call it. Because there is a question: Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer. And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.
Reporter: "Can you tell us broadly what your -- do you still have confidence in Steve?"
Trump: "Well, we’ll see. Look, look -- I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late. You know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. And I like him, he’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard. But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon. But he’s a good person, and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly."
Reporter: "Sen. (John) McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville."
Trump: "Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I’m sure Senator McCain must know what he’s talking about. But when you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me. You define it. Go ahead."
Reporter: "Well, I’m saying, as Senator --"
Trump: "No, define it for me. Come on, let’s go. Define it for me."
Reporter: "Senator McCain defined them as the same group --"
Trump: "Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at -- 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?
"Let me ask you this: What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute. I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day --
" I will tell you something. I watched those very closely -- much more closely than you people watched it. And you have -- 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."
Reporter: "Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?"
Trump: "Those people -- all of those people – excuse me, 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. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee."
Reporter: "Should that statue be taken down?"
Trump: "Excuse me. If you take a look at some of the groups, and you see -- and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not -- but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
"So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
"But they were there to protest -- excuse me, if you take a look, the night before they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Infrastructure question. Go ahead."
Reporter: "Should the statues of Robert E. Lee stay up?"
Trump: "I would say that’s up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located."
Reporter: "How concerned are you about race relations in America? And do you think things have gotten worse or better since you took office?"
Trump: "I think they’ve gotten better or the same. Look, they’ve been frayed for a long time. And you can ask President Obama about that, because he’d make speeches about it. But I believe that the fact that I brought in -- it will be soon -- millions of jobs -- you see where companies are moving back into our country -- I think that’s going to have a tremendous, positive impact on race relations.
"We have companies coming back into our country. We have two car companies that just announced. We have Foxconn in Wisconsin just announced. We have many companies, I say, pouring back into the country. I think that’s going to have a huge, positive impact on race relations. You know why? It’s jobs. What people want now, they want jobs. They want great jobs with good pay, and when they have that, you watch how race relations will be.
"And I’ll tell you, we’re spending a lot of money on the inner cities. We’re fixing the inner cities. We’re doing far more than anybody has done with respect to the inner cities. It’s a priority for me, and it’s very important."
Reporter: "Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?"
Trump: "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.
Reporter: (Inaudible) "… both sides, sir. You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides. Are the --"
Trump: "Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. If you look at both sides -- 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. And if you reported it accurately, you would say."
Reporter: "The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest --"
Trump: "Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves -- and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group. Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. 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."
Reporter: "George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same."
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 statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?"
Reporter: "I do love Thomas Jefferson."
Trump: "Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
"So you know what, it’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. 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.
"Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people. But you also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad people in the other group."
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 -- because, I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So I only tell you this: There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country -- a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country.
"Does anybody have a final --
Reporter: "What makes you think you can get an infrastructure bill? You didn’t get health care --
Trump: "Well, you know, I’ll tell you. We came very close with health care. Unfortunately, John McCain decided to vote against it at the last minute. You’ll have to ask John McCain why he did that. But we came very close to health care. We will end up getting health care. But we’ll get the infrastructure. And actually, infrastructure is something that I think we’ll have bipartisan support on. I actually think Democrats will go along with the infrastructure."
Reporter: "Mr. President, have you spoken to the family of the victim of the car attack?"
Trump: "No, I’ll be reaching out. I’ll be reaching out."
Reporter: "When will you be reaching out?"
Trump: "I thought that the statement put out -- the mother’s statement I thought was a beautiful statement. I will tell you, it was something that I really appreciated. I thought it was terrific. And, really, under the kind of stress that she’s under and the heartache that she’s under, I thought putting out that statement, to me, was really something. I won’t forget it.
"Thank you, all, very much. Thank you. Thank you."