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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Trump finds favour with far-right after praising 'fine people' on neo-Nazi march

White supremacist and ex-KKK leaders thank Trump after he hands down equal blame to counter-protesters over Charlottesville violence

The finger of blame: Donald Trump accuses "both sides" over Charlottesville violence. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
The finger of blame: Donald Trump accuses "both sides" over Charlottesville violence. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Donald Trump secured the backing of white supremacist leaders after praising “many fine people” who took part in far-right rallies in Charlottesville and appeared to suggest that counter-protesters shared equal responsibility for the weekend’s deadly violence.

“I think there's blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it,” said Mr Trump during a press conference called Tuesday to launch an infrastructure plan but descended into terse exchanges with reporters over the clashes in the U.S. state of Virginia.

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he insisted. “No one wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now: You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”

The violence broke out on Saturday after a group of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists gathered in the city to protest a decision by city authorities to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The general is seen as an enduring Civil War symbol of white supremacy and black oppression in modern racially-divided America. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters to the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in the city.

Normally swift to voice his opinions on social media, Mr Trump came under fire from critics over his failure to publicly condemn the far-right marchers.

Several senior business leaders quit a presidential advisory panel in protest before Mr Trump denounced neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan as “criminals and thugs” in a White House statement on Monday.

While Mr Trump on Tuesday repeated his condemnation of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he said that “not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch”.

“You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” he said.

The president’s comments were an unexpected coup for far-right leaders just a day after the White House statement.

Former KKK leader and white supremacist David Duke thanked Donald Trump for the “honesty and courage to tell the truth” about Charlottesville and to condemn the “leftist terrorists” involved in the counter-protest.

Richard Spencer, another icon for White supremacists, said he was proud of Mr Trump at the press conference, which ended with him promoting his winery in Charlottesville.

But Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League criticised the US President for his moral equivalency of the two sides.

“There are no "fine people" in the ranks of Nazis. Legal permits do not bestow moral permission” Greenblatt tweeted.

Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama called Mr Trump “racist”.

“The President of the United States just made it clear, in case anyone was still unsure, that he is in fact a racist”.

Others in Charlottesville such as Larry Sabato who teaches at the University of Virginia challenged Mr Trump’s account of the events.

“You weren't there on Fri @UVA. I was. I saw hundreds of NEO-NAZIS right out of 1930s Germany. Sir, you are hopeless" Mr Sabato tweeted.

During the press conference, a defensive Trump argued about whether the man driving the car that killed Ms Heyer and injured 19 others was a terrorist.

“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” said Mr Trump.

Following the press conference, two union representatives announced they were quitting Mr Trump’s manufacturing council, bringing the total to five in less than 48 hours.