Donald Trump on Thursday reverted to his controversial “both sides” rhetoric about white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of a woman last month.
A spokesperson for Tim Scott, the African American Republican senator from South Carolina who met Trump at the White House on Wednesday to discuss America’s racist past and present, said in response: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
In August, far-right groups protesting the removal of statues of Confederate leaders from the University of Virginia campus were opposed by counter-protesters. Trump faced bipartisan criticism when he first condemned violence – in which the 32-year-old civil rights activist Heather Heyer was killed – “on many sides”.
Two days later, Trump gave a statement in which he said: “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
However, at a press conference at Trump Tower in New York the next day, Trump insisted of an explicitly white nationalist protest: “Not all those people were neo-Nazis, not all those people were white supremacists.”
He added: “You had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
On Thursday, talking to reporters on Air Force One, the president was asked about his Wednesday meeting with Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate.
Using a common name for anti-fascist groups, Trump said: “We had a great talk yesterday. I think especially in light of the advent of Antifa, if you look at what’s going on there. You have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also and essentially that’s what I said. Now because of what’s happened since then, with Antifa.
“When you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville, a lot of people are saying and people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump may have a point.’ I said there’s some very bad people on the other side also. But we had a great conversation.”
In August, Scott said the president’s comments were “indefensible” and that his “moral authority is compromised”. He requested the White House conversation.
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Scott told reporters Trump “is who he has been and I didn’t go in there to change who he was, I wanted to inform and educate a different perspective. I think we accomplished that. To assume that immediately thereafter he’s going to have an epiphany is just unrealistic.”
A spokesperson told the Guardian: “In yesterday’s meeting, Senator Scott was very, very clear about the brutal history surrounding the white supremacist movement and their horrific treatment of black and other minority groups.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and to expect the president’s rhetoric to change based on one 30-minute conversation is unrealistic. Antifa is bad and should be condemned, yes, but the KKK has been killing and tormenting black Americans for centuries.”
Trump’s comments came on the same day Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican congressman, said in an interview that the violence in Charlottesville was the result of a liberal plot to smear the president.
Additional reporting by Lauren Gambino