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The evolution of Donald Trump's response to the Charlottesville violence

There are significant discrepancies in his written and spoken language on the topic.

Donald Trump’s response to the deadly Charlottesville clashes has become the source of some of the most intense scrutiny of his tenure as US president.

Trump’s rhetoric on the topic has changed and caused outrage in many circles. So what actually happened? And how has Trump’s language about the attack developed?

What happened?

James Fields
James Fields (second from left, holding shield) is accused of murder (Alan Goffinski/AP)

On Saturday, white nationalists had assembled in Virginia to vent their frustration against the city’s plans to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, while counter-protesters massed in opposition.

A few hours after violent encounters between the two groups, a car drove into a crowd of the counter-protesters, costing the life of Heather Heyer and injuring around 20 more.

A memorial for Heather Heyer
Heather Heyer lost her life in the incident (Steve Helber/AP)

The alleged driver James Fields, 20, was pictured supporting the white nationalists earlier in the day and has been arrested and charged with murder and other offences.

First response: Violence on many sides

Donald Trump speaking at Trump National Golf Club
The president speaking at Trump National Golf Club (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Speaking at a press conference from his New Jersey golf course on the day of the clashes, Trump’s first response was equivocal in who he felt was to blame for the tragedy.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” said Trump. “On many sides.

“It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time.

“It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.”

Donald Trump speaking
Trump did not explicitly condemn white supremacy (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Trump said he “just got off the phone” with Terry McAuliffe, the Governer of Virginia, and that they “agreed the hate and division must stop – and it must stop right now”.

This first address of the incident was lambasted by both Republicans and Democrats. People criticised his view that there were “many sides” to the violence and his apparent negligence to condemn white supremacy and racism.

Written statement: Racism condemned

Donald Trump
Trump’s writing has significantly deviated from his speech on the subject (Alex Brandon/AP)

After two days of intense criticism, Trump released a written statement on the attack on Monday. This time he pointedly used the term “racist” and condemned “hate groups”.

“Racism is evil,” read the statement. “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.

“To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered.”

Trump took pains to insist “as I said on Saturday” that he condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence” – this time not adding that there were “many sides” involved.

Trump backtracks: “The alt-left”

Trump pulls a quote out of his jacket
Trump’s latest address saw him pull out a quote from his initial statement (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Given at a press conference in New York, Trump’s latest statement demonstrated a significant discrepancy between his written and spoken language – reverting again to spreading the blame and even referring to the counter-protesters as the “alt-left”.

“What about the alt-left that came charging them? Excuse me,” Trump replied, when a reporter mentioned the term “alt-right”. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”

He added: “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E Lee.”

Lee was a Confederate army general and slave owner who has become a symbol of racism for many in the US. Leaders across the country have now started to take down statues of Lee since the violence, with one being toppled by protesters with a rope in Durham, North Carolina.

Protesters stamp on the statue in Durham
A Lee statue is being toppled (Casey Toth/AP)

“So, this week it’s Robert E Lee,” 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?

“You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”

Activists gather around a statue of Lee
Lee statues have repeatedly been the site of protest (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Again, Trump would not be drawn when asked whether the car attack was an act of terrorism.

“There is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics,” he said. “The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”

Referring to Trump’s response, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke wrote on Twitter: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville”

In contrast, US politicians from all sides have renewed their condemnation of the president’s stance.

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