CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday grilled senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway about President Donald Trump’s initial response to the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Conway, during a heated exchange with Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” defended Trump’s infamous “very fine people on both sides” comment he made at the time to describe “Unite the Right” rallygoers as well as anti-racism counterprotesters.
“It was called the Unite the Right rally, and it was formed by people like Richard Spencer, who is a white supremacist,” Tapper told Conway. “Friday night was the tiki torch march and ‘Jews will not replace us.’ ... Saturday, Heather Heyer was killed. Who were the very fine people?”
Conway said Trump had been speaking generally about the debate over removing Confederate monuments. Unite the Right rally organizers stated their goals were to unify the American white nationalist movement and oppose the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville’s Lee Park.
“He’s not talking about white supremacists,” Conway said. “In fact, he condemned them in no uncertain terms.”
Tapper continued to press Conway, noting that Trump had been specifically referring to people in Charlottesville at the time. But Conway attempted to pivot the discussion to The New York Times’ publication of an anti-Semitic cartoon in its international edition before bashing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Trump on Friday doubled down on his “both sides” response to Charlottesville and claimed rallygoers were there to protest the removal of the Lee statue. In reality, Unite the Right wasn’t billed as a rally for the Lee statue, but as a gathering of “pro-white” groups.
“If you look at what I said you will see that that question was answered perfectly,” Trump told reporters Friday. “I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.”
Lee’s own descendant has called him an “idol of white supremacy.”
Asked Sunday if she believes Trump’s response to the Charlottesville violence was indeed “perfect,” Conway danced around the question.
“I think it was twisted for many years for political purposes,” Conway said, before Tapper interrupted her to ask the question again. But she continued to refuse to answer directly.
“It’s a very simple question: Yes or no, was President Trump’s response perfect?” Tapper tried again.
“When President Trump condemned racism, bigotry, evil violence, and then took it many steps further and called out neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK, that is darn near perfection,” she responded. “All white supremacy, all neo-Nazis, all anti-Christianity, all anti-Semitism, all anti-Muslim activity should be condemned.”
Conway on Sunday said Trump believes white nationalism is a “threat,” but would not say whether he believes it’s a “growing threat,” despite being asked by Tapper several times.
Asked last month, following deadly shootings at two mosques in New Zealand, whether he feels white nationalism is a growing threat, Trump told reporters no.
FBI data suggests otherwise. The U.S. has experienced a sharp increase in hate crimes over the last couple years. There were 7,175 hate crime incidents reported in 2017. About two-thirds of the victims were targeted for their race, ethnicity or ancestry.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told a House panel last month that white supremacy and violent extremism pose a “persistent, pervasive threat.”