Trump defends 2017 'very fine people' comments, calls Robert E. Lee 'a great general'

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he departs the White House, Friday April 26, 2019.PlayJacquelyn Martin/AP
WATCH Trump defends 2017 'very fine people' comments, calls Robert E. Lee 'a great general'

President Donald Trump maintained he "answered perfectly" when he said there were "very fine people on both sides" of clashes at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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"If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly," Trump said Friday in an exchange with ABC's Terry Moran. "And I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general."

The president went on to defend the legacy of Lee, who led the Confederate Army in the Civil War in defense of states' rights to maintain slavery.

"Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals. I have spoken to many generals here, right at the White House, and many people thought of the generals, they think maybe he was their favorite general. People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that," Trump said.

The "Unite the Right" rally took place Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, where white nationalists protested the city’s decision to remove a statue of Lee. Rally participants chanted anti-Semitic, Nazi-associated phrases and clashed with counterprotesters.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump answers questions about protests in Charlottesville after his statement on the infrastructure discussion in the lobby at Trump Tower in New York on Aug. 15, 2017. Afp Contributor/AFP/Getty Images, FILE
President Donald Trump answers questions about protests in Charlottesville after his statement on the infrastructure discussion in the lobby at Trump Tower in New York on Aug. 15, 2017.

The president's original comments, made during a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in the days after Charlottesville, drew criticism at the time from Democrats -- and many Republicans -- who said the president did not offer an adequately strong condemnation of white supremacists and drew an equivalence between protesters and counterprotesters.

The 2017 comments drew fresh attention after former Vice President Joe Biden highlighted them in his announcement that he is running for president.

"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 in his announcement video, released Thursday. "And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I'd ever seen in my lifetime."

PHOTO: White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11, 2017. Stephanie Keith/Reuters, FILE
White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11, 2017.

"You also had some very fine people on both sides," Trump said in 2017. "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. You had people -- and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists; they should be condemned totally -- you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists."

He went to say there were also "troublemakers" among the counterprotesters.

"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, too," Trump said.

One counterprotester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed when a rally participant deliberately drove into a group protesting the August 2017 rally. The driver has since been found guilty of first-degree murder.