WASHINGTON President Trump reverted Tuesday to blaming both sides for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., and at one point questioned whether the movement to pull down Confederate statues would lead to the desecration of memorials to George Washington.
Abandoning his precisely chosen and carefully delivered condemnations of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis from a day earlier, the president furiously stuck by his initial reaction to the unrest in Charlottesville. He drew the very moral equivalency for which a bipartisan chorus, and his own advisers, had already criticized him.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” the president said in a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”
Mr. Trump defended those gathered in a Charlottesville park to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups,” he said. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
He criticized “alt-left” groups that he claimed were “very, very violent” when they sought to confront the white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups that had gathered in Charlottesville.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Trump said. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It was a remarkable rejection of the criticism he confronted after waiting two days before naming the right-wing groups in the bloodshed that ended with the death of a young woman after a car crashed into a crowd of protesters.
Mr. Trump accused people he called the alt-left of “swinging clubs” as they “came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right.” He said some of the right-wing members of the crowd in the Virginia park were “bad.” But he added that the other side came “charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”
Aides had urged him for days to take the high ground, persuading him on Monday to read a brief statement condemning the neo-Nazi groups from the Diplomatic Room in the White House. But over the past day, back in his private New York residence for the first time since becoming president, Mr. Trump was alone, without his wife and young son, and consuming hours of television, with many on cable news telling him he had not done enough.
On Monday night, he was tweeting his frustration, accusing the “fake media” of never being satisfied. But by Tuesday morning, the president was fuming again. At a scheduled event about the permitting process for infrastructure, Mr. Trump asked for questions contrary to the wishes of his aides, including John F. Kelly, his new chief of staff, who stood to the side, looking grim.
Venting, his face red as he personally executed the defense of his own actions that no one else would, Mr. Trump all but erased any good will he had earned Monday when he named racist groups and called them “repugnant to everything we hold dear.”
Mr. Trump said his initial statement was shaped by a lack of information about the events in Charlottesville, even though television statements had been broadcasting images of the violence throughout the morning.
“There was no way of making a correct statement that early,” he said. “I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters. I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts.”
Within minutes, Mr. Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, praised Mr. Trump’s comments as a condemnation of “leftist terrorists.”
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” Mr. Duke said in a Twitter post.
But Mr. Trump also made it clear that even now with the benefit of hindsight he does not accept the overwhelming criticism that he should have reserved his condemnation for the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
Mr. Trump called the driver of the car who the authorities said crashed into the crowd, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, “a disgrace to himself, his family and this country. You can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.”
Speaking bluntly about an ongoing investigation in a way that presidents rarely do, Mr. Trump said Mr. Fields, who is being held without bail on charges of murder and malicious wounding in the death of Heather Heyer, is “a murderer.”
“What he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing,” Mr. Trump said.
But he refused to explicitly say that the killing of the young woman was a case of domestic terrorism, saying only that “you get into legal semantics.”
The president also gave himself a pat on the back from Ms. Heyer’s mother, who thanked him in a statement for “words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred” after Monday’s remarks.
Mr. Trump said: “I thought it was terrific. Under the kind of stress that she is under and the heartache she is under, I thought putting out that statement to me was really something I won’t forget.”
He also unleashed his frustration at the news media on Tuesday, saying they were being “fake” because they did not acknowledge that his initial statement about the Charlottesville protest was “very nice.”
Again and again, Mr. Trump rejected any portrayal that nationalist protesters in the city were all neo-Nazis or white supremacists, and he said it was unfair to suggest that they were.
He said blame for the violence in the city which also took the lives of two Virginia state troopers when their helicopter crashed should also be on people from “the left” who came to oppose the nationalist protesters.
The president said it should be “up to a local town, community” to say whether the statue of Lee should remain in place.
Soon after Mr. Trump was done speaking, he wandered close to the velvet rope line that held a group of about 20 reporters and photographers, his mood noticeably brighter. A reporter asked if he planned to visit Charlottesville after the tragedy there. Mr. Trump replied by saying he has a house there, and provided an endorsement of the Trump Winery nearby.
Then he disappeared into Trump Bar, taking a shortcut to his residence next door.