Among Democrats and never-Trumpers of all stripes, it has become an article of faith — an inerrant, infallible dogma handed down from on high — that, after the fatal riots in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, Pres. Donald Trump asserted a moral equivalence between white nationalists and neo-Nazis, on the one hand, and those who were in Charlottesville to protest racism, on the other. In the video that launched his current presidential campaign, Joe Biden solemnly assured us that Donald Trump’s remark about “very fine people on both sides” was the reason for Mr. Biden’s decision to join “a battle for the soul of this nation.”
Just in case anyone missed his righteous indignation, Mr. Biden repeated the point in his announcement this Wednesday of his selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. In fact, he very pointedly noted that Wednesday was the third anniversary of the disturbances in Charlottesville. And, once again citing Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remark, he accused the president of engaging in “politics of racist rhetoric and appeals to division” and again invoked the idea of a battle for the soul of America. (The Biden/Harris video is here; the relevant portions of Biden’s speech are from 11:52 to 14:10.)
It has been said that falsehoods can circle the globe before the truth can pull on its boots. The allegation that Trump claimed a moral equivalency between white nationalist neo-Nazis and people opposed to racism has been fervently asserted by politicians, media outlets, editorialists, bloggers, and talking heads for the last three years. As I have said, it has become an article of faith. But, three years is sufficient time for the truth to pull on its boots. By now, any fair-minded person who is familiar with the facts would accept that the allegation that Trump asserted a moral equivalency is false. And those who continue to repeat that falsehood, including Joe Biden, have lied.
Here are the facts. Pres. Trump used the phrase “very fine people on both sides” in a post-Charlottesville press conference; the video is here. What follows is a transcript (which begins at 10:45 and runs to 12:19 in the video) of a portion of that press conference. Please view the video and check this transcript for accuracy. (Solely for ease of reference, two passages are in bold.)
Reporter: The neo-Nazis started this thing; they showed up in Charlottesville to protest….
Trump: Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves down as neo-, and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group—excuse me, excuse me—I saw the same pictures as you did. 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.
Trump: No, George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down—excuse me—are we going to take down, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Cause he was a major slave-owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So, you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people—and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally—but you had many people in that group, other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay, and the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also you had some fine people, but you also had trouble-makers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad, you had a lot of bad people in the other group, too.
We all know, after three and a half years of his presidency, that Donald Trump does not speak extemporaneously with perfect clarity. His off-the-cuff statements can be difficult to follow. But, on this occasion, any fair-minded person will recognize that, when he refers to “very fine people on both sides,” Pres. Trump is referring to very fine people on both sides of the issue of whether to remove Robert E. Lee’s statue and name from a public park. How do I know this? Because, 52 seconds after he uses the “very fine people” phrase, Pres. Trump explicitly states “I’m not talking about neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” The only other people he refers to are those who want to preserve Robert E. Lee’s name and statue on public property. So the “very fine people” must be among that latter group.
I think people can disagree with the removal of statues and the renaming of parks without being neo-Nazis or white nationalists; they can indeed be very fine people. That’s my opinion. If you agree, then the “battle for the soul of our nation” that Mr. Biden so solemnly invokes is purely quixotic: he is battling a strawman. And we know for a fact that Donald Trump never asserted the moral equivalence that so electrified Joe Biden; Trump never said–in fact, he explicitly denied–that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Therefore, if we accept Mr. Biden’s assertion that he decided to enter the “battle” only because of that alleged moral equivalence, then his campaign is ultimately grounded on a falsehood, and his repeated assertions of that falsehood make him a liar.