“Very fine people on both sides”

On Thursday, I watched Joe Biden’s video announcement of his White House run.  His very first words were: “Charlottesville, Virginia.”  The primary motivation for his entry into the race—which he calls a “battle for the soul of this nation”—was Pres. Trump’s statement, after the fatal August 2017 riot in Charlottesville, that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Mr. Biden rejects the “moral equivalence” the statement allegedly implies between neo-Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists, on the one hand, and “those who had the courage to stand against hate,” on the other.  Because Trump’s presidency is a “threat to the nation unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Mr. Biden is running.

We’ve all heard about that “very fine people on both sides” remark.  But, to be honest, I for one had never bothered to examine the context in which it was made.  With Biden’s announcement, my curiosity was piqued, so here is a transcript I prepared of the Trump press conference in which the remark was made.

(A video of Trump’s press conference on August 15, 2017 is here:  The video is approximately 16 minutes long.  The transcript that follows begins at 9:50 and ends at 13:14.  The “very fine people” remark is in boldface, for ease of reference.)

Reporter: Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?

Trump: I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane.  What I’m saying is this: you had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious and horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch.  But there is another side.  There was a group on this side—you can call them the left; you’ve just called them the left—that came violently attacking the other group.  So, you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.

Reporter: Sir, you said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides….

Trump: Well, I do think there’s blame, yes, I think there’s blame on both sides.  You look at, you look at both sides.  I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either.  And, and, and, and if you reported it accurately, you would say.

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.

Reporter: [Unintelligible]

Trump: No, George Washington was a slaveowner.  Was George Washington a slaveowner?  So, will George Washington now lose his statues?  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 slaveowner.  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.

Reporter: Sir, I just want to understand what you’re saying.  You’re saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?  I just want to understand what you’re saying.

Trump: No, no.  There were people in that rally—and I looked the night before—if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.  I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones.  The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people—neo-Nazis, white nationalists—whatever you want to call them.  But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest.  Because—I don’t know if you know—they had a permit.  The other group didn’t have a permit.  So, I only tell you this: there are two sides to a story.  I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment.  But there are two sides to the country.

I want to use neutral terminology, so I’ll refer to “the group on the right.”  When Pres. Trump said that there were very fine people on both sides, it is clear to me that he was referring to people in the group on the right who were lawfully and peacefully demonstrating to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and the renaming of a park named for him.  This is clear because, immediately after the “very fine people on both sides” remark, he refers to those protesting the removal of the statue and the renaming of the park.

Similarly, it is absolutely clear that Pres. Trump was definitely not including among the “very fine people” Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.  Later in the press conference he says that neo-Nazis and white nationalists “should be condemned totally;” he also calls them “rough, bad people.”

Perhaps there are people who believe that opposing the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee is the moral equivalence of neo-Nazism.  I don’t. Nor, clearly, does Pres. Trump.  I don’t know what Mr. Biden believes, but he was wrong to imply that Pres. Trump asserted a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and people who oppose hate; he asserted no such thing.  Mr. Biden’s battle for the soul of the nation has begun with a low blow.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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