JAMES ROBBINS, Did you know Joe Biden said, “many fine people … continue to display the Confederate flag.”
Can we once and for all kill off the distortion that Donald Trump called white supremacists “very fine people?” In the very same comments people are always quoting, Trump said “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the White nationalists.”
The discredited issue rose like a zombie when presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Democratic candidate Joe Biden to address “President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville three years ago, when he talked about ‘very fine people’ on both sides.” The former Vice President then gave an emotional account of the events, and repeated the “very fine people” comment, adding that “no president has ever said anything like that.”
Yes, Trump did, and has repeatedly, denounced white supremacists
Wallace’s question and Biden’s answer were based on a false premise. Yet it was amplified when Wallace asked President Trump if he was willing to denounce “white supremacists and militia groups,” and Trump answered “sure, I’m willing to do that,” before moving the discussion to left-wing violence. Somehow “sure” was not translated into a yes answer by some observers, and the president was left on the defensive again. Some prominent Republicans are urging the president to unequivocally denounce white supremacy, as he previously has time and time again.
A simpler and more direct answer would have been that yes President Trump denounces white supremacists and militia groups, has always denounced them, and always will. Because that is the truth.
Democrats persistently quote President Trump’s comment out of context, twisting his words to mean the opposite of that he plainly meant, namely denouncing extremism. The president made the “fine people” statement at an August 15, 2017 press availability, during a spirited discussion with journalists. Here is what he said in context:
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. … 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. … 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 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.“
It is clear from the full statement that President Trump was not making a distinction between the right and left, but between radicals of all types versus those who protest peacefully. This fits into a long American intellectual tradition of condemning the radicalism of the right and left.
The left keeps ignoring everything Trump has done
However, Democrats continue to use the out of context quote to support a baseless charge of racism against Trump. It is not the only such case. For example, Biden castigated Trump for allegedly not denouncing former KKK leader David Duke, a charge Politifact rated as “Mostly False.” He called Trump the first racist to be president, which is a strange charge coming from a candidate in Woodrow Wilson’s party. But critics cannot produce any evidence of Donald Trump unambiguously praising white supremacist organizations, ideas, dogmas or policies. At best they refer to the president’s supposed “dog whistles” which only the critics can hear.
The charge that Trump is tied to these extremist views is ridiculous on its face. President Trump was responsible for — and never misses a chance to highlight — the pre-pandemic lowest unemployment numbers ever for African Americans and Hispanics. He has supported funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), wants to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and designate the KKK as a terrorist group. This is a president who has been a stalwart and lifelong supporter of Israel, who took a huge political risk to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and who has brokered the historic Abraham Accords between the Jewish State, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. As well, are we supposed to believe that the first president to have Orthodox Jews as members of his immediate family, a man with Jewish grandchildren, is somehow connected to neo-Nazi ideology? Please.
Anyway Mr. Biden has his own “fine people” moment to answer for. At a July 22, 1993 Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the issue of refusing a Federal charter to the United Daughters of the Confederacy came up. Biden, who opposed the charter, still referred to the commemorative group as “an organization made up of many fine people who continue to display the Confederate flag as a symbol.” This comment isn’t being repeated ad nauseum by the media, but maybe it should be.
Joe Biden, Democrats and media critics may keep repeating the Trump “very fine people” falsehood, but those who keep fidelity to reality, the record, and common sense will recognize it for the lie that it is.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.