NEW YORK • US President Donald Trump has sparked another political firestorm as he reverted to blaming both sides for the deadly violence in Charlottesville and questioned whether the movement to pull down Confederate statues would lead to the desecration of memorials to George Washington.
In a combative exchange with reporters on Tuesday, he rejected bipartisan criticism for waiting several days before naming the right-wing groups and for blaming both the right and left for the bloody violence that ended with the death of a young woman after a car crashed into a crowd.
And he criticised "alt-left" groups that he claimed were "very, very violent" when they sought to confront the nationalist and Nazi groups that had gathered to protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park.
"This week, it is Robert E. Lee and ... Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?" he said, noting the first American president had owned slaves.
His comments came as vandals defaced the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with an obscene message scrawled in red spray paint, the National Park Service said on Tuesday. The writing on one of the columns at the monument dedicated to slain president Abraham Lincoln, who presided over the abolition of slavery in the US, was detected early on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a tweet by former US president Barack Obama about Charlottesville has become one of the most popular tweets in the history of Twitter.
LAYING THE BLAME
I think there is blame on both sides. You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now. What about the alt-left that came charging... at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? ... There are two sides to a story.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
BASKETBALL STAR SLAMS TRUMP
Hate has always existed in America. Yes we know that but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again!
NBA SUPERSTAR LEBRON JAMES
FAR-RIGHT SHOULD BE CONDEMNED
I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them. I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views wherever we hear them.
BRITISH PREMIER THERESA MAY
Quoting former South African president Nelson Mandela, he wrote: "No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion... People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love... For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
The first tweet, which shows a picture of Mr Obama smiling at four children, has been retweeted more than one million times and liked 2.6 million times as of Tuesday afternoon.
In comparison, Mr Trump's statements have inflamed and stunned people across Twitter.
"White supremacy is repulsive," wrote House Speaker Paul Ryan. "This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity."
Mr Trump's raw and emotional eruption during a news conference was a rejection of the more measured language he offered in a statement on Monday.
He defended those gathered in the Charlottesville park to protest against the statue's removal, saying: "Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me."
Mr Trump unleashed a torrent of frustration at the news media, saying they were being "fake" because they did not acknowledge that his initial statement about the Charlottesville protest was "very nice".
Again and again, he stated the nationalist protesters in the city were not all Nazis or white supremacists, and he said it was unfair to suggest that they were.
He also said that 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.
"You had a group on one side and the other, and they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious and horrible," he said.
"There is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group."
He also called the alleged driver of the car that crashed into the crowd, James Alex Fields Jr, "a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country". Fields, 20, is being held without bail on charges of murder and malicious wounding in the death of Ms Heather Heyer.
NY TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE