Politics and Government

Trump downplays deadly Charlottesville rally by comparing it to campus protests over Gaza war

White nationalist demonstrators walk into Lee park.
White nationalist demonstrators walk into Lee park surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va.
Steve Helber | AP 2017

Donald Trump on Thursday claimed the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., was “nothing” compared to ongoing pro-Palestinian campus protests, the latest instance in which he has downplayed a racist incident that was one of the most criticized moments of his presidency.

Speaking in a Manhattan courtroom hallway at the day's end of his criminal hush money trial, Trump blamed President Joe Biden for student protesters who have set up encampments as they call for a cease-fire in the war Israel launched after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Biden has recently, as he often does, publicly brought up the Charlottesville rally that sparked his decision to run against Trump in 2020, where torch-wielding white supremacists marched to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, chanting “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”

“We’re having protests all over. He was talking about Charlottesville," Trump said. “Charlottesville was a little peanut. And it was nothing compared — and the hate wasn’t the kind of hate that you have here.”

Trump has tried to pin reported instances of antisemitism around the campus protests to Biden. But in invoking Charlottesville, Trump again raised his history of courting extremists and his repeated refusal to disavow groups like the Proud Boys, some of whom would go on participate in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The Biden administration quickly condemned the comments.

“Minimizing the antisemitic and white supremacist poison displayed in Charlottesville is repugnant and divisive,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said.

Hundreds of white nationalists descended on the city on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12, 2017. Clashes between white nationalists and anti-racism protesters broke out both days, prompting authorities to declare the gathering on Aug. 12 an “unlawful assembly” and to order crowds to disperse. It was after that announcement that a man rammed his car into a peaceful group of counter-protesters. One woman died; 35 others were injured.

Days after the deadly rally, Trump told reporters that “you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

It was, as Biden has said, when he knew he would run for president again. He talks about the moment often, including at a campaign event last week.

“When those folks came walking out of those fields — down in Charlottesville, Virginia — carrying Nazi banners, singing the same garbage that they sang in Hitler’s streets in Germany in the '30s, carrying torches, accompanied by the Ku Klux Klan, and a young woman was killed, I decided that I had to run. I had to run,” he said. “Our democracy is at stake, and it really is.”

The protests that have swept across college campuses in recent days come as tensions rise in the U.S. over the nation's role in the Israel-Hamas war, particularly as deaths mount in Gaza. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive.

The protests have pitted students against one another, with pro-Palestinian students demanding that their schools condemn Israel’s assault on Gaza and divest from companies that sell weapons to Israel. Some Jewish students, meanwhile, say much of the criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism and made them feel unsafe, and they point out that Hamas is still holding hostages taken during the group’s Oct. 7 invasion. And other Jewish students have participated in the pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

More than 100 people have been arrested in the protests. Biden has tried to navigate it politically, saying students have a right to free speech while condemning antisemitic protests.