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Trump shifting position ignites new firestorm

NEW YORK

US President Donald Trump has sparked another political firestorm when he doubled down on his initial response to the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that ended in bloodshed, saying there was “blame on both sides”.

The Republican president — who one day ago solemnly denounced racism and singled out the Ku Klux Klan as “criminals and thugs” — also hit out at the “alt-left” over the weekend melee.

Trump, no doubt, pleased part of his political base on Tuesday by passionately arguing that both right- and left-wing extremists were responsible for violence at the white supremacist rally in Virginia on Saturday.

But his remarks, one day after he, under pressure, explicitly condemned the protesters, left White House officials bracing for fallout from disappointed Republicans whose support he needs to govern in the coming months and years.

“Your base isn’t going to win you re-election … nor is it going to keep you a majority in Congress,” said one administration official. It was political reality that the controversy over Trump’s response would last for some time, he said.

Trump has faced days of criticism from across the political spectrum over his reaction to Saturday’s unrest in the Virginia college town, where a rally over the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee erupted in clashes with counter-demonstrators.

The violent fracas ended in bloodshed when 20-year-old James Fields plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, leaving one woman dead and 19 others injured.

In a rowdy exchange with journalists at Trump Tower in New York, Trump made clear on Tuesday that he was fed up with continued questioning about the issue.

“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said.

As he spoke, his new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former Marine general, appeared displeased during the president’s long tirade, standing rigidly.

“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,” Trump continued.

“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.”

Trump’s comments were immediately welcomed by David Duke, a former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan and a key figure at Saturday’s rally.

“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists,” Duke tweeted.

But on the political left, the president’s words were met with indignation.

“Charlottesville violence was fuelled by one side: White supremacists spreading racism, intolerance & intimidation. Those are the facts,” said Tim Kaine, a former Democratic vice presidential candidate and senator from Virginia.

The state’s other Democratic senator, Mark Warner, tweeted: “No words.”

Trump’s fellow Republicans also didn’t mince words.

Agence France-Presse