President Donald Trump meant what he said when he stated there were “very fine people on both sides” after a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Rep. James Clyburn said in a television appearance Sunday.
“I think he’s expressing what’s in his heart,” the South Carolina Democrat said on ABC’s “This Week.”
As the House majority whip, Clyburn serves as the highest-ranking African American leader in the House.
The president defended the “both sides” statement in a gaggle with reporters outside the White House Friday by pivoting to the statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville’s Lee Park.
“And if you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly. And I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general, whether you like it or not he was one of the great generals,” Trump said.
In Trump’s original statement to reporters after the 2017 Unite the Right rally — which resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer — Trump stated: “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, 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 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.”
Clyburn criticized Trump’s lauding of Lee as “one of the great generals.” Lee was a slave owner and led an insurrection to protect slavery, Clyburn pointed out.
“The fact of the matter is, Robert E. Lee was a great tactician, not a great person. Robert E. Lee was a slave owner and a brutal slave master,” Clyburn said. “Thankfully, he lost that war and I find it kind of interesting the president is now glorifying a loser. He always said that he hated losers. Robert E. Lee was a loser.”
Lee himself rejected tributes to the Confederacy in his twilight years, Clyburn said.
“And even if you could get beyond that at the end of the Civil War,” he continued, “Robert E. Lee asked all of his comrades to lay down their guns and to furl those Confederate flags, and if my memory serves and put them in your attics, so if the president is going to glorify Robert E. Lee, let’s at least be consistent about it.”
Lee opposed Civil War monuments, saying “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” according to Lee biographer Jonathan Horn.
Clyburn represents the 6th District in Eastern South Carolina, including Charleston. A white supremacist shot and killed nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015.
Clyburn used the television appearance to advocate for H.R. 1112, which would strengthen background checks for firearms transfers.
“I happen to represent Charleston, and I have been a proponent of H.R. 1112, because we believe that a climate that has existed in this country over the last several years that glorifies guns in such a way that people feel emboldened to use them to settle whatever grief they may have.
You know, those nine souls at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston are on my mind daily. I think about them. I spoke at one of those funerals. And so I am very concerned that we do not start some discussions and take some actions that will deglorify guns and that we cool our hate speech.”