CNN’s Chris Cuomo used a deceptive edit on Monday evening to make it appear that President Donald Trump was referring to neo-Nazis as “very fine people” in a press conference on the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots in 2017.
Cuomo was taking on the president for his complaint that director Spike Lee had performed a “racist hit” on Trump at the Oscars. To dispute the president’s claim, Cuomo accused the president of hypocrisy, invoking Charlottesville (video above):
CUOMO: Listen, I doubt the president has seen BlackKklansman …
[Footage rolls on split-screen of neo-Nazis and white supremacists carrying torches in Charlottesville. Caption: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”]
CUOMO: … but it ends with ugly scenes from the ugliness Charlottesville — tiki torches, Nazi torches, you know, the truth. That was clear to everyone, except two groups: white haters, and this president.
[Jump to clip of Trump at press conference on Charlottesville, August 2017]
TRUMP: And you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.
Cuomo added, referring to Trump’s Charlottesville comments: “I’d like to believe that the President of the United States just had an off moment, or said it wrong, he doesn’t mean it. But the facts slap that fiction in the face.”
On the contrary: the facts show that Cuomo was lying to his audience, using a deceptive edit of Trump’s comments.
When the president used the phrase “very fine people,” he was referring to protesters who were not neo-Nazis, but who had simply come to Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The fact that such protesters were there was confirmed by the New York Times, which reported afterwards:
”Good people can go to Charlottesville,” said Michelle Piercy, a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
After listening to Mr. Trump on Tuesday, she said it was as if he had channeled her and her friends — all gun-loving defenders of free speech, she said, who had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists: ”It’s almost like he talked to one of our people.”
The transcript of the press conference makes clear that Trump was referring to those protesters — and to non-violent protesters on the left, who came to protest the statues and the right-wing extremists — in his reference to “very fine people.”
Trump also condemned the neo-Nazis several times during his press conference — a fact that Cuomo neglected to mention.
Here is one relevant exchange, from the transcript (via Politico, hardly a pro-Trump outlet — original emphasis):
TRUMP: Those people – all of those people, excuse me – I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.
REPORTER: Well, white nationalists –
TRUMP: Those people were also there, because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue Robert E. Lee. So – excuse me – and you take a look at some of the groups and you see, and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not. Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY
TRUMP: But, they were there to protest – excuse me – you take a look the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Infrastructure question. Go ahead.
That was the context for Trump’s later use of the phrase “very fine people,” and the transcript is clear who and what he meant:
REPORTER: You said there was hatred and violence on both sides?
TRUMP: I do think there is blame – yes, I think there is blame on both sides. You look at, you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. And, and, and, and if you reported it accurately, you would say.
REPORTER: The neo-Nazis started this thing. They showed up in Charlottesville.
TRUMP: 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 – excuse me, excuse me. 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.
REPORTER: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same.
TRUMP: Oh no, George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down – excuse me. Are we going to take down, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Okay, good. Are we going to take down his statue? He was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue? 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 too.
Moreover, Trump also condemned the neo-Nazi who murdered Heather Heyer, calling it an act of “terrorism.” He added: “The driver of the car is a murderer, and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”
Trump may have had some of the particular details of the protests wrong — which groups were marching Friday versus Saturday, for example — but it is clear that he condemned the neo-Nazis and the violent Antifa activists, while noting that there were ordinary demonstrators — pro-statue, anti-statue, and anti-racist — there as well.
That is the only reasonable interpretation of the president’s use of the phrase “very fine people.”
Moreover, Trump’s daughter is Jewish, his son-in-law is Jewish, and his grandchildren are Jewish, and he has been a staunch supporter of the State of Israel, even moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. His envoys to the Middle East, including the U.S. ambassador to Israel, are not just Jewish, but are also religiously observant Jews.
To play a clip of the neo-Nazi, white supremacist torch procession and then a clip of Trump referring to “very fine people” as if the latter referred to the former creates an impression in the viewer that he or she has actually seen something that never actually happened, and was the opposite of what happened. It is the essence of fake news.
Even if Cuomo and CNN have a legitimate belief that Trump was referring to neo-Nazis — though it is unclear how they could, given the weight of the evidence — they ought to acknowledge that there is a dispute about the facts.
The fact that Cuomo and other anchors at CNN continue to push a disputed, and arguably debunked, story about Charlottesville suggests a political motive: to damage Trump, and to embarrass his supporters by association.
There are real victims of racism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry in the United States, and real fears of future attacks, verbal and violent.
To tell the public that the president empathizes with violent extremists creates unnecessary distress and division.
It is bad enough for a politician to do so: for a news anchor, it is inexcusable.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.