Nathan Phillips on viral encounter with Nick Sandmann: 'I forgive him'

Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder seen beating his drum in an encounter with Covington Catholic High School junior Nick Sandmann, says he forgives the student although he believes the teen has been insincere in his public response.

"Coached and written up for him. Insincerity. Lack of responsibility. Those are the words I came up with, but then I went to go pray about it," Phillips said Thursday on TODAY. "And then I woke up, and I woke up with this forgiving heart. So I forgive him."

The confrontation last Friday between Phillips and Sandmann, 16, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an encounter that quickly went viral, has turned into a heated debate nationally.

In a TODAY interview that aired Wednesday, Sandmann defended his actions and said he had nothing to apologize for when he and his classmates surrounded Phillips.

"As far as standing there, I had every right to do so," said Sandmann, who was visiting Washington with his classmates to participate in an anti-abortion march.

"My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I'd like to talk to him," he added. "I mean, in hindsight, I wish we could've walked away and avoided the whole thing. But I can't say that I'm sorry for listening to him and standing there."

Phillips said on TODAY that while he did watch Sandmann's interview, he didn't find it convincing."What it says is, he has a PR firm. So those aren't even his words if he has a PR firm," he said, adding that he'd like Sandmann to demonstrate "some sincerity, some sense of responsibility for his actions."

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Lincoln Memorial history
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Aerial view of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, USA, from a Zeppelin, 1928 (1933). A photograph from Zeppelin-Weltfahrten, Vom ersten Luftschiff 1899 bis zu den Fahrten des LZ127 Graf Zeppelin 1932, Dresden, 1933. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Lincoln Memorial In Washington, DC, 1955. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)
380887 23: Demonstrators gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial for a civil rights rally August 28, 1963 in Washington. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)
NOV 7 1963, NOV 24 1964; A plain and Practical Government Building Contrasts with the Grand Lincoln Memorial; (Photo By Lowell Georgia/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
An unidentified woman photographs the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, May 1971. (Photo by Joseph Klipple/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 25: An unidentified National Park Service worker cleans the statue of Abraham Lincoln 25 October as part of the annual cleaning of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A couple feed ducks at the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC April 10, 1999. Sunny skies and temperatures in the low sixties marked a beautiful spring day in the nation's capital. (Photo by Michael Smith)
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WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES: Tourists cross the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial 14 July 2001 in Washington, DC. The Washington DC Convention and Tourism Corp. predicts there will be about 5 million visitors during June, July and August this year, slightly fewer than last summer due to the slowing economy. About 17.7 million visitors come to the District each year; the busiest seasons are spring and fall. AFP PHOTO/TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 18: Inauguration of the 43th president of the United States Georges W. Bush in Washington, United States on January 18, 2001 - Lincoln memorial. (Photo by Pool BASSIGNAC/BUU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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Washington, UNITED STATES: A statue of former US President Abraham Lincoln looks out over the National Mall from the inside of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, 21 July 2007. Opened to the public in 1922 and designed by Henry Bacon, the memorial to America's 16th president includes carved inscriptions of Lincoln's second Inaugural Address and his Gettysburg Address, two of his most famous speeches. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Looking back on the incident, Phillips said he felt compelled to walk by the teenagers after tension had escalated between them and a handful of members of the Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a radical movement that has become more militant.

Phillips said the exchange between the students and the Israelites "was getting really explosive" and prayed for guidance.

"When I was in prayer, it wasn't that I felt like I could stop anything or do anything. But I felt like I was spiritually moved into that center, into the center of that whirlwind," he said.

Phillips said he tried to make his way through the crowd peacefully.

"That's what I was trying to do. I was trying to walk away. There was a spot, there was a a place I could take my peoples because we were surrounded, we couldn't go right, we couldn't go left," he said.

Phillips said he spotted a clear area but then suddenly found himself head-on with Sandmann and his classmates.

"Oh, I was blocked," he said.

But Phillips said he continued his prayer chant.

"The prayer, it was for peace, harmony, love, a better America. Because what I was seeing was the fabric of America being torn apart by bigotry, hate, prejudice, division," he said.

Phillips said he's still bitter about what happened and all the attention it raised.

"Even though I'm angry, I still have that forgiveness in my heart for those students, and that forgiveness even goes to those chaperones, those teachers who should've just said, 'you students, this isn't the place,'" he said.

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