Trump defends 'great general' Robert E. Lee

President Trump on Friday defended saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Va., between white nationalists and counterprotesters in 2017.

The president spoke outside the White House a day after former Vice President Joe Biden launched his presidential bid with a video condemning Trump for the controversial remarks.

“I was talking about people that felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general whether you like it or not,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn before departing for the National Rifle Association’s annual convention.

RELATED: White nationalist protesters lead 'Nazi-esque' rally in Charlottesville

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White nationalist protesters lead 'Nazi-esque' rally in Charlottesville
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White nationalist protesters lead 'Nazi-esque' rally in Charlottesville
Riot police protect members of the Ku Klux Klan from counter-protesters as they arrive to rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Protesters direct obscene gestures towards members of the Ku Klux Klan, who are rallying in support of Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TEMPLATE OUT
Counter-protesters shout at members of the Ku Klux Klan, who are rallying in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TEMPLATE OUT
Members of the Ku Klux Klan face counter-protesters as they rally in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A counter-protester is detained as members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Police detain a counter-protester during the aftermath of a rally by members of the Ku Klux Klan in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Counter-protesters lock arms in the middle of a street as police try to disperse them, after members of the Ku Klux Klan rallied in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Police, clergy and free speech observers protect a man wearing a Confederate flag as a cape after he was surrounded by counter-protesters prior to the arrival of members of the Ku Klux Klan to rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Counter-protesters help a man affected by pepper gas as police try to disperse them, after members of the Ku Klux Klan rallied in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Police, clergy and free speech observers protect a man wearing a Confederate flag as a cape after he was surrounded by counter-protesters prior to the arrival of members of the Ku Klux Klan to rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Riot police protect members of the Ku Klux Klan from counter-protesters as they arrive to rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TEMPLATE OUT
Counter-protesters lock arms in the middle of a street as police try to disperse them, after members of the Ku Klux Klan rallied in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in opposition to city proposals to remove or make changes to Confederate monuments, such as the statue of General Stonewall Jackson above them, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Members of the Ku Klux Klan, standing near a tomato and and an orange that had been thrown at them by counter-protesters, hold a sign as they rally in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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The president claimed he had spoken to active duty generals who told him Lee, a U.S. Army officer who defected to the Confederate side and led the Army of Northern Virginia, was their “favorite general.”

“People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee,” Trump added. “Everybody knows that.”

The weekend of “Unite The Right” protests in Charlottesville in August 2017 were organized by a group of white supremacists.

Though nominally about the preservation of a statue honoring Lee, the underlying objective of Unite the Right was to bring various factions of the largely internet-based alt-right movement together in real life. The rallies began with neo-Nazis marching through the University of Virginia campus carrying tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us!”

Heather Heyer, 23, was killed when a car driven by a neo-Nazi plowed into a group of counterprotesters. Two state police officers were also killed when their helicopter crashed while monitoring the clashes.

Trump’s response blaming “both sides” for the violence, which was widely criticized, was the centerpiece of Biden’s campaign launch video.

“He said there were ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides,” Biden said in the video posted to YouTube Thursday. “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”

At the time, Biden said, the events in Charlottesville convinced him we were in a “battle for the soul of this nation.” He predicted “history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.”

“But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are,” the former vice president added. “And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

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