WASHINGTON — During a White House news conference on Monday, President Trump suggested that the 17-year-old accused of killing two people with a semiautomatic rifle at a protest in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 25 had acted in self-defense.
“That was an interesting situation. You saw the same tape as I saw and he was trying to get away from them I guess it looks like,” Trump said of Kyle Rittenhouse, adding, “He fell and then they very violently attacked him and it was something that we’re looking at right now and it’s under investigation. But I guess he was in very big trouble ... he probably would have been killed.”
Rittenhouse had traveled to protests in Kenosha from his home in a nearby Illinois town. Kenosha has been the site of intense demonstrations, some of which have turned violent, since Aug. 23, when a Black man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer. Blake’s shooting was captured on video and turned the city into a focal point for the ongoing national protests against racial injustice and police brutality that erupted around the country following the death of George Floyd in May. Based on posts on his social media pages, it appears that Rittenhouse has been a supporter of the president, attending a Trump rally in January.
Video filmed by witnesses shows Rittenhouse carrying a large rifle and accompanying groups of right-wing activists who have said they went to Kenosha to protect property against rioting. Rittenhouse was also filmed running away from the scene of a shooting and subsequently being chased by protesters. The footage shows Rittenhouse fall as he runs away from demonstrators who accused him of the earlier shooting. He is then seen firing his gun at some of his pursuers from the ground. Rittenhouse was arrested the following day and charged with killing two people and seriously injuring a third.
While Trump seemed to justify Rittenhouse opening fire on the protesters, he repeatedly criticized “left-wing political violence” that has occurred at recent protests “in Democrat-run cities.”
“The wave of violence and destruction that we’ve seen in recent weeks and months has occurred in cities exclusively controlled and dominated by the Biden, Joe Biden party,” Trump said.
Rioting and looting have taken place within the protests in multiple cities since Floyd’s death in late May. On Saturday night, a man named Aaron Danielson was shot and killed at a protest in Portland, Ore. Members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, which has engaged in clashes with leftists in Portland since well before Floyd’s death, identified Danielson as one of their supporters. Authorities have not identified a suspect in the killing, but according to the Wall Street Journal they are investigating a leftist antifa activist named Michael Reinoehl as a person of interest.
Portland has been gripped by civil unrest including skirmishes between left-wing and right-wing groups in the months since Floyd’s death. Danielson’s killing on Saturday followed an event billed as the “Trump 2020 Cruise Rally in Portland,” where the president’s supporters drove into the city in a caravan of cars. Trump supporters were filmed firing paintballs at protesters as they drove through town.
At his news conference, Trump was asked if he would condemn his supporters who shot the paintballs along with leftists who have engaged in rioting.
“That was a peaceful protest and paint ... is a defensive mechanism. Paint is not bullets,” Trump said.
The president then referenced Danielson’s killing and blamed it on leftists, though that has not been confirmed by local law enforcement. Trump described Danielson as “a young gentleman” who was killed “not with paint, but with a bullet.”
“I think it’s disgraceful,” he said of Danielson’s death.
The president also offered a rationale for the right-wing protesters in Portland. He suggested they are rightfully angered by rising crime in American cities.
“They went in very peacefully and I’ll tell you what they’re protesting,” Trump said. “When they turn on the television or read whatever they may be reading, and they see a city like Chicago ... or a city like New York where the crime rate has gone through the roof, or a city like Portland ... where the entire city is ablaze all the time ... they see that, they say, ‘This is not our country.’”
The president and his campaign have increasingly focused on violence at protests and surging crime as a case for his reelection. Trump and his allies have blamed this on Democratic local governments and the “Defund the police” movement that has gained traction in the wake of Floyd’s death. Crime has risen in the majority of major cities around the country since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. However, this increase has included a couple of Republican-led cities and locales where there has been no protest-driven effort to reduce police budgets. Trump’s claims about soaring crime have also included some questionable assertions. In New York, rates of murders, shootings and burglaries are all up this year, but rates of other major crimes, such as rapes, assaults and robberies, have fallen.
Trump also used the news conference to accuse his opponent in the presidential race of not condemning violence from leftists. However, in a speech earlier Monday, Biden criticized protesters who engage in violent activity.
“I want to make it absolutely clear: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple, and those who do it should be prosecuted,” Biden said.
Biden also described Trump as someone who “fans the flames” of unrest.
Despite Biden’s harsh words, Trump suggested his rival hasn’t done enough to “mention the far left” as a source of violence.
“He even talked about those on the right, but he didn’t talk about those on the left and those on the left are the problem,” said Trump. “The rioters and Joe Biden have a side. They’re both on the side of the radical left.”
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