President Trump on Tuesday fueled the controversy over a confrontation last week between a group of Kentucky high school students and an elderly Native American protester, using it to bash one of his favorite targets: the media.
“Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be,” Trump tweeted. That followed a Monday evening tweet that also supported the students: “Looking like Nick Sandman [sic] & Covington Catholic students were treated unfairly with early judgements proving out to be false — smeared by media. Not good, but making big comeback!”
Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., a suburb of Cincinnati, was seen facing off silently with Nathan Phillips, a Native American protester, outside the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the Indigenous Peoples March on Friday. Sandmann, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap, had an expression that many viewers interpreted as a smirk. In a statement afterward, he said he was merely trying to project calm.
Phillips, 64, an elder of the Omaha people, was beating a drum and praying.
“I heard them say, ‘Build that wall, build that wall,’ you know?” Phillips said in a brief interview after their encounter. “This is indigenous lands, you know. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did. Before anybody else came here we never had walls. We never had a prison.”
Reports differ on whether the students had been chanting slogans about the wall. Several of them made a “tomahawk chop” gesture that Native Americans consider racist.
The students, who were in Washington for the anti-abortion March for Life, were waiting for a bus when the group of Native Americans, at the end of the Indigenous Peoples March, approached.
A second, longer video included footage of a third group of protesters, identifying themselves as Hebrew Israelites, an African-American religious sect, yelling at the students.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,” Phillips told the Washington Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way.”
In a statement released Sunday, Sandmann said he never interacted with Phillips.
“To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me,” Sandmann said. “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse [sic] the situation.”
The video of their brief encounter sparked outrage on social media and talk shows, some of which was retracted or qualified after the second video began to circulate.
The Indigenous Peoples Movement, which organized Friday’s march, called the incident “emblematic of our discourse in Trump’s America.”
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who with Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., became one of the first Native American women elected to Congress last fall, said “to see a group of students from a Catholic school who are practicing such intolerance is a sad sight for me.”
School officials and the Catholic Diocese of Covington released a joint statement Saturday condemning the incident.
“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general,” the statement said. “The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”
Sandmann said he and his family have received death threats since the footage of his staredown with Phillips was released.
Covington Catholic High School was closed Tuesday over what school officials described as security concerns.
According to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, the students at the center of the controversy have been invited to visit Trump at the White House, and that the meeting could come as early as Wednesday.
Trump’s Tuesday tweet expressed hope that the incident could lead to a reconciliation: “They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good — maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!”
But that might take a while. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported Tuesday morning that Phillips had turned down a local restaurateur’s offer to bring him and the Covington students together for a meal.
“It’s not the right time,” Phillips told the newspaper.
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