In 2017, President Trump faced criticism for insisting that "both sides" were responsible for a deadly attack against leftist protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. At a forum on Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen echoed Trump's "both sides" rhetoric on Charlottesville, telling the audience that neither side of the rally was more right or wrong than the other.
"I think what's important about that conversation is, it's not that one side is right and one side is wrong," Nielsen said of the clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters. "Anybody that is advocating violence, we need to work to mitigate."
The now-infamous Unite The Right rally in August 2017 was marketed as a protest against the removal of confederate statues in Virginia. However, the rally soon became openly racist, with attendees waving flags with swastikas and other fascist flags, shouting Nazi slogans and chanting "Jews will not replace us!" while carrying torches and marching through the University of Virginia's campus.
The protest turned deadly when a car drove through a group of anti-fascist activists, who'd arrived to counter-protest the event. One counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed in that attack; shortly thereafter, a man seen marching with fascist protesters earlier in the day was arrested and charged with her murder. In a separate incident during the rally, three white protesters were recorded brutally beating a black man in a parking garage.
After the protest, Trump drew heavy condemnation for drawing a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis at the protest and the counter-protesters.
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," Trump said at a press conference after the rally. He doubled-down on this later, telling reporters that "there’s blame on both sides" and that there were "very fine people on both sides" of the protest.
At Thursday's event, Nielsen was asked if tackling violent white supremacist groups in America has been a priority for her department, and the Trump administration. She responded that although the administration has traditionally been focusing on fighting Islamic terrorists, "we also have white supremacists and other groups who self-profess that their purpose or motive is violence." Between 2016 and 2017, the number of people killed by white supremacists in America doubled.
Neilsen also suggested that her agency is working on helping white supremacists find ways to "get their message across" that don't require violence.
"Somebody has self-affiliated with a radical, extremist group," Nielsen said when asked about how her administration deals with violent white supremacist groups. "But how do we provide them a different way to communicate, and get their message across, in a non-violent way?"
Nielsen's remarks about Charlottesville as she's already faced heavy criticism for carrying out the Trump administration's family separation policy, under which thousands of undocumented children have been separated from their parents and locked in detention facilities throughout the United States. Nielsen drew much of the blame for that policy, as it's her department that oversees immigration enforcement, and she was heckled about it at a Mexican restaurant in June.