Did President Donald Trump say during a news conference on August 15, 2017 that neo-Nazis and white nationalists at a protest in Charlottesville were "very fine people"? No, that's not true: while the President did indeed use the words "very fine people" when describing some of the protesters "on both sides", and drew criticism for declaring "I think there is blame on both sides" for the violence, the transcript of the news conference does not show he directly said "very fine people" when he was talking about the neo-Nazis and white supremacists that were present. Trump also clarified later during the news conference they were not who he was talking about when he used that phrase, and said they should be "condemned totally".
The claim recently reappeared in a tweet sent out by Joe Biden on August 13, 2020 (archived here) which read:
"Three years ago today, white supremacists descended on Charlottesville with torches in hand and hate in their hearts. Our president said they were "very fine people." It was clear then, and it's clear now: We are in a battle for the soul of our nation, and we must win."
This is what the tweet looked like at the time of writing:
(Source: Twitter screenshot taken on Fri Aug 14 17:59:33 2020 UTC)
Biden's tweet was a reference to remarks President Trump made in 2017 after clashes and riots during several protests following the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that involved militia groups, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and left wing black-block protesters.
Trump took questions from reporters about the incidents during a press conference on August 15, 2020, which PolitiFact transcribed in 2019. The famous "very fine people" phrase appears in that transcript in these paragraphs:
Reporter: (Inaudible) "... both sides, sir. You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides. Are the --"
Trump: "Yes, I think there's blame on both sides. If you look at both sides -- I think there's blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don't have any doubt about it either. And if you reported it accurately, you would say."
Reporter: "The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest --"
Trump: "Excuse me, excuse me. They didn't put themselves -- and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group. Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name."
Reporter: "George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same."
Trump: "George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down -- excuse me, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?"
Reporter: "I do love Thomas Jefferson."
Trump: "Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
"So you know what, it's fine. You're changing history. You're changing culture. And you had people -- and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists -- because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
"Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people. But you also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad people in the other group."
Reporter: "Sir, I just didn't understand what you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? I just don't understand what you were saying."
Trump: "No, no. There were people in that rally -- and I looked the night before -- if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I'm sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people -- neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.
"But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest -- because, I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit. So I only tell you this: There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country -- a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country.
(highlights and underlines by Lead Stories)
The transcript shows Trump is saying that there were some "very bad" people among the pro-statue protesters and he contrasts them against some "very fine" people that were also there according to him. After some riffing with the reporter about if statues of Jefferson or Washington should also be taken down Trump then clarifies who he does not count among those "very fine people", namely "the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists", who, according to Trump, "should be condemned totally".
According to an investigation by the The Washington Post on one side the crowd during the violent riots consisted almost exclusively of white supremacists and the militia groups that were there to protect them. Trump drew criticism for appearing to defend them by absolving them for some of the blame which to many people also made it appear he (at least partially) sided with them. Some people also interpreted the remarks to mean that since the "innocent protesters" that Trump was talking about didn't actually appear to be there during the violence he must have been talking about the people that were actually there when he made the "very fine people" remark, despite his actual words.
You can listen and watch for yourself here:
While much else has been said about Trump's reaction to the August 2017 events in Charlottesville, the record shows Trump did not directly call the white supremacists and neo-Nazis "very fine people".