President Trump on Tuesday defended the Covington Catholic High School students caught up in a storm of misinformed social media rage over the weekend, calling the news coverage of their controversial encounter with a Native-American elder “evil.”
“Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be. They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the goo – maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.
The president’s comments come as Covington Catholic staff announced the high school would be closed on Tuesday in order to “ensure the safety” of students, faculty and staff, after a meeting with local authorities -- in the wake of the incident that sparked the social media frenzy.
The controversy began after videos surfaced online showing a confrontation between the high school students and some Native-American adults. The students initially were accused of mocking a Native-American participant in the Indigenous Peoples March, which coincided with the March for Life. A snippet of video from the apparent confrontation quickly gained traction on social media, with many condemning the students -- some of whom were wearing "Make America Great Again" apparel -- and some calling for them to be identified and harassed. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and the high school issued a joint statement apologizing to the activist, identified as Nathan Phillips Saturday.
But later, another video emerged giving a fuller picture of the incident -- showing some of the students being harassed. In one longer video, a voice off-camera is heard saying, “White people, go back to Europe where you came from,” as Phillips banged the drum.
Sandmann said the students were confronted by four members of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, who "called us 'racists,' 'bigots,' 'white crackers,' 'f----ts,' and 'incest kids.' They also taunted an African-American student from my school by telling him that we would 'harvest his organs.'"
Sandmann said one of the students asked a teacher chaperoning the trip for permission to "begin our school spirit chants" to drown out the hecklers.
"At no time did I hear any student chant anything other than the school spirit chants," Sandmann said. "I did not witness or hear any other students chant 'build that wall' or anything hateful or racist at any time. Assertions to the contrary are simply false."
Sandmann said he was trying to defuse the tense situation by remaining "motionless and calm." He denied taunting Phillips by making faces at him, but said he smiled at the protester "because I wanted him to know I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation."
Meanwhile, Phillips told The Associated Press Sunday that he was trying to keep the peace between the students and members of the group who were heckling them. He also insisted that the students were making disparaging remarks about Native Americans.
"They were making remarks to each other ... (such as) 'In my state those Indians are nothing but a bunch of drunks.' How do I report that?" he said. "These young people were just roughshodding through our space, like what's been going on for 500 years here — just walking through our territories, feeling like 'this is ours."
After the full video surfaced, some initial critics on both sides of the aisle withdrew their statements while conservatives pointed to it as a lesson to not jump to conclusions.
“I’ve now watched over an hour of other videos from 4 different cameras of the incident in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I urge everyone to watch the other videos before passing judgment. Would you have remained that composed at that age under those circumstances?” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., tweeted about Sandmann. “The parents and mentors of these boys should be proud, not ashamed, of their kids’ behavior. It is my honor to represent them.”
The president also defended the students on Monday night, citing a segment on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“Looking like Nick Sandman & Covington Catholic students were treated unfairly with early judgements[sic] proving out to be false—smeared by media. Not good, but making big comeback! ‘New footage shows that media was wrong about teen’s encounter with Native American’ @TuckerCarlson,” Trump tweeted.
Fox News' Samuel Chamberlain and Gregg Re contributed to this report.