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Story highlights

Trump rarely backs down from a rhetorical fight

By Tuesday, he was back to himself, raw, emotional and on his own

(CNN) —  

It took President Donald Trump two days to condemn by name neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan and white supremacist groups involved in this weekend’s bloody clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It took him about half that time to reverse course.

“I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it,” Trump told reporters Tuesday during a terse, highly combative exchange about the deadly clashes Saturday at the “Unite the Right” rally.

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” the President said. “No one wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”

It was a moment that the President both seemed to want and to relish.

WATCH: Trump’s full remarks

Trump rarely backs down from a rhetorical fight, taking on everyone from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Arizona Sen. John McCain in unvarnished terms. That’s what made his measured statement on Monday in which denounced racism and specifically called out hate groups so out of character.

By Tuesday, he was back to himself, raw, emotional and on his own. At one point during the event – which was scheduled to be about infrastructure – he pulled his remarks from his pocket and read from them.

During the surreal scene, Trump made a robust defense of his own response to the Charlottesville situation, saying that there was “no way of making a correct statement that early” and that he didn’t want to jump to conclusions without seeing the facts, an interesting assertion for someone who routinely takes to Twitter to comment on developing situations – including terrorist attacks.

He also, repeatedly and forcefully, said he believed many of the participants in the “Unite the Right” rally were not members of hate groups and were instead in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“So this week, it is Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I noticed Stonewall Jackson was coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and Thomas Jefferson? You know, you all really do have to ask yourself, where does this stop?”

Where, indeed.

In the span of three days, the President of the United States has left it an open question whether he sympathizes with groups that espouse hate.

GOP members of Congress criticize Trump’s comments

In a moment when a nation was on edge, the President had an opportunity to meet his moment. Instead, he seemed to douse fuel on the flames in a move that will almost certainly embolden the very groups that we should all seek to condemn.

During his October 2015 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” then-candidate Trump said that he would be a “great unifier for our country.”

Nearly two years later and more than 200 days into his presidency, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t bear some responsibility for deepening the chasms between us all.