WASHINGTON – On the eve of his visit to Wisconsin, President Donald Trump defended the 17-year-old who fatally shot two protesters in Wisconsin last week, embracing an attorney’s account that Kyle Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.
Referring to cell phone video of the incident, Trump told reporters on Monday that Rittenhouse was “trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like” and said that protesters “violently attacked him.” Trump repeatedly noted the shooting remained under investigation but also appeared to lean into Rittenhouse’s self-defense argument.
Rittenhouse has been charged with five felonies and a misdemeanor after shooting three people Tuesday, two of them fatally. Rittenhouse was acting as self-appointed security against rioting and considered himself a militia member, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“I guess he was in very big trouble,” Trump said of Rittenhouse. “He would have been, he probably would have been killed. But it’s under – it’s under investigation.”
At the point of the evening the president describes, however, the teen had already shot and killed one protester, according to charging documents and video.
Trump made the remarks a day before he is set to travel to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the latest flash point in violent protests after the police shooting Aug. 23 of Jacob Blake, a Black father who was left paralyzed from the waist down.
The president has been using the unrest in many cities as a campaign argument against Democrat Joe Biden, arguing that local Democratic officials have not done enough to quell the violence. Biden and other Democrats have countered that it is Trump who is both stoking racial division and who bears responsibility – as the current occupant of the White House – for the violence.
“Fires are burning and we have a president who fans the flames rather than fighting the flames,” Biden said during remarks in Pittsburgh earlier Monday. “Donald Trump looks at this violence and he sees a political lifeline.”
In a follow up statement Monday evening, Biden said Trump “wouldn’t even repudiate one of his supporters who is charged with murder because of his attacks on others” and described the president as “too weak, too scared of the hatred he has stirred to put an end to it.”
Trump’s comments Monday mirrored those of Rittenhouse’s lawyer, who has cast his client as “a hero who had no choice but to defend himself.” Attorney John Pierce, in an interview with USA TODAY, called the case against the 17-year-old “the most political prosecution in the history of this country.”
Pierce said his client went to Kenosha after a local business owner there called for help in protecting properties, including a car lot and body shop, that the owner believed was threatened by the unrest in Kenosha. The attorney said he did not know who fielded the initial request, but he said Rittenhouse and other associates responded to the call.
“He answered the call; he took his rifle because it was a war zone,” Pierce said.
Other conservatives also have come to Rittenhouse’s defense.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson appeared to justify the shooting, saying on his television show last week that it’s understandable given violence and chaos in the city.
“Kenosha devolved into anarchy because the authorities abandoned the people,” Carlson said. “Those in charge, from the governor on down, refused to enforce the law. They’ve stood back and watched Kenosha burn. Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?”
Over the weekend, Trump declined to comment directly about the Rittenhouse case, noting that the shooting remained under investigation.
Several former classmates at Lakes Community High School in Antioch told VICE News they remembered Rittenhouse as short-tempered and easily offended. He was known for his love of the police, guns and Trump, they said.
Contributing: Michael Collins, Bart Jansen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel