The Kentucky high school student seen in a “Make America Great Again” hat during a confrontation with an elderly Native American protester on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial says he wishes it never happened, but isn’t sorry for standing his ground.
“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” Nick Sandmann told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in an interview that aired on the “Today” show Wednesday. “In hindsight, I wish we could’ve walked away and avoided the whole thing. But I can’t say that I’m sorry for listening to him and standing there.”
Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., was seen in a viral video facing off silently with Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American protester. Phillips was beating a drum and praying as several students made a “tomahawk chop” gesture that Native Americans consider racist. Phillips said he heard students chant “Build the wall,” although the recordings don’t support that.
“I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips,” Sandmann said. “I respect him. I’d like to talk to him.”
The Covington students, who were in Washington for the anti-abortion March for Life, were waiting for a bus outside the Lincoln Memorial when they were heckled by a different group of protesters identifying themselves as Hebrew Israelites, an African-American religious sect.
The students responded by chanting school fight songs when Phillips and a group of Native American protesters, who were at the end of the Indigenous Peoples March, approached.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,” Phillips told the Washington Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way, and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way.”
Sandmann told Guthrie he “wanted the situation to die down” and now wishes he would’ve walked away. But he also “didn’t want to be disrespectful to Mr. Phillips and walk away if he was trying to talk to me.”
The video of their brief encounter sparked a firestorm online. The frame that went viral showed Sandmann with an expression that was widely described as a smirk.
The teen, speaking in a subdued monotone from what appeared to be his family living room, told Guthrie he was trying to defuse the situation with a smile.
“I see it as a smile saying that this is the best you’re going to get out of me,” Sandmann said. “You won’t get any further reaction of aggression.
“People have judged me based off one expression, which I wasn’t smirking, but people have assumed that’s what I have and they’ve gone from there to labeling me as a racist person.”
As debate over their encounter lit up social media and cable news, President Trump expressed support for the students, who he said were being “treated unfairly” and “smeared” by the media.
“Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham said that Trump had invited the students to the White House, and that the visit could come as early as Wednesday. But on Tuesday night, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders that if any meeting were to take place, it would occur after the government shutdown, now in its 33rd day.
The high school, which was closed Tuesday out of what officials described as security concerns, was reopened Wednesday.
“It’s been terrible,” Sandmann said. “People have threatened our lives.”
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