Nicholas Sandmann says he wasn’t smirking, and his “position is” he wasn’t disrespectful to Nathan Phillips in the faceoff that’s sparked national controversy since it went viral Saturday.
The Covington Catholic High School junior, who was caught on camera smirking at the Native American activist by the Lincoln Memorial Friday as his peers jumped, heckled, and mocked the elder, appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday, saying he had a right to do what he did but wished his group had avoided the whole thing. About 240 kids from the all-boys Covington school and chaperones were in D.C. for the anti-abortion March for Life, and many wore “Make America Great Again” hats, including Sandmann.
"People judged me based off one expression, which I wasn't smirking," Sandmann, said to “Today” correspondent Savannah Guthrie. "And they've gone from there to titling me and labeling me as a racist person."
Students of the all-boys school in Kentucky triggered national outrage when video emerged showing them surrounding Phillips, who had peacefully approached them singing and beating a drum. Phillips says he was trying to deescalate the scene after seeing tensions flare between the students and a small group of Black Israelites. Video showed the students mocking the man with tomahawk-chop motions as he beat a small drum, but media publications and celebrities still backtracked when additional video showed that Phillips approached the boys first. Video also showed that the Black Hebrew Israelites, a radical religious group, were heckling the boys (and numerous other passersby) before Phillips appeared.
"I certainly hope they didn’t feel threatened by us,” Sandmann said of the Black Hebrew Israelites. “I would just say the fact remains they initiated their comments with us. I mean they provoked us into a peaceful response of school spirit.”
As for that “peaceful response of school spirit,” clear video shows the boys chanting as a horde and one boy rushing to the front of the crowd to remove his clothes while his peers jump and cheer him on. Additional video appears to show a boy with the Covington crowd say, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.”
After Sandmann became the focal point of the controversy, his family hired RunSwitch, a PR firm run by a former adviser to Mitch McConnell and a current adviser to a Mitch McConnell super PAC.
"As far as standing there, I had every right to do so. I don't – I – my position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips,” Sandmann, who, once again, is being coached by a GOP-supporting PR firm, said. “I respect him. I'd like to talk to him. I mean – in hindsight I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing."
The "Today" show and other media outlets have received criticism for their willingness to normalize Sandmann’s behavior. Savannah Guthrie, in particular, posted about her interview with Sandmann and was immediately ratioed on Twitter.