"What happens is they hit me and I hit them back harder," he told Fox News in 2016. "That's what we want to lead the country."
Criticized others for not quickly calling attacks 'terrorism'
On Saturday at his Bedminster resort, Trump's bluntness gave way to vagueness as he failed to mention the impetus behind the violence that left at least one person dead in the streets of Charlottesville.
In doing so, Trump left it to anonymous White House officials to explain his remarks, leaving the door open to questions about his sincerity and why he won't talk about the racists at the heart of the protests.
"The President was condemning hatred, bigotry and violence from all sources and all sides," a White House official said. "There was violence between protesters and counter protesters today."
By being equivocal, Trump also failed to follow the same self-proclaimed rules he used to hammer other politicians.
Trump constantly slammed Obama and Clinton during his run for the presidency for failing to label terrorist attacks as such. He called out the two Democrats for failing to use the term "radical Islamic terrorism."
"These are radical Islamic terrorists and she won't even mention the word, and nor will President Obama," Trump said during an October 9 presidential debate. "Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name."
Trump declined to do just that on Saturday, as video of white nationalists flooded TV screens across the country hours after a smaller group marched through Charlottesville at night holding tiki torches and chanted, "You will not replace us."
Instead, Trump called for "a swift restoration of law and order" and said the federal government was "ready, willing and able" to provide "whatever other assistance is needed." He saluted law enforcement for their response and said he spoke with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, about the attack.
But the businessman-turned-president also touted his own economic achievements during his brief speech, mentioning employment numbers and recent companies that decided to relocate to the United States.
"We have so many incredible things happening in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville, to me it is very, very sad," he said.
White nationalists tie themselves to Trump
The reality for Trump is that his presidency helped white nationalists gain national attention, with groups drafting off his insurgent candidacy by tying themselves to the President and everything he stood for.
After the election, in a November 2016 interview with The New York Times, Trump disavowed the movement and said he did not intend to energize the alt-right.
"I don't want to energize the group, and I disavow the group," Trump told a group of Times reporters and columnists during a meeting at the newspaper's headquarters in New York.
He added: "It's not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized, I want to look into it and find out why."
But men like David Duke, possibly the most famous white nationalist, directly tied Saturday's protests to Trump.
"We are determined to take this country back. We're gonna fulfill the promises of Donald Trump," Duke said in an interview with The Indianapolis Star on Saturday in Charlottesville. "That's why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he's going to take our country back."
When Trump tweeted earlier on Saturday that everyone "must be united & condemn all that hate stands for," Duke grew angry, feeling that the man who help bring white nationalist to this point was slamming them. He urged Trump -- via Twitter -- to "take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists."
Though earlier in the day Trump billed Saturday's event as a press conference, the President declined to respond to shouted question that would have allowed him to directly take on white nationalists.
"Mr. President, do you want the support of these white nationalist groups who say they support you, Mr. President? Have you denounced them strongly enough," one reporter shouted.
"A car plowing into people, would you call that terrorism sir?" another asked.
Trump walked out of the room.