Donald Trump defended far-right protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Tuesday, insisting: “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, not all of those people were white supremacists.”

He also condemned leftwing counter-protesters who came to the Virginia university town to challenge the far-right marchers.

The remarks, during a rowdy press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, were the latest twist in three days of controversy since Trump first responded to Saturday’s events, in which Heather Heyer died after the white nationalist James Alex Fields Jr allegedly drove his car into a crowd.

Trump initially blamed violence “on many sides” before apparently reluctantly giving a statement on Monday denouncing racism as evil.

Speaking on Tuesday, he insisted that many of those protesting the removal of a statue in Charlottesville were simply “there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee”.

Trump went on to equate Lee and his fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

While all four men were slaveholders, neither Washington nor Jefferson ever rebelled against the US in an attempt to protect the institution of slavery from federal interference.

The president went on to repeatedly equate both protesters and counter-protesters: “I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” said Trump. “You had a group on one side and group on the other and they came at each other with clubs – there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group.” Trump went on to say: “You had people that were very fine people on both sides.”

He also declined to attack the so-called “alt-right” and sparred with reporters about what he termed the “alt-left”. Trump insisted that reporters should define the “alt-right” to him and condemned the “alt-left” for “charging at people without a permit and they were very, very violent”. The president insisted to the assembled press that he knew more about the events in Charlottesville because he “had watched this very closely, much more closely than you people watched it”.

Trump added: “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists and the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”