WASHINGTON - On Monday, President Donald Trump came to the defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with killing two protesters and wounding a third during demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week.
Rittenhouse, a Trump supporter and police enthusiast, drove from nearby Illinois with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle to help patrol the streets of Kenosha during protests and civil unrest after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a police officer, leaving him partially paralyzed.
The teenager has been charged with first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
But Rittenhouse’s lawyers are claiming it was self-defense, and Trump defended Rittenhouse during a White House briefing Monday, the day before the president traveled to Kenosha to meet with law enforcement officials and owners of damaged businesses.
"He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like," Trump said, dismissing a question of whether he was going to denounce the "actions of vigilantes" like Rittenhouse. "And he fell, and they very violently attacked him."
"But I guess he was in very big trouble. He would have been -- he probably would have been -- killed," Trump said.
The president’s remarks largely echoed Rittenhouse's defense lawyers, who have claimed that the teenager was merely "defending himself from a relentless, vicious and potentially deadly mob attack."
Local prosecutors, however, said Rittenhouse’s actions were criminal.
The two men shot to death by Rittenhouse have been identified as Joseph Rosenbaum, a 36-year-old Texas native living in Kenosha, and Anthony Huber, a 26-year-old local area resident. A third victim, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, survived a shot in the arm.
The shootings took place August 25, as violent nighttime protests gripped the small working-class town of Kenosha for the third day following Blake's shooting.
According to Rittenhouse's lawyers, Rittenhouse went to Kenosha to protect businesses and to treat wounded protesters. He and a friend heeded a plea for help from a Kenosha car dealership owner whose two businesses had been burned to the ground during the protests, the lawyers said.
A self-described militia group had issued a “call to arms” on Facebook urging police supporters to travel to Kenosha.
In a video interview before the shooting with a reporter for The Daily Caller, a conservative news site, Rittenhouse said, "People are getting injured. Our job is to protect this business. Part of my job is also to help people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm's way. That’s why I have my rifle. I’ve gotta protect myself, obviously."
While his motives remain in dispute, Rittenhouse appears in several cellphone recordings of the chaotic evening of August 25, wearing a white hat, green shirt and blue gloves. Those videos along with witness statements form the basis of a criminal complaint filed against him in Kenosha County Circuit Court last week.
According to the criminal complaint, Rittenhouse discharged his long gun four times, killing two -- Rosenbaum and Huber -- wounding a third -- Grosskreutz -- and missing a fourth unidentified individual.
The sequence of events began around 11:45 p.m., as Rittenhouse was pursued into a parking lot by Rosenbaum and several others. A confrontation ensued.
A shot rang out in the crowd. While the complaint doesn't identify the shooter, Rittenhouse's lawyers say it was fired from behind Rittenhouse.
Rittenhouse then pointed his gun at Rosenbaum, who unsuccessfully tried to grab it, Richard McGinniss, a Daily Caller video editor who witnessed the shooting, told investigators. Rittenhouse then fired his gun, shooting Rosenbaum four times.
"I just killed somebody," Rittenhouse was heard in a cellphone video telling a friend on the phone as he fled the scene.
The three other shootings took place as Rittenhouse was chased down a crowded street by a group of demonstrators presumably suspecting he had killed Rosenbaum.
In two videos cited in the complaint, people are heard saying, "Beat him up!" "Hey, he shot him" and "Get him! Get that dude!"
"The mob relentlessly and viciously pursued him," John Pierce, one of Rittenhouse's lawyers, told Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday.
Things escalated when an unidentified man allegedly took a swing at Rittenhouse, knocking off his hat. The teenager kept running but tripped and fell to the ground in the middle of the street.
It was here that Rittenhouse used his gun three more times, according to the complaint.
While on the ground, an unidentified man "wearing a dark-colored top and light-colored pants" jumped over Rittenhouse, according to the complaint. Rittenhouse fired two shots in rapid succession but missed him. That man ran away, apparently unscathed.
Then, 26-year-old Huber, holding a skateboard in one hand, is seen reaching for Rittenhouse's gun. Rittenhouse shot him once in the chest, killing him.
Finally, Rittenhouse, who moved into a "seated position," shot Grosskreutz, who had "begun to approach him," according to court papers. Grosskreutz appeared "to be holding a gun in his right hand when he was shot," the complaint said.
As the crowd dispersed, Rittenhouse got up and quietly walked toward responding police cars, at times putting his hands in the air. In videos of the evening, the police cars are seen driving by him. He was arrested the next day in Antioch, Illinois, about 33 kilometers southwest of Kenosha.
Lawyers representing Rittenhouse said they plan to mount a self-defense argument.
"This is 100% self-defense," Pierce said. "Kyle, he is a good kid. The only individuals that Kyle shot were the three individuals that were attacking him and putting him at serious risk of bodily harm or death."