Nick Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing teen at the center of Friday’s highly publicized stand-off with Native American activist Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C., believes his actions were “not disrespectful.”
Footage of the Covington Catholic High School student ― and his Kentucky peers ― went viral following the incident, showing the group surrounding Phillips on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as he performed an American Indian Movement song.
Sandmann, who is seen in the video smiling just inches away from the Native American elder’s face, told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in an interview that aired Wednesday on the “Today” show that he “had every right” to stand before Phillips.
“My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him, I would like to talk to him,” he said. “In hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing.”
Sandmann’s sit-down interview comes after an earlier statement was released on his behalf by a public relations firm in which he claimed to have been singled out by Phillips.
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to [defuse] the situation,” it read. “I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”
Sandmann told Guthrie that removing himself from the situation would have been better in hindsight, but he claimed he didn’t want to be “disrespectful” to Phillips.
“I was surrounded by a lot of people I didn’t know that had their phones out, had cameras, and I didn’t want to bump into anyone or seem like I was trying to do something,” Sandmann said.
Asked about his facial expression during the encounter, which many viewers have perceived as a smirk, Sandmann said it was a “smile.”
“I see it as a smile saying that this is the best you’re going to get out of me, you won’t get any further reaction of aggression, and I’m willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face,” he said.
The viral incident has prompted nationwide outrage at both ends of the political spectrum, with the situation becoming only more complicated after more than an hour of footage from the encounter emerged Sunday.
In various interviews, Phillips said he had approached the teens from the school group in an attempt to thwart any potential violence between them and a group of several black men identifying themselves as Hebrew Israelites. He has said he heard the teens shouting “build the wall,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“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,’” he told The Washington Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat [Sandmann] stood in my way, and we were at an impasse.”
Sandmann denied blocking Phillips and said in a statement that he is “a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me ― to remain respectful of others and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.”
In his “Today” interview, Sandmann claimed none of his classmates are racist and that he never heard any of them say “build the wall” during the incident.
″We’re a Catholic school,” he told Guthrie. “They don’t tolerate racism. And none of my classmates are racist people.”
A teaser released Tuesday that previewed Guthrie’s one-on-one with Sandmann drew mixed reactions from Twitter users.
This story has been updated with more details from the “Today” show interview.