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Nick Sandmann on encounter with Nathan Phillips: 'I wish I would've walked away'

The Covington Catholic student, dubbed ‘MAGA kid’ after video of his controversial encounter at the Lincoln Memorial went viral, talks to TODAY's Savannah Guthrie about the incident and the aftermath.
/ Source: TODAY

Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School junior whose face-off with a Native American elder on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial vent viral over the weekend, is defending his actions and insisting he showed no insolence during the confrontation.

“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” the 16-year-old told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie in his first television interview since the controversial standoff with activist Nathan Phillips.

Guthrie asked Sandmann whether he felt he owed anyone an apology or has assumed fault for the clash.

“My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I'd like to talk to him,” he said. “I mean, in hindsight, I wish we could've walked away and avoided the whole thing. But I can't say that I'm sorry for listening to him and standing there.”

The encounter occurred Friday during Sandmann’s trip with his Kentucky classmates to the nation’s capital for the March For Life anti-abortion rally. Numerous cameras recorded the confrontation with Phillips, who was returning from a separate march, and the moment quickly spread on Twitter.

But the scene took place right after the students ran into five members of the Hebrew Israelites, a radical movement that is "growing more militant," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Hebrew Israelites began taunting the boys, many of whom, including Sandmann, wore red hats bearing President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“They started shouting a bunch of homophobic, racist, derogatory comments at us,” Sandmann said. “I heard them call us incest kids, bigots, racists. They called us f*****s.”

The students outnumbered their aggressors but Sandmann said he “definitely felt threatened.”

“They were a group of adults and I wasn't sure what was going to happen next,” he said.

It’s unclear who started the confrontation, but each side claims to have been taunted first. Sandmann said his chaperone gave his classmates permission to begin shouting school chants as a way to drown out the Hebrew Israelites.

“In hindsight, I wish we had just found another spot to wait for our buses. But at the time, being positive seemed better than letting them slander us with all of these things," he said.

But Sandmann insists that none of his classmates shouted insults or racial slurs in retaliation.

“We're a Catholic school and it's not tolerated. They don't tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people,” he said.

Following that confrontation, Phillips and a group of Native Americans who had attended the Indigenous Peoples March began walking toward the students, standing between them and the protestors.

Phillips did not respond to an NBC News request for a response to Sandmann's comments, but he agreed to sit down with TODAY for an interview to air Thursday morning.

In previous media interviews about what happened, Phillips said he was simply trying to tamp down the tension.

“I intervened and things just escalated from there,” he said.

Phillips and others have claimed they heard the teens yell "build that wall" during the confrontation, but NBC News could not find any video where that hot-button phrase was shouted.

Sandmann said he wasn’t sure what Phillips was trying to accomplish but some of his friends wondered whether he was trying to join them and drum along with their chants.

“I'm not sure where he wanted to go. And if he wanted to walk past me, I would've let him go,” Sandmann said.

But the two eventually found themselves standing face-to-face.

Sandmann said he now wishes he he had backed off, but he was unsure what to do at that moment.

"Well, now, I wish I would’ve walked away. I didn’t want to be disrespectful to Mr. Phillips and walk away if he was trying to talk to me," he said. "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 was asked about the expression he wore on his face as he faced off against Phillips. Some have characterized the look as a smirk, but Sandmann describes it differently.

“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.

Sandmann said it was unfair to have his character weighed up by one look.

“People have judged me based off one expression, which I wasn't smirking, but people have assumed that's what I have,” he said. “And they've gone from there to titling me and labeling me as a racist person, someone that's disrespectful to adults, which they've had to assume so many things to get there without consulting anyone that can give them the opposite story.”

Asked about how the various videos may be perceived by some people, Sandmann continued to defend his actions, particularly against the comments by the Hebrew Israelites.

"Our school was slandered by the African-Americans who had called us all sorts of things. And I think I was perfectly fine with standing there and not letting the hate that was directed at us continue.”

Sandmann acknowledged that if he and the other teens weren’t wearing the red “Make American Great Again” hats, which he purchased from a street vendor moments before the melee, things might have turned out differently.

“That's possible. But I would have to assume what Mr. Phillips was thinking and I'd rather let him speak for why he came up to us,” he said.

Sandman said it’s been “weird” to see himself constantly on television and that he's received numerous messages filled with both support and hostility but doesn’t want to live his life in fear. He hopes to emerge from this episode with a deeper understanding of others.

“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Phillips as another person that freely used his First Amendment right. And I want to thank him for his military service as well. And I'd certainly like to speak with him,” he said.