CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va./WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump denounced neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and thugs on Monday, bowing to mounting political pressure to condemn such groups explicitly after a white-nationalist rally turned deadly in Virginia.
Trump had been assailed from across the political spectrum for failing to respond more forcefully to the violence. The head of one of the world’s biggest drug companies quit a presidential business panel as a result, saying he was taking a stand against intolerance and extremism.
Critics slammed Trump for waiting too long to address Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville and for initially saying that “many sides” were involved, instead of singling out the white supremacists widely seen as sparking the melee. Several senators from his own Republican party had harsh words for him.
Some 48 hours into the biggest domestic challenge of his young presidency, Trump tried to correct course.
“Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” the president said in a statement to reporters at the White House on Monday.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence,” he said.
A 20-year-old man said to have harbored Nazi sympathies as a teenager was facing charges he plowed his car into protesters opposing the white nationalists, killing one woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 people. The accused, James Fields, was denied bail at a court hearing on Monday.
Trump said anyone who engaged in criminal behavior at the rally would be held accountable. “Justice will be delivered,” the Republican president said.
“I wish that he would have said those same words on Saturday,” responded Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia on MSNBC. “I’m disappointed it took him a couple of days.”
In a strong rebuke to Trump earlier on Monday, the black chief executive of Merck & Co Inc, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from a business panel led by the president, saying expressions of hatred and bigotry must be rejected.
Trump quickly hit back on Twitter, but made no reference to Frazier’s reasons for quitting the panel, instead revisiting a longstanding gripe about expensive medicines. Frazier would now have more time to focus on lowering “ripoff” drug prices, Trump tweeted.
Several executives from top U.S. companies have previously stepped down from presidential advisory councils in protest at Trump policies.
‘WORDS OF COMFORT’
In assailing Trump for his earlier comments on the violence, critics noted that right-wing extremists have been a loyal segment of his political base. The anger over his initial response added to a litany of problems for the president.
Opponents have attacked his inflammatory rhetoric toward North Korea and he is fuming with fellow Republicans in Congress over their failure to notch up any major legislative wins during his first six months in office.
The mother of the woman killed on Saturday welcomed Trump’s latest comments. In a statement cited by NBC News, Susan Bro thanked him for what she called “those words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred.”
Authorities said Heyer, 32, died after Fields’ car slammed into a crowd of anti-racism activists, capping a day of street brawls between the two sides.
Fields appeared in a Charlottesville court on Monday by video link from the jail where he is being held on a second-degree murder charge, three counts of malicious wounding and a single count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. His next court date was set for Aug. 25.
Several students who attended high school with Fields in Kentucky on Monday described him as an angry young man who passionately espoused white supremacist ideology.
The U.S. Justice Department was pressing its own federal investigation of the incident as a hate crime.
A small group of people clashed outside the courthouse after the hearing, with two men blaming those who protested against the white nationalists for starting the trouble.
“The police department did not do anything to protect us,” said Matthew Heimbach, one of the men. “Radical leftists are the ones that brought the violence.”
A woman yelled “Nazis go home!” at Heimbach until police ushered her away. The Southern Poverty Law Center says Heimbach is considered the face of a new generation of white nationalists.
Saturday’s disturbances began when white nationalists converged to protest against plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the commander of rebel forces during the U.S. Civil War.
The violence prompted vigils and protests from Miami to Seattle on Sunday, including some targeting other Confederate statues. Such monuments have been flashpoints in the United States, viewed by many Americans as symbols of racism because of the Confederate defense of slavery in the Civil War.