President Trump on Monday answered two days of bipartisan furor over his initial response to deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., with a statement for the first time explicitly blaming white supremacists for the “racist violence” over the weekend.
“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 brief statement, reading from a teleprompter at the White House.
“To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered,” Trump said.
The president’s statement was a hastily arranged do-over that implicitly acknowledged the need to stanch the self-inflicted damage his first reaction had caused him and his administration. Criticism and outrage had continued to build, including among Republicans, to Trump’s Saturday remarks blaming “many sides,” in effect lumping together for fault the anti-racism counter-protesters with the gun-wielding white supremacy groups Trump declined to name.
The episode has emerged as another defining moment in the young Trump presidency, one in which critics across the political spectrum faulted the president for failing to lead with moral clarity to unify the country amid civil strife. Trump’s initial remarks had prompted stalwart conservatives such as Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to distance themselves or rebuke the president outright, while the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer all but called the president a kindred spirit, praising him for saying “nothing specific against us.”
Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs...
As candidate and president, Trump has often demanded that incidents of crime by Muslims be called out by the name “radical Islamic terrorism.” Yet, for at least 48 hours, he would not name the racist groups culpable in Charlottesville.
Adding to the pressure for the White House, just ahead of the president’s scripted comments, a Virginia judge in Charlottesville declined to set bail for alleged Nazi sympathizer James Alex Fields Jr. , 20, of Ohio, who is charged with murdering a woman and injuring at least 19 people by intentionally plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters and pedestrians Saturday.
Even before he belatedly spoke against the white nationalists, however, Trump drew more criticism for a tweet early Monday in which he attacked the African American chief executive of the pharmaceutical company Merck, Kenneth C. Frazier, within an hour of Frazier’s resignation from a White House manufacturing council to protest Trump’s initial failure to explicitly condemn the racists in Charlottesville.
The president had told reporters on Friday that he’d hold a “pretty big press conference on Monday,” but after the weekend’s events no news conference was on his official Monday schedule. Instead, by midmorning the White House circulated word that Trump would make a statement on Charlottesville.
Once he came to the lectern with the presidential seal, the president first took some time to extol his administration as he often does for various economic gains. After segueing to roughly two minutes of remarks denouncing the hate groups, Trump pivoted and left, ignoring reporters’ shouted questions as he had Saturday, including several asking whether he regretted his delay in specifically blaming the racists.
Before his public statement, Trump met privately with Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and new FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to discuss the civil rights investigation of the two days of chaos in Charlottesville that the Justice Department announced late Saturday.
Trump seemed eager to put the matter behind him. During an unrelated announcement on trade later in the day, a reporter asked why he had taken two days to condemn the hate groups by name. “They’ve been condemned. They have been condemned,” Trump snapped.
When asked about the canceled news conference, Trump insisted he had already held one, and then, when the reporter persisted, Trump labeled him “fake news” as he strode from the room.
After his Saturday statement, Trump continued to tweet through the weekend and into Monday, mostly on other subjects; those referring to Charlottesville did not denounce or even refer to white nationalists.
Yet on Monday the president quickly attacked Merck’s chief executive after the company announced that Frazier had resigned from the president’s advisory council on manufacturing. Its statement said, “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy.”
Frazier said he felt “a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
Trump responded on Twitter less than an hour after Merck posted Frazier’s statement: “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” He attacked Merck a second time on Twitter on Monday evening, citing it for sending jobs overseas and high prices.
On social media, many critics noted the contrast between Trump’s quick condemnation of Frazier and his failure — to that point — to denounce racist groups by name. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said Trump “proves again he’s capable of immediate and personal condemnation. Why not for white supremacists?”
In New York, where Trump planned to spend the night in his first stay in Trump Tower as president, protesters converged for blocks around the high-rise, shouting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in a statement, “It shouldn’t take the president of the United States two days to summon the basic decency to condemn murder and violence by Nazis and white supremacists.”
Pelosi, like many other Democrats, called on Trump to fire his embattled chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who has touted himself as a promoter of the “alt-right” movement, a term often used to describe white nationalists.
Some Republicans expressed relief that Trump had amended his remarks, but disappointment he hadn’t done so sooner. The Senate’s only African American Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, said in a statement that the president’s latest comments were “clear and specific” but “would have been more impactful on Saturday.”
Ignoring such reactions, Trump in a tweet on Monday complained that the news media weren’t giving him credit: “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied … truly bad people!”
Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said he believes the president was caught off guard by the controversy over his initial remarks.
“He’s not a guy that will quickly change course when he sets course,” said Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative website.
The initial statement “was incomplete, and he rectified it fairly quickly in my mind,” Ruddy said. “So I think it was a positive step.”
Trump’s hesitance to alter his course does not seem to be playing well with much of the country, however. His approval rating in Gallup’s daily tracking poll hit a new low, 34%. The survey was conducted over three days ending Sunday, meaning some who responded were aware of Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday.
As his poll numbers slump, Trump is depending increasingly on his core supporters.
Even as the controversy over Charlottesville festered, Trump told Fox News on Sunday that he was “seriously considering” a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona county sheriff. Arpaio was convicted two weeks ago of defying a court order to stop his practice, while he was sheriff of Maricopa County, of racially profiling Latinos and bringing detainees to federal immigration officials. Fox reported on the comments Monday.
Arpaio, a figure widely loathed by liberals and immigrant rights advocates, is a folk hero to many on the hard right and served as a prominent Trump campaign spokesman. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration,” Trump told Fox. “He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”
The man accused of the Charlottesville attack, Fields, will remain jailed at least until his court-appointed attorney requests bail.
Photos circulating on social media appeared to show Fields posing with members of Vanguard America, a white nationalist group, the day of the main rally. Fields held a black-and-white shield with the organization’s insignia. The group said that Fields was not a member and that the shields were distributed widely.
His bail hearing came soon after Sessions said the attack met the legal standard for an act of domestic terrorism. Speaking on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the attorney general called the car rampage an “unequivocally and unacceptable evil attack.”
Staff writers David S. Cloud, in Charlottesville, and Laura King and Jim Puzzanghera, in Washington, contributed. Special correspondent Matt E. Hansen in New York also contributed.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reactions, developments, background and analysis.
This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m.