President Trump denounced the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis by name Monday, declaring racist hate groups “repugnant to all that we hold dear as Americans,” as he sought to tamp down mounting criticism of his response to the killing of a counterprotester at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville over the weekend.
“Anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence, you will be held fully accountable,” Trump said in brief remarks to reporters in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, where he returned after a week of vacation in Bedminster, N.J. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America.”
Trump added: “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 all that we hold dear as Americans.”
The statement came two days after the president failed to specifically condemn the white supremacist rally during which a woman was killed and as many as 19 wounded by a driver who reportedly espoused racist and pro-Nazi sentiments and had taken part in the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville. Trump, who met Monday with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray, reiterated that the Justice Department has launched a civil rights probe into the death of Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed when a car allegedly driven by James Alex Fields Jr., of Ohio slammed into a group of counterprotesters.
On Saturday, Trump condemned “the egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” sparking sharp criticism from Democrats, civil rights proponents and some Republicans for failing to single out and condemn the white supremacists who sparked the violence.
On Monday, Kenneth C. Frazier, CEO of Merck, said in a tweet that he was resigning from Trump's American Manufacturing Council, saying he was doing so “as a matter of personal conscience” and that “America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy.”
Trump's remarks, which were not on his daily public schedule, appeared hastily arranged in a bid to move the White House past the backlash to his performance over the weekend. Yet before addressing the Charlottesville situation, Trump opened his remarks touting the economy, noting that stock markets are near record highs and the unemployment rate hovering at a 16-year low.
And though he condemned racism, Trump did not refer to the attack on the counterprotesters as “domestic terrorism,” even as Sessions said that it met the Justice Department's definition of such.
White House aides had defended Trump's initial response to the Charlottesville unrest by saying the president was focused on uniting the country against all violent clashes. The white supremacist groups — carrying Nazi and Confederate flags and, in some cases, armed with shields, batons and firearms permitted under Virginia's open carry laws — clashed with counterprotesters, some of whom fought back with pepper spray.
Yet Trump's critics, and even some of his Republican allies in Congress, expressed outrage that in failing to specifically condemn the racist groups, the president appeared to be emboldening them. Some criticized Trump's rhetoric during his campaign for inciting violence from his supporters, targeting immigrants and other minority groups.
“While today’s delayed words are welcome, they should have been spoken on Saturday,” Vanita Gupta, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. “This unconscionable delay has undermined his moral credibility as our nation’s leader.”
Trump attempted to counter such criticism Monday. “I've said many times that no matter the color of your skin, we all live under the same laws, we all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty god,” he said. “We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of this hatred, bigotry and violence.”
Trump called Heyer's death tragic and said it “fills us with grief, and we send her family our thoughts, our prayers and our love,” and he also praised the service of two Virginia state troopers, H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who died Saturday during a helicopter crash while on duty monitoring the march.
“These three fallen Americans embody the goodness and decency of our nation,” Trump said. “In times such as these, America has always shown its true character. Responding to hate with love, division with unity and violence with an unwavering resolve for justice.”