WASHINGTON — The crisis in Charlottesville, Va., presented President Trump with a choice between adopting the unifying tone of a traditional president or doubling down on the go-it-alone approach that got him elected in 2016.
On Monday, Trump offered a glimpse of a more calming and conventional president, but he ended the day with a flurry of angry tweets that left little doubt he intended to govern on his own terms.
Trump, after two days of issuing equivocal statements, bowed to overwhelming pressure that he personally condemn white supremacists who incited bloody weekend demonstrations in Charlottesville.
“Racism is evil,” said Trump, delivering a statement from the White House at a hastily arranged appearance meant to halt the growing political threat posed by the unrest. “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.”
But before and after his conciliatory statement — which called for “love,” “joy,” and “justice” — Trump issued classically caustic Twitter attacks on Kenneth C. Frazier, the head of Merck Pharmaceuticals and one of the country’s top African-American executives.
Frazier announced Monday morning that he was resigning from the American Manufacturing Council — the first of three chief executives who quit the advisory panel Monday — to protest Trump’s initial equivocal statements on Charlottesville.
“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” the president wrote at 8:54 a.m., as he departed his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., for a day trip back to Washington.
Shortly before leaving the capital, Trump attacked the news media for blowing the episode out of proportion.
“Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied...truly bad people!” he wrote Monday evening.
“Trump faced a fork in the road today, and he took it,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader. “He showed cowardice on Saturday by refusing to call out the racists and neo-Nazis, and on Monday he showed how uncomfortable he was in delivering another kind of message.”
Even Trump’s allies worried that his measured remarks, delivered two days after dozens of public figures issued more forceful denunciations of the violence in Virginia, came too late to reverse the self-inflicted damage on his moral standing as president.
On Saturday, Trump said the rioting was initiated by “many sides.” His comments prompted nearly universal criticism and spurred several of his top advisers, including his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to press the president to issue a more forceful rebuke.
Even after a wave of disapproval that encompassed a majority of Senate Republicans — and stronger statements delivered by allies including Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s daughter Ivanka — Trump seemed reluctant to tackle the issue head-on when he appeared before the cameras Monday.
He first offered a lengthy and seemingly out-of-place recitation of his accomplishments on the economy, trade and job creation. When he did address the violence in Charlottesville, he presented his stronger language as an update on the Justice Department's civil rights investigation into the death of a woman who was hit by a car that authorities said was driven by an Ohio protester with ties to neo-Nazi groups.
‘Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists.’President Trump
“To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered," said Trump, who had just concluded a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Christopher Wray, the FBI director.
Trump has had a career-long pattern of delaying and muting his criticism of white nationalism. During the 2016 campaign he refused to immediately denounce David Duke, a former Klansman who supported his candidacy.
Some human rights activists, skeptical that Trump’s latest remarks on the issue represented a change of heart, called on him to fire nationalists — a group of hard-right populists led by Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist — working in the West Wing.
“The president should make sure that no one on his staff has ties to white supremacists,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a telephone briefing Monday afternoon, adding, “nor should they be on the payroll of the American people.”
He said the Justice Department and the Office of Government Ethics should “do an investigation and make that determination” if anyone in the White House had ties to hate groups.
Trump and his staff have consistently denied any connection to such organizations, and the president called for racial harmony in his remarks Monday.
“As I have said many times before, no matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws.” he said. “We all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence.”
Far-right leaders, including Richard B. Spencer, who attended the Charlottesville rally, said they did not take the president’s remarks seriously.
“The statement today was more ‘kumbaya’ nonsense,” Spencer told reporters Monday. “He sounded like a Sunday school teacher.”
“I don’t think that Donald Trump is a dumb person, and only a dumb person would take those lines seriously,” Spencer said.
As Trump was delivering the kind of statement his critics had demanded over the weekend, Fox News reported that the president is considering pardoning former Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a political ally accused of federal civil rights violations for allegedly mistreating prisoners, many of them black and Hispanic.
The timing of the interview was especially striking, given that it came at the height of the controversy over his tepid remarks about Charlottesville.
“I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio,” the president said in the interview Sunday, speaking from his golf club in Bedminster. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He’s a great American patriot, and I hate to see what has happened to him.”
Two themes — uniting the country while defending himself — collided on Trump’s Twitter feed earlier Monday.
It is not unusual for Trump to attack, via Twitter, any public figure who ridicules, criticizes or even mildly questions his actions. But his decision to take on Frazier, a self-made multimillionaire who rose from a modest childhood in Philadelphia to attend Harvard Law School, was extraordinary given the wide-ranging criticism the president faced from both parties for not forcefully denouncing the neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers who rampaged in Charlottesville.
Frazier’s exit from the business council marks a miniexodus of business leaders from presidential advisory counsels as a result of Trump’s stances on social issues and the environment. His recent decision to leave the Paris climate accord prompted Elon Musk of Tesla to resign, as did the chief executive of Disney, Bob Iger.
Additionally, the chief executives of the athletic clothing line Under Armour and of Intel announced they too would step down from the American Manufacturing Council — the same panel from which Frazier resigned.
Kevin Plank, the head of Under Armour, said he was resigning to focus “the power of sport which promotes unity, diversity and inclusion.”
Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich said he would be willing to serve in the government again when “those who have stood up for equality” are honored. “I resigned because I want to make progress, while many in Washington seem more concerned with attacking anyone who disagrees with them,” Krzanich said in a statement.
Trump’s shot at one of the country’s best-known black executives prompted an immediate outpouring of support for Frazier from major figures in business, media and politics.
“Thanks @Merck Ken Frazier for strong leadership to stand up for the moral values that made this country what it is,” Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, wrote on Twitter.
Last month, Frazier appeared next to Trump at the White House to announce an agreement among drugmakers that would create 1,000 jobs.
He is only the second African-American executive to lead a major pharmaceutical firm, and rose to prominence as Merck’s general counsel, when he successfully defended the company against class-action lawsuits stemming from complications involving the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx.
“It took Trump 54 minutes to condemn Merck CEO Ken Frazier, but after several days he still has not condemned murdering white supremacists,” Keith Boykin, a former aide to President Clinton who comments on politics and race for CNN, wrote in a tweet.