WASHINGTON — President Trump bowed on Monday to overwhelming pressure that he personally condemn white supremacists who incited bloody demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, labeling their racists views “evil” after two days of milder statements.
“Racism is evil,” said Trump, delivering a statement from the White House meant to halt a growing political threat. “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.”
Yet even Trump’s allies worried that his measured remarks, delivered two days after dozens of public figures issued more forceful denunciations, came too late to reverse the self-inflicted damage on his moral standing as president.
Several of the Trump’s top advisers, including his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, pressed Trump to issue a more forceful rebuke after his comment on Saturday that the violence in Charlottesville was initiated by “many sides,” prompting nearly universal criticism.
That pressure appeared to reach the boiling point early Monday after the president attacked the head of the pharmaceuticals company Merck, who is black, for quitting an advisory board over the president’s initial failure to criticize white nationalists.
In a Charlottesville court on Monday, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, the man suspected of ramming his car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring 19, was ordered held without bail.
Fields, who appeared at his arraignment on a video monitor, is charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and failing to stop at the scene of a crash that resulted in a death.
Judge Robert Downer said a local attorney would be named to represent Fields. The public defender’s office is not handling the case because an employee was among the people injured in the attack.
The Justice Department has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the attack, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that the crime meets the legal definition of an act of domestic terrorism.
“You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally an unacceptable evil attack,” Sessions said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Sessions also defended the president’s earlier response to the attack, citing a White House statement from an unnamed spokesman Sunday that condemned “white supremacists.”
Trump still seemed reluctant to tackle the white supremacist issue head-on when he appeared before the cameras Monday, 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.
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 did not apologize, but presented his corrective as an update on the Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer, who was allegedly hit by a car driven by Fields.
‘Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists.’
“To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered,” he said. He declined to answer questions.
Fields has expressed radical views in the past, according to acquaintances who recalled him yelling about Hitler or racial slurs. The Army said that, in 2015, he participated in basic training but failed to meet the standards required for another assignment.
On Saturday, Fields was photographed standing with a group of demonstrators who appeared to be associated with Vanguard America, a group with an online manifesto that envisions a nation “exclusively for the white American peoples.” The group has since distanced itself from Fields.
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.
“I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio,” the president said in an interview Sunday — at the height of the controversy over Charlottesville — speaking to the network at his club in Bedminster, N.J. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He’s a great American patriot.”
Trump has had a 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 his remarks represent a change in approach on the issue, called for him to fire the nationalists working in the West Wing, a group of hard-right populists led by Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist.
“The president should make sure that no one on his staff has ties to white supremacists,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a telephone briefing on Monday afternoon, adding, “nor should they be on the payroll of the American people.”
He said that 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 on 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.”
Two themes — uniting the country while defending himself — collided on Trump’s Twitter feed earlier Monday.
Merck’s chief executive, Kenneth C. Frazier, resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council, saying he objected to the president’s statement on Saturday blaming violence that left one woman dead on “many sides.”
“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental views by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,” Frazier said in a tweet announcing he was stepping down from the panel. Frazier is one of just a handful of black chief executives of a Fortune 500 company.
Less than hour later, Trump responded on social media as he departed his golf resort in Bedminster for a day trip back to Washington.
“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to lower ripoff drug prices!” Trump wrote.
Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of General Electric, said he will stay on the Trump’s manufacturing council, despite criticism over the president’s initial response to violence.
In a statement, Boston-based GE said it has no tolerance for hate, bigotry, or racism and that it strongly condemns the violent extremism shown in Charlottesville over the weekend.
However, with more than 100,000 employees in the United States, the company said it is important for GE to participate in discussions about economic growth and productivity in the country, which is why Immelt is staying on the council while he remains at GE.
It is not unusual for Trump to attack, via Twitter, any public figure who 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 he has faced from both parties for not forcefully denouncing the extremists.
Frazier appeared next to Trump at the White House last month to announce an agreement among drug makers 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 drug Vioxx.