US President Donald Trump has denounced neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and thugs, bowing to mounting political pressure to condemn such groups explicitly after a white-nationalist rally turned deadly in Virginia.
Trump was broadly set upon for failing to respond more forcefully to Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville. His initially tepid response to the violence also sparked the resignations of the three chief executives from his American Manufacturing Council.
Kenneth Frazier, the head of one of the world’s biggest drug companies Merck & Co, quit the panel saying he was taking a stand against intolerance and extremism, and the chief executive of sportswear company UnderArmour and Intel Corp soon followed.
Critics denounced Trump for waiting too long to address the bloodshed, and for initially faulting hatred and violence “on many sides,” rather than singling out the white supremacists widely seen as instigating the melee.
Democrats said Trump’s reaction belied a reluctance to alienate white nationalists and “alt-right” political activists who occupy a loyal segment of Trump’s political base. 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 harboured Nazi sympathies was arrested on charges of ploughing his car into protesters opposing the white nationalists, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people. The accused, James Fields, was denied bail at a court hearing on Monday.
Several others were arrested in connection with street brawls during the day that left another 15 people injured. Two airborne state troopers involved in crowd control were killed when their helicopter crashed.
Saturday’s disturbances erupted after white nationalists converged in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia’s flagship campus, to protest plans for removing a statue of General Robert E. Lee, commander of the pro-slavery Confederate army of the US Civil War.
Trump’s belated denunciation of white supremacists by name was welcomed by Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who thanked the president for what she called “those words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred.”
But not everyone was mollified with Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia telling MSNBC: “I wish that he would have said those same words on Saturday.”
Frazier delivered one of the most noteworthy rebukes of 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 have more time to focus on lowering “ripoff” drug prices, Trump tweeted.
The violence in Charlottesville has sparked heated public debate over racism around the world with a rally held outside the US Embassy in London.
About 500 anti-racism protesters rallied outside the White House, while others gathered outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
In Durham, North Carolina, demonstrators toppled a Confederate monument outside a court before stomping and kicking the fallen statue.