CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump denounced neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and thugs on Monday, bowing to mounting political pressure after initially saying many sides were to blame after a white-nationalist rally turned deadly in Virginia.
Trump had been assailed by Republicans and Democrats alike for failing to respond more forcefully to Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, in which a woman was killed when a man crashed his car into a group of counter-protesters.
Critics said the president had waited too long to address the bloodshed, and slammed him for initially saying that “many sides” were involved, rather than explicitly condemning white supremacists widely seen as sparking the melee.
“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,” Trump said in a statement to reporters at the White House.
Trump said America showed its true character in such times, responding to hate with love and to division with unity.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence,” he said.
“It has no place in America ... No matter the colour of our 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.”
A 20-year-old man said to have harboured Nazi sympathies as a teenager was facing charges he ploughed his car into protesters opposing the white nationalists, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people. The accused, James Alex Fields, was denied bail at an initial court hearing on Monday.
Trump said anyone who engaged in criminal behaviour over the weekend in Virginia will be held accountable. “Justice will be delivered,” the president said in his address.
“I wish that he would have said those same words on Saturday,” responded Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia on MSNBC. “I‘m disappointed it took him a couple of days.”
Activist Al Sharpton echoed that. “It took 48 hours ... It was clearly a statement based on the pressure that he had been given over the weekend,” he said on MSNBC.
Earlier on Monday, in a strong rebuke to Trump, the chief executive of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Merck & Co Inc (MRK.N), resigned from a business panel led by the president, citing a need for leadership countering bigotry.
CEO Kenneth Frazier, who is black, did not name Trump in his statement, but the rebuke was implicit. “America’s leaders must honour our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy,” said Frazier.
The outrage over Trump’s reaction to the violence added to a litany of problems for the president.
Opponents have attacked him for his explosive rhetoric toward North Korea and he is publicly fuming with fellow Republicans in Congress over their failure to notch up any major legislative wins during his first six months in office.
Authorities said Heyer, 32, was killed when Fields’ car slammed into a crowd of anti-racism activists, capping a day of bloody street brawls between the two sides.
Fields appeared on Monday in Charlottesville General District Court by video link from Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, where is was being held on a second-degree murder charge, three counts of malicious wounding and a single count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. His next court date was set for Aug. 25.
The U.S. Justice Department was pressing its own federal investigation of the incident as a hate crime.
Derek Weimer, a history teacher at Fields’ high school in Kentucky, told Cincinnati television station WCPO-TV he recalled Fields harbouring “some very radical views on race” as a student and was “very infatuated with the Nazis, with Adolf Hitler.”
A small group of people clashed outside the courthouse after the hearing, with two men blaming those who protested against the white nationalist rally with sparking the violence.
“The police department did not do anything to protect us,” said Matthew Heimbach, one of the men. “Radical leftists are the ones that brought the violence. They are the ones that tried to kill us.”
A women yelled “Nazis go home!” over and over at Heimbach until police ushered him away. The Southern Poverty Law Center says Heimbach is considered to be the face of a new generation of white nationalists.
The weekend disturbances began when white nationalists converged to protest at against plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the commander of rebel forces during the U.S. Civil War.
The violence prompted vigils and protests from Miami to Seattle on Sunday, including some targeting other Confederate statues. Such monuments have been flashpoints in the United States, viewed by many Americans as symbols of racism because of the Confederate defence of slavery in the Civil War.
Reporting by Scott Malone in Charlottesville and Jeff Mason in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Timothy Ahmann and Mohammad Zargham in Washington, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Writing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Bill Rigby