Trump bows to pressure, calls neo-Nazis and KKK criminals
US President Donald Trump denounced neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and thugs on Monday, bowing to mounting political pressure to condemn such groups explicitly after a white-nationalist rally turned deadly in Virginia.
Trump had been assailed from across the political spectrum 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 Trump waited too long to address the bloodshed and slammed him for initially saying that "many sides" were involved, instead of singling out the 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," 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 harbored Nazi sympathies as a teenager was facing charges he plowed 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 behavior during the rally would be held accountable. "Justice will be delivered," the Republican president said.
"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."
Al Sharpton, one of the country's best known black civil rights activists, 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.
'WORDS OF COMFORT'
In a strong rebuke to Trump earlier on Monday, the chief executive of Merck & Co Inc, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, resigned from a business panel led by the president. CEO Kenneth Frazier, who is black, said he was taking a stand against intolerance and extremism.
Trump hit back, making no reference to Frazier's reasons for quitting the panel and instead revisiting a longstanding gripe about expensive medicines. Frazier would now have more time to focus on lowering "ripoff" drug prices, Trump tweeted.
Several executives from top U.S. companies have previously stepped down from presidential advisory councils in protest at Trump policies.
In assailing the president for his earlier comments on the violence in Charlottesville, critics noted that right-wing extremists have been a loyal segment of Trump's political base. The anger over his initial response, expressed by Republicans as well as Democrats, added to a litany of problems for the president.
Opponents have attacked his inflammatory rhetoric toward North Korea and he is fuming with fellow Republicans in Congress over their failure to notch up any major legislative wins during his first six months in office.
The mother of the woman killed on Saturday welcomed Trump's latest comments. In a statement cited by NBC News, Susan Bro thanked Trump for what she called "those words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred."
Authorities said Heyer, 32, died after Fields' car slammed into a crowd of anti-racism activists, capping a day of street brawls between the two sides.
Fields appeared in a Charlottesville court on Monday by video link from the jail where he is 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 harboring "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 for starting the trouble.
"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."
A woman yelled "Nazis go home!" at Heimbach until police ushered her away. The Southern Poverty Law Center says Heimbach is considered 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 defense of slavery in the Civil War.