WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump bowed on Monday to overwhelming pressure that he personally condemn white supremacists who incited bloody demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, labeling their racists views “evil” after two days of equivocal statements.
“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 situation. “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.
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 own daughter Ivanka — Donald Trump seemed reluctant to tackle the issue head-on when he appeared before the cameras on 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 did not apologize, but presented his corrective as an update on the Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the death of a woman who was allegedly hit by a car driven by an Ohio protester with ties to neo-Nazi groups.
“To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered,” he 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, Arizona, 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, New Jersey. “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.”
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 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 officer 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 Department of Justice 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2017
Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, wrote on Twitter:
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 he has faced from both parties for not forcefully denouncing the neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers who rampaged in Charlottesville.
Frazier appeared next to Trump at the White House last month 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.
Keith Boykin, a former aide to President Bill Clinton who comments on politics and race for CNN, wrote in a tweet:
It took Trump 54 minutes to condemn Merck CEO Ken Frazier, but after several days he still has not condemned murdering white supremacists. https://t.co/ps9AVUTTH7— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) August 14, 2017
Frazier’s exit from the business council marks a miniexodus of business leaders, resulting from the president’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.