WHITE HOUSE —
U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday denounced the white supremacists who staged last weekend's deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying that their “racism is evil.”
Trump said the neo-Nazi groups, the racist Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists “and other hate groups” “are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
WATCH: 'Racism is evil,' Trump says
He vowed that anyone who committed “racist violence” in Charlottesville would be held accountable. “Justice will be delivered,” he said.
Trump said the hatred and bigotry on display in Charlottesville “has no place in America and as I have said many times before, no matter the color 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.”
Trump's comments followed two days of intense criticism from across the U.S. political spectrum for his failure to explicitly condemn the white nationalists and other groups who organized Saturday's rally. Many critics praised the president Monday for directly criticizing the groups, but also lamented that it took days for him to call them out by name.
“It should not take two days and a national tragedy for the president to take action and disavow white supremacists,” said Kristen Clarke with the non-profit Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “When it comes to the safety and the security of our communities, too many of which now feel targeted by hate-fueled protestors, two days is too late.”
During a televised statement at the White House Monday, Trump paid tribute to the three people who lost their lives, including Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal who had gone to the rally to protest against the white nationalists. She was killed when she was hit by a speeding car driven into a group of counter-protesters.
Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, on Monday thanked Trump for denouncing “violence and hatred,” and vowed to continue her daughter's activism against bigotry. “That's what America is about, that's what made America great to begin with. We are a melting pot of everybody coming together and working as one,” Bro said.
Two Virginia state police troopers who had been watching the protest from the air were also killed when their helicopter crashed.
Trump briefed by Sessions, Wray
Trump spoke after being briefed on the investigation of the rally by two of his top law enforcement officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Christopher Wray, newly installed as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country's top criminal investigative agency. The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Saturday's violence, marked by hours of street fights between the white nationalists and counter-protesters.
Numerous U.S. political figures, both Republicans and Democrats, had assailed Trump for two days for not specifically denouncing the white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other groups that staged the Charlottesville rally to protest the city's planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. Lee was the leader of the Confederate forces in the 19th century Civil War that was fought over the issue of slave ownership in the southern U.S. and statues of him, usually on horseback, have become a flashpoint for demonstrations in several U.S. cities.
The 20-year-old driver of the car that hit Heyer, James Alex Fields Jr., from the midwestern state of Ohio, was arrested and charged with murder and other offenses.
Fields, reported by U.S. news accounts to have voiced Nazi sympathies in recent years, made his first court appearance Monday, but a Charlottesville judge refused to grant him bond, keeping him jailed pending more legal proceedings later this month.
On Saturday, as street fights between the white nationalists and counter-protesters escalated at the rally 160 kilometers southwest of Washington, Trump denounced “in the strongest possible terms this degree of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.”
But at the time he declined to say whether he was rejecting political support from white supremacists, many of them Trump voters in last year's presidential election.
Trump's tepid initial response to the violence seemed to blame the unrest on both the white nationalists and counter-protesters.
On Sunday, the White House said the president “condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred and of course that includes white Supremacists,” the racist Ku Klux Klan, “neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
But Trump, who frequently posts his thoughts on his Twitter account, had not offered any more commentary on the Charlottesville unrest until he spoke Monday.
Hours earlier, Sessions told ABC News, “You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation towards the most serious charges that can be brought, because this is an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack that cannot be accepted in America.”
In another interview, he told CBS News, “We will not allow these extremist groups to obtain credibility.”
Merck CEO resigns from Trump panel
Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, a major U.S. pharmaceutical company, quit Trump's advisory manufacturing council because of Trump at first not “clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.”
Trump, in a Twitter response within an hour, said that since Frazier had quit the manufacturing council, he would now “have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
On Sunday, Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said says the deadly Charlottesville violence “meets the definition of terrorism.”
McMaster, in an interview on ABC News, described the car's ramming into a crowd of counter-protesters as “a criminal act that may be motivated by this hatred and bigotry.”
Vigils and protests
The victims were remembered at a vigil Sunday in Charlottesville, while people in multiple cities across the U.S. gathered to protest the violence and criticize Trump's initial response for not explicitly condemning far-right groups.
In New York, marchers gathered at Trump Tower to voice their displeasure, while hundreds of people rallied against white nationalist groups in Los Angeles. About 1,000 people gathered at another anti-hate rally in Denver.
A Seattle rally planned by a conservative pro-Trump group before the events in Charlottesville was met by counter-protesters, and police used pepper spray to break up crowds after fireworks were thrown at officers.