WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday described white supremacists as “evil” and “repugnant,” naming them explicitly for the first time since race-fueled clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, took a fatal turn Saturday.
Trump spoke amid mounting pressure from both sides of the political aisle seeking to have the president make an explicit denunciation of right-wing hate groups.
“Racism is evil,” Trump said at the White House. “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 mourned by name those who died in the conflict in Charlottesville involving white nationalists against counterprotesters: Heather Heyer, 32, of Virginia, who was struck by a car that plowed into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators, and Virginia State Troopers Jay Cullen and Berke Banks, who died in a helicopter crash responding to the scene.
The alleged driver of that car, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, who recently moved to Ohio from Kentucky, was charged with second-degree murder. A judge denied him bail on Monday.
Fields was previously accused of beating his mother and threatening her with a knife, according to police records released Monday.
“It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said of the car crash on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Trump announced that the Department of Justice had launched a civil rights investigation into the car attack.
He spoke from prepared remarks and stood alone at the lectern, using some of his earlier language, but leaving out his denunciation of “violence on many sides” in the melee in Charlottesville.
“As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence,” the president said. “It has no place in America.”
Trump opened his remarks by highlighting economic gains under his watch, including stock market highs.
His reluctance to unequivocally reject white supremacy in his remarks Saturday generated criticism from fellow Republicans as well as Democrats.
Sen. Corey Gardner (R-Colo.) had urged Trump to “call evil by its name.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told “Fox News Sunday” that right-wing hate groups “seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House.”
On Sunday, an unnamed White House spokeswoman said Trump “of course” was condemning “white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
Graham applauded Trump’s new statement Monday, tweeting, “Well done Mr. President.”
However, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) questioned Trump’s sincerity.
“POTUS shouldn’t need 2 days of deliberation to decide that ‘racism is evil,’ ” Rice tweeted. “Hard to take Trump’s condemnations seriously when he has alt-right leaders serving in his admin.”
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) told CNN just before Trump’s statement that the president was “completely wrong” and should say that “white supremacists and Nazis and skinheads and these other demented people are not acting American. They’re un-American, in fact.”
On Sunday, Republican Reps. Pete King of Seaford and Lee Zeldin of Shirley told their supporters and constituents that they forcefully disavowed white supremacy and Nazism for “their twisted ideology” and “horrible evil.”
Asked Monday why he had waited to reject hate groups unambiguously, Trump said, “I did condemn. They have been condemned.”
He then criticized the CNN reporter who posed the question as “fake news.”