US President Donald Trump was to meet with top law enforcement aides on Monday as criticism mounted over his failure to explicitly condemn a rally by white supremacists in Virginia which ended in bloodshed.
Trump — who was expected to address the issue during a day trip to Washington — has taken heat from Democrats and Republicans alike for his response to Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville.
A suspected Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters after a violent rally by neo-Nazis and white supremacists over the removal of a Confederate statue. One woman was killed and 19 injured.
In an appearance Saturday at his golf resort in New Jersey, Trump faulted “many sides” for the violence but made no specific mention of the white extremists involved in the melee, some of whom wore Trump hats and T-shirts.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who was to meet Trump on Monday along with new FBI Director Christopher Wray — said the car attack “does meet the definition of domestic terrorism.”
“We are pursuing it in the Department of Justice in every way that we can make a case,” Sessions said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.
“You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation towards the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally an unacceptable, evil attack,” he told ABC.
The Justice Department has launched a civil rights inquiry in connection with the incident, and the driver, a 20-year-old Ohio man who was said to have had a history of neo-Nazi beliefs, has been charged with second-degree murder.
On Monday, a judge denied bail for the suspected attacker, James Fields.
Following the meeting with Sessions and Wray, Trump was expected to address the Charlottesville situation at the White House at 3:00 pm (1900 GMT), when he is to sign a memorandum on trade with China.
– Backlash mounts –
After a weekend of criticism of Trump from both sides of the political aisle, a prominent African-American businessman quit a presidential advisory body Monday to protest what he deemed an insufficient response.
“Our country’s strength stems from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs,” Ken Frazier, chief executive of Merck Pharmaceutical, said in announcing his resignation from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council.
“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values 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.
“As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
Trump — while still mum on the actual events in Charlottesville — was quick to lash out at Frazier’s move.
“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” Trump said on Twitter.
– ‘Dangerous fringe groups’ –
Already on Sunday, the White House and top administration officials strove to defend the president.
“The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred,” the White House said in a statement. “Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
“These dangerous fringe groups have no place in American public life and in the American debate, and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a news conference in Cartagena, Colombia.
But Pence also defended Trump, saying the president “clearly and unambiguously condemned the bigotry, violence and hatred” on display in Charlottesville.
The Charlottesville mayor, Michael Signer, a Democrat, laid much of the blame for the violence directly at the president’s feet, however, saying on CBS that Trump had created an atmosphere of “coarseness, cynicism (and) bullying.”
Of the 19 people injured on Saturday, 10 remained hospitalized in good condition and nine had been released, the University of Virginia Health System said.
Two state police officers involved in the law enforcement deployment for the rally also died Saturday in a helicopter crash.
Trump faced criticism during last year’s presidential campaign for failing to quickly reject a vow of support from a former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, though he eventually did so. Duke attended Saturday’s rally.
The president has long had a following among white supremacist groups attracted to his nationalist rhetoric on immigration and other hot-button issues.