WASHINGTON (USA Today) – After two days of public pressure to renounce white supremacists at the root of street violence in Charlottesville, Va., President Trump declared Monday that "racism is evil" and announced that the Justice Department will open a civil rights investigation into the deadly car attack that left one woman dead.
"To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence: You will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered," Trump said after returning to the White House to meet with top federal law enforcement officials on Monday (Aug. 14).
Denouncing racism, Trump said in a prepared speech that "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's remarks came after an avalanche of criticism for his initial response to the Charlottesville violence between white supremacists and counterprotesters on Saturday, which he blamed on "many sides."
In that statement, Trump did not directly call out white nationalists – some dressed in militia-type garb and carrying weapons – who rallied to protest the city's planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Officials tried to shut down the "Unite the Right" rally and declared it an unlawful assembly.
On Monday, Trump met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and newly confirmed FBI Director Chris Wray hours after the attorney general said the Charlottesville car attack appears to fit the legal definition of domestic terrorism.
A 20-year-old Ohio man, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run after driving a car into a crowd of people protesting the demonstration in the city where the University of Virginia is located. The crash killed one woman, Heather Heyer, and wounded 19 others.
"You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally an unacceptable evil attack," Sessions said on ABC's Good Morning America.
Fields, who authorities say slammed his car through a crowd of counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., was denied bond.
After Trump's initial statement on Saturday, numerous Democrats and Republicans called on the president to be more forceful. "Mr. President - we must call evil by its name," tweeted Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.
In the ensuing controversy, a Trump appointee, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, resigned from the president's manufacturing council on Monday. "America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy," he said. Trump quickly lashed out at Frazier on Twitter, with a jab over what he called "ripoff" drug prices.
Some Republicans said they hope that Trump's stronger statement Monday will help put racial turmoil behind him.
"There was absolutely no reason for this to take 48 hours,"' said Texas-based political consultant Matt Mackowiak. "My sense is most of the air is out of this particular outrage and the White House can go back on offense on trade and other issues."
Susan Bro – mother of Heyer, who was killed on Saturday – issued a statement thanking Trump for Monday's "words of comfort" and denunciation of "those who promote violence and hatred." Trump and Bro also paid tribute to a pair of Virginia state troopers who died in a helicopter crash while patrolling the demonstrations in Charlottesville.
Yet it did not quell all the criticism. Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Trump's latest statement "far from sufficient."
Describing the civil rights investigation as the "bare minimum," Greenblatt said on Twitter that the "lack of real plan is mind blowing."
Others continued to question the delay in Trump speaking out against racism.
"The President of the United States should not have to be publicly shamed into condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists," tweeted Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.
Civil rights groups called Trump's statement grudging at best.
"While today’s delayed words are welcome, they should have been spoken on Saturday," said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "This unconscionable delay has undermined his moral credibility as our nation’s leader."