For two days, U.S. President Donald Trump faced mounting accusations he was appeasing white supremacists by refusing to explicitly condemn them in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack amid a racist rally in Charlottesville, Va. On Monday, he sought to calm the storm with a White House speech unequivocally denouncing "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups."
But whether his statement will be enough to persuade critics he is not an enabler of the white nationalists who wreaked havoc over the weekend – let alone provide the moral leadership to steer the country through a period of increasingly visible and violent racism – remains an open question.
Mr. Trump's handling of the volatile file gained increased urgency Monday as white-power groups served notice they plan more rallies in Virginia and Texas in the coming months, and leaders of the country's black community said the President must move beyond words to fight back against the racist menace.
The furor began Friday, when hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, a college town of 50,000 two hours' drive from Washington, to protest against the pending removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local park. Over the course of two days, rifle-toting racists marched around with Nazi and Confederate flags, chanted "blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us," and brawled with counterprotestors in the streets.
On Saturday, the driver of a grey Dodge Challenger – allegedly James Fields, a 20-year-old from Ohio who earlier attended the white-supremacist rally – plowed into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others. Later that day, Mr. Trump refused to denounce the hate groups, saying only that there had been "violence on many sides – on many sides." To many in Charlottesville, it sounded as if the President was drawing moral equivalency between white supremacists and the people standing up to them.
On Monday, Mr. Trump returned to Washington from a holiday in New Jersey for a meeting with his economic team. At the last minute, he added a sit-down with Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray, who are overseeing a federal hate-crime investigation into the attack over the weekend. Emerging from that meeting, the President gave reporters a preamble about the strength of the U.S. economy before turning to a statement about Charlottesville.
"Racism is evil," Mr. Trump said. "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."
To the targets of the hate groups' racism, Mr. Trump's statement was not enough.
Alvin Edwards, pastor of the Mount Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville and a former mayor of the city, said Mr. Trump's decision to open his speech with unrelated economic statistics was "insensitive" and "shows he is not concerned." Mr. Edwards also said no top administration officials have yet been on the ground in Charlottesville. By contrast, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe visited the city over the weekend and denounced racism in a speech to Mr. Edwards's congregation.
"As the leader of our country, [Mr. Trump] probably ought to come here himself. And if he can't, he should send the Vice-President and other staff members down here to meet and talk with us," Mr. Edwards said in an interview. "This is something he needs to address before it gets completely out of hand."
Derrick Johnson, interim national president of the NAACP, said if Mr. Trump is serious about fighting racism, he must get rid of white nationalists within his own administration. Several top officials, including Mr. Sessions, chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy chief Stephen Miller, have been accused of holding or promoting white nationalist views.
"We shouldn't have a country with people in key positions who espouse racial separation," Mr. Johnson said. "The President's words will only be as effective as his actions."
Protesters gathered Monday at both the White House and Trump Tower in Manhattan for "Reject White Supremacy" rallies, carrying signs reading "No Hate Nazis War" and "Condemn KKK terrorists."
Mr. Trump's handling of the Charlottesville crisis reignited accusations that the racial undertones of his campaign and administration have given courage to the country's far right. Ahead of last year's election, Mr. Trump repeatedly derided Muslim and Mexican immigrants and promised to keep them out of the country. In office, he has worked to slash immigration and insists he will make good on a pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border.
Presidential scholar Barbara Perry, who lives in Charlottesville, said Mr. Trump's Monday statement was "better late than never" but still not enough.
"It's too little, too late, in some ways, for him to make this statement today. He should have made it on Saturday," she told The Globe and Mail. "He's trying to walk a fine line by not putting off the people of the alt-right who were in part responsible for his election."
Prof. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia, said there is historic precedent for Mr. Trump's behaviour: John F. Kennedy, for instance, counted Southern segregationist voters in his electoral coalition and tried to appease them by dragging his feet on civil-rights policy. Only after mounting violence in the South and an increasingly activist civil-rights movement did Mr. Kennedy stand up firmly for the cause, calling in 1963 for a civil-rights act.
Even Mr. Trump's own Republican Party slammed him for not taking a stronger stand over the weekend. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner pointed to the gulf between Mr. Trump's regular denunciations of "radical Islamic terrorism" and his silence on the violence of white supremacists. "The President has done an incredible job of naming terrorism around the globe as evil … And this President needs to do exactly that today," Mr. Gardner said on CNN Sunday.
On Monday, before Mr. Trump's statement, one of the country's top black CEOs, Kenneth Frazier of pharmaceutical company Merck, quit the President's manufacturing advisory council in protest. Mr. Trump tore into him, tweeting that Mr. Frazier will now have "more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"
The President took to Twitter again in the evening to express exasperation that his statement earlier in the day had not laid to rest criticisms of his administration.
"Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied," he wrote. "...truly bad people!"