Trump rebukes Charlottesville racists, but sparks new outcry as CEOs quit advisory council

US President Donald Trump says CEOs are leaving his manufacturing council 'out of embarrassment' for making products outside of the US.
US President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the deadly protests in Charlottesville, at the White House, on Aug 14, 2017.
US President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the deadly protests in Charlottesville, at the White House, on Aug 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump is facing a critical crossroads in his presidency - a choice between adopting the unifying tone of better-angels presidency or doubling down on the slashing outsider approach that served him so well in 2016.

On Monday (Aug 14), he chose both paths - and satisfied neither his critics nor his supporters.

Trump, bowing to overwhelming pressure that he personally condemn white supremacists who incited bloody demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, on Monday labelled their racists views "evil" after two days of equivocal statements.

"Racism is evil," Trump said, delivering a statement from the White House at a hastily arranged appearance meant to halt the growing political threat posed by the situation.

"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."

But before and after his conciliatory statement - which called for "love," "joy" and "justice" - Trump issued classically caustic Twitter attacks on Kenneth Frazier, the head of Merck Pharmaceuticals and one of the country's top African-American executives.

 

Frazier announced on Monday morning that he was resigning from a presidential business panel to protest Trump's initial equivocal statements on Charlottesville.

"Now that Ken Frazier of Merck has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!" the president wrote at 8.54 am, as he departed his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a day trip back to Washington.

Late Monday, Kevin Plank, founder and chief executive of Under Armour, said he was also stepping down from the same panel. "Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics," Plank said in a statement.

A third CEO, Intel Corp.’s Brian Krzanich, followed suit. “I resigned to call attention to the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues, including the serious need to address the decline of American manufacturing,” he said in a company blog post. 

Shortly before leaving the capital, Trump attacked the news media for blowing the episode out of proportion.

"Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realise once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied...truly bad people!" he wrote on Monday evening.

"Trump faced a fork in the road today, and he took it," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the House minority leader. "He showed cowardice on Saturday by refusing to call out the racists and neo-Nazis, and on Monday he showed how uncomfortable he was in delivering another kind of message."

Even Trump's allies worried that his measured remarks, delivered two days after dozens of public figures issued more forceful denunciations of the violence in Virginia, came too late to reverse the self-inflicted damage on his moral standing as president.

On Saturday, Trump said the rioting was initiated by "many sides." His comments prompted nearly universal criticism and spurred several of his top advisers, including his new chief of staff John Kelly to press the president to issue a more forceful rebuke.

Even after a wave of disapproval that encompassed a majority of Senate Republicans - and stronger statements delivered by allies including Vice-President Mike Pence and the president's daughter Ivanka - Trump seemed reluctant to tackle the issue head-on when he appeared before the cameras Monday.

He first offered a lengthy and seemingly out-of-place recitation of his accomplishments on the economy, trade and job creation. When he did address the violence in Charlottesville, he presented his stronger language as an update on the Justice Department's civil rights investigation into the death of a woman who was hit by a car that authorities said was driven by an Ohio protester with ties to neo-Nazi groups.

"To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered," said Trump, who had just concluded a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Christopher Wray, the FBI director.

Trump has had a career-long pattern of delaying and muting his criticism of white nationalism. During the 2016 campaign he refused to immediately denounce David Duke, a former Klansman who supported his candidacy.

Some human rights activists, skeptical that Trump's latest remarks on the issue represented a change of heart, called on him to fire nationalists - a group of hard-right populists led by Stephen Bannon, the White House chief strategist - working in the West Wing.

"The president should make sure that no one on his staff has ties to white supremacists," Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a telephone briefing on Monday afternoon, adding that "nor should they be on the payroll of the American people."

He said the Justice Department and the Office of Government Ethics should "do an investigation and make that determination" if anyone in the White House had ties to hate groups.

Trump and his staff have consistently denied any connection to such organizations, and the president called for racial harmony in his remarks Monday.

"As I have said many times before, no matter the colour of our skin, we all live under the same laws." he said. "We all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence."

Far-right leaders, including Richard B. Spencer, who attended the Charlottesville rally, said they did not take the president's remarks seriously.

"The statement today was more 'kumbaya' nonsense," Spencer told reporters Monday. "He sounded like a Sunday school teacher." "I don't think that Donald Trump is a dumb person, and only a dumb person would take those lines seriously," Spencer said.

As Trump was delivering the kind of statement his critics had demanded over the weekend, Fox News reported that the president is considering pardoning former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a political ally accused of federal civil rights violations for allegedly mistreating prisoners, many of them black and Hispanic.

The timing of the interview was especially striking, given that it came at the height of the controversy over his tepid remarks about Charlottesville.

"I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio," the president said in an interview Sunday - at the height of the controversy over Charlottesville - speaking to the network at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

"He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He's a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him."

Two themes uniting the country while defending himself - collided on Trump's Twitter feed earlier Monday.

It is not unusual for Trump to attack, via Twitter, any public figure who ridicules, criticises or even mildly questions his actions. But his decision to take on Frazier, a self-made multimillionaire who rose from a modest childhood in Philadelphia to attend Harvard Law School, was extraordinary given the wide-ranging criticism the president faced from both parties for not forcefully denouncing the neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers who rampaged in Charlottesville.

As such, Trump's shot at one of the country's best-known black executives prompted an immediate outpouring of support for Frazier from major figures in business, media and politics.

"Thanks @Merck Ken Frazier for strong leadership to stand up for the moral values that made this country what it is," Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, wrote on Twitter.