Trump condemns ‘evil’ of racism after Virginia killing

Charlottesville attack meets legal definition of an act of domestic terrorism, says Sessions

US President Donald Trump, under heavy political pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike, condemned white supremacists who rallied in Virginia over the weekend. Video: The White House

 

US President Donald Trump, under heavy political pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike, on Monday condemned white supremacists who rallied in Virginia over the weekend, sparking violence that claimed one life.

“Racism is evil 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,” Mr Trump said from the White House.

Mr Trump, however, stopped short of describing Saturday’s violence as an act of terrorism, as attorney general Jeff Sessions has done earlier on Monday.

Critics said Mr Trump had waited too long to address the bloodshed, and condemned him for stating initially that “many sides” were involved, rather than explicitly condemning white supremacists widely seen as sparking the melee.

A 20-year-old man said to have harbored Nazi sympathies as a teenager was facing charges he plowed his car into protesters opposing the white nationalists, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people. The accused, James Alex Fields, was denied bail at an initial court hearing on Monday.

In a strong rebuke to the president, the chief executive of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Merck & Co Inc, resigned from a business panel led by Trump, citing a need for leadership countering bigotry.

CEO Kenneth Frazier, who is black, did not name Trump or criticize him directly in a statement posted on the drug company’s Twitter account, but the rebuke was implicit.

“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy,” said Mr Frazier.

‘Act of terrorism’

Earlier, Sessions said the “evil attack” in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend meets the legal definition of an act of domestic terrorism, an early declaration in an investigation after a car plowed into a crowd of protesters.

“It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute,” Mr Sessions said on ABC’s “Good Morning America”.

“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, adding that terrorism and civil rights investigators were working on the case.

Mr Sessions - with whom the president has frequently clashed over the Russia inquiry in recent weeks - appeared on several morning news shows on Monday, condemning the violent demonstrations over the removal of a Confederate monument and defending Mr Trump’s response.

The “domestic terrorism” language is largely symbolic; many of the law’s stiffest penalties are for international terrorism that do not apply domestically. But the debate over language has raged for more than a decade, as Muslim groups in particular argue that the word terrorism is used only when the attackers are Muslim.

By declaring the attack to be domestic terrorism, Sessions is moving quickly to quell a debate that swirled after the 2015 shooting of a historically black church in South Carolina.

Dylann S. Roof, a South Carolina man who had once worn white supremacist patches, killed nine people in that attack. Loretta E. Lynch, the attorney general at the time, declared hate crimes “the original domestic terrorism.”

But some civil rights groups wanted her to go further.

Under federal law that was expanded after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, a violation of federal or state criminal law qualifies as domestic terrorism if it appears to be intended to coerce or intimidate a civilian population or to coerce the policy of the government. But domestic terrorism carries no additional penalties. Investigators rely on charges like murder and assault in prosecuting these crimes.

The Justice Department announced over the weekend that it was opening a civil rights investigation into the Charlottesville incident.

- Reuters, New York Times