The chief executive of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies resigned on Monday from a business panel led by Donald Trump, citing a need for leadership countering bigotry in a strong rebuke to the U.S. president over his response to a violent white-nationalist rally in Virginia.
The departure of Merck & Co Inc CEO Kenneth Frazier from the president’s American Manufacturing Council added to a storm of criticism of Trump over his handling of Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, in which a woman was killed when a man drove his car into a group of counter-protesters.
Democrats and Republicans have attacked the Republican president for waiting too long to address the violence, and for saying “many sides” were involved rather than explicitly condemning white-supremacist marchers 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.
Merck’s 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 Frazier.
Trump immediately hit back, but made no reference to Frazier’s comments on values, instead revisiting a longstanding gripe about expensive medicines. Now he had left the panel, Frazier would have more time to focus on lowering “ripoff” drug prices, Trump said in a Twitter post.
The outrage over Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville violence added to a litany of problems for the president.
Opponents have attacked him for his explosive rhetoric toward North Korea and he is publicly fuming with fellow Republicans in Congress over their failure to notch up any major legislative wins during his first six months in office.
Trump was specifically taken to task for comments on Saturday in which he denounced what he called “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
Under pressure to take an unequivocal stand against right-wing extremists who occupy a loyal segment of Trump’s political base, the administration sought to sharpen its message on Sunday.
The White House issued a statement insisting Trump was condemning “all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred, and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK (Ku Klux Klan), neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups.” Vice President Mike Pence also denounced such groups on Sunday.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, tried to defend the president over his reaction, appearing on a series of morning television talk shows on Monday.
Asked about the president’s words and lack of direct condemnation of white nationalist groups, Sessions defended Trump’s statement and said he expected him to address the incident again later on Monday.
Speaking to ABC News, Sessions also said the attack on counter-protesters “does meet the definition of domestic terrorism.”
Trump was scheduled to meet with Sessions and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray on Monday morning to discuss the Charlottesville incident, the White House said in a statement.
International responses were muted. Asked about Trump’s reaction to the violence, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said that what the president said was a “matter for him.”
“We are very clear … We condemn racism, hatred and violence,” he added. “We condemn the far right.”
Court hearing by video
Authorities said Heyer, 32, was killed when Fields’ car slammed into a crowd of anti-racism activists confronting neo-Nazis and KKK sympathizers, capping a day of bloody street brawls between the two sides in the Virginia college town.
Fields appeared in Charlottesville General District Court by video link from Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. He was being held there on a second-degree murder charge, three counts of malicious wounding and a single count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. The next court date was set for Aug. 25.
The U.S. Justice Department was pressing its own federal investigation of the incident as a hate crime.
“We’re bringing the full weight of the federal government to bear on investigating and prosecuting that individual,” Pence told NBC News in an interview that aired on Monday.
More than 30 people were injured in separate incidents, and two state police officers died in the crash of their helicopter after assisting in efforts to quell the unrest.
The disturbances began when white nationalists converged to protest against plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the commander of rebel forces during the U.S. Civil War.
The Charlottesville disturbances prompted vigils and protests from Miami to Seattle on Sunday, including some targeting other Confederate statues. Such monuments have periodically been flashpoints in the United States, viewed by many Americans as symbols of racism because of the Confederate defense of slavery in the Civil War.
In Atlanta, protesters spray-painted a statue of a Confederate soldier, and in Seattle, three people were arrested in a confrontation between protesters supporting Trump and counter-protesters, local media reported.
The web hosting company GoDaddy Inc said on Sunday it had given the neo-Nazi white supremacist website the Daily Stormer 24 hours to move its domain to another provider after the site posted an article denigrating Heyer. The Daily Stormer is associated with the alt-right movement.
Derek Weimer, a history teacher at Fields’ high school in Kentucky, told Cincinnati television station WCPO-TV he recalled Fields harboring “some very radical views on race” as a student and was “very infatuated with the Nazis, with Adolf Hitler.”
Fields reported for basic military training in August 2015 but was “released from active duty due to a failure to meet training standards in December of 2015,” the Army said.