Donald Trump has condemned hatred, bigotry and violence “on many sides” after clashes at a white nationalists’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left three people dead, including a pedestrian and two in a helicopter crash.
The president spoke after two days of violent protests in the city that is home to the University of Virginia, triggered by a “Unite the Right” rally organised to protest the removal of statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee. The pedestrian died when a car ploughed into counter-protesters, prompting the FBI to open a civil-rights investigation into the incident.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, violence - on many sides,” Mr Trump said in brief remarks in Bedminster, New Jersey. “We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history - together.”
Even as Mr Trump called for unity, many criticised the president - and his reference to “many sides” - for not strongly coming out against the type of far-right groups that supported his campaign and organised the weekend’s events. Among them was Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who lost to Mr Trump for the Republican nomination for president last year, and who tweeted that it was “Very important for the nation to hear Potus describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists.”
The Charlottesville police chief said a male driver was in custody after a 32-year-old woman died and 19 sustained injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening when a car hit counter-protesters in downtown Charlottesville. Another 15 injuries were reported in connection with the protests, police said. Two state police troopers died when their helicopter crashed nearby.
The city government identified the driver as James Alex Fields Jr, a 20-year-old Ohio resident, and said he has been charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one of a hit-and-run. The Richmond Federal Bureau of Investigation field office and the US Attorney’s office for the western district of Virginia, said they had “opened a civil-rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident”.
Three other men were also arrested in connection to the violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville. Troy Dunigan, a 21-year-old from Chattanooga, Tennessee, was charged with disorderly conduct; Jacob Smith, a 21-year-old from Louisa, Virginia, was charged with assault and battery; and James O'Brien, 44, of Gainesville, Florida, was charged with carrying a concealed handgun, said the Virginia State Police late on Saturday.
Virginia State Police also released photos of Trooper-Pilot Berke M M Bates and Lt H Jay Cullen who were both killed on Saturday when the helicopter they were piloting crashed while assisting public safety resources during clashes at a nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
“The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, commenting on the FBI’s probe. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”
Earlier on Saturday, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency after violent run-ins between thousands of the demonstrators, counter-protesters and supporters of the activist group Black Lives Matter. Some of the white nationalists reportedly chanted anti-Semitic slogans. Television images showed police in riot gear among the crowd.
At a press conference, Mr McAuliffe addressed “the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today - our message is plain and simple: go home. You are not wanted in this great Commonwealth. Shame on you.”
By contrast, in his comments in New Jersey and in an earlier Twitter message on Saturday, Mr Trump avoided direct references to the white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and other right-wing activists who congregated in the city and on the campus of UVA, which was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson.
In his tweet, he said, “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”
He later added that the situation in Charlottesville was “sad!" and called for “a swift restoration of law and order”.
While he condemned Saturday’s violence, Mr Trump has not always forcefully denounced far-right nationalists, early supporters of his presidential campaign.
One of the best-known white supremacists in the US, former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana lawmaker David Duke, addressed Mr Trump in a tweet: “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”
The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights group based in Montgomery, Alabama, sent a blast fund-raising email calling Mr Trump’s comments about unity “hollow”.
Lawmakers were also quick to respond.
“Make no mistake – these insidious psychologies have been given license to be brought out in the open air by a president that openly seized upon these hatreds during his campaign, and continues to traffic in divisive rhetoric and hateful policies in the White House,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat.
Some of Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans were just as blunt.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another contender who lost to Mr Trump for the Republican nomination for president, described the car-ramming incident as a “grotesque act of domestic terrorism” and called for an investigation.
“Mr President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, said on Twitter. And Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said on Twitter that “White supremacists, Neo-Nazis and anti-Semites are the antithesis of our American values. There are no other ‘sides’ to hatred and bigotry.”
First Lady Melania Trump, in a rare foray into a contentious issue, tweeted earlier that “Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence.”