Trump declares 'racism is evil' after firestorm

President Trump declared Monday that “racism is evil” in public comments at the White House, and for the first time called out the KKK, Nazis and other hate groups specifically for their role in this weekend’s violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

“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 what we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said in a surprise statement from the Diplomatic Reception Room.

He spoke after a meeting with Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The president pledged to hold accountable “anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence.”

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“Justice will be delivered,” he said.

Trump's remarks, which he read from a teleprompter, and the meeting with top law enforcement officials were clearly intended to send a new signal from the White House after the president came under fierce criticism from members of both parties for an initial response in which he blamed “many sides” for what happened in Charlottesville.

He did not specifically mention white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or any other groups that marched in Charlottesville in those remarks on Saturday.

One person was killed and 19 other injured when police say a 20-year-old Ohio man with ties to white supremacist groups drove his car into a crowd of people protesting the “Unite the Right” rally. White supremacist groups had also marched through Charlottesville chanting slogans against Jews and other groups.

The Justice Department has opened a civil-rights investigation into the car attack.

Trump spoke personally for the first time about the victim, Heather Heyer, 32, saying, “her death fills us with grief, and we send her and her family our thoughts, our prayers and our love.”

He also mourned the two police officers who died in a helicopter crash during the incident — H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates.

Trump did not refer to the attack as an act of terrorism, a description used by his national security adviser H.R. McMaster on Sunday.

But he said that his administration will “spare no resource” in working to fulfill a campaign promise to restore law and order.

The president did not directly address minority and nonwhite groups who might have felt victimized by Saturday’s events, instead making a general call for unity.

“We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence,” he said. “We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.”

Trump had come under heavy criticism from his own party over his initial response to the violence, with some Republicans signaling deep disappointment.

“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” Colorado Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDems look to use Moore against GOP McConnell: 'No change of heart' on Roy Moore US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE, the head of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, tweeted Saturday.

Trump, who has a well-known distaste for admitting any mistake, waited nearly another 48 hours before offering the new remarks.

They came after he had lashed out Monday morning at the CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. for resigning from a White House advisory council over the president’s initial comments.

“America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,” Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier said.

“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” Trump tweeted in response.

Trump began his remarks Monday by talking about the growth in the American economy, and took no questions after his statement.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Comey back in the spotlight after Flynn makes a deal Warner: Every week another shoe drops in Russia investigation MORE (D-Va.), speaking on MSNBC immediately after Trump's remarks, said he was glad to see the president call out the white supremacist groups, though he added that he wished it would not have taken so long.

“I wish he would have said those same words on Saturday,” he said. “I'm disappointed it took him a couple of days.”

The events of the past three days have created yet another crisis for the embattled president.

The president returned to Washington on Monday for a day of work, interrupting his 17-day summer vacation at his private golf club in New Jersey.

Trump was already battling criticism of his handling of a nuclear standoff with North Korea when clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters broke out in Charlottesville.

The controversies coincide with Trump’s struggles to hold together the base that helped elect him president.   

His approval rating dropped to the lowest level of his presidency, according to Gallup’s daily tracking poll.

The survey was conducted over a three-day period ending Sunday, meaning that some of the respondents participated before the Charlottesville incidents.

Ben Kamisar contributed.