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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan “repugnant” on Monday and repudiated their racist ideology, two days after similar groups tried to hold a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to violence.
His remarks followed widespread criticism for his failure to forcibly denounce white supremacists in the immediate aftermath of the violent clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters that left 19 injured and one person dead in Charlottesville on Saturday.
“Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said in a brief statement from the White House.
Trump faced a backlash from Republicans and Democrats for his statement Saturday condemning the violence displayed on “many sides” during the race-fueled protests in Virginia. One woman was killed and 19 injured after an Ohio man allegedly drove his car through a group of counter-demonstrators.
The president then stayed silent as aides struggled to explain Trump’s message.
Vice President Mike Pence initially pinned blame on the media for not focusing more on the violence.
“Many in the media spent an awful lot of time focusing on what the president said and criticisms of what the president said instead of criticizing those who brought that hatred and violence to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia," Pence told NBC News during his trip to Colombia.
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Asked Monday about the delay in forceful response, Trump quipped that the hate groups "have been condemned" and refused to answer more questions from the "fake news."
Trump briefly broke his silence on Twitter earlier on Monday, blasting the African-American head of Merck & Co. Inc. after the CEO resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council because of the White House’s response to Charlottesville.
Trump’s statement came during a brief return to Washington, D.C., where he met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Chris Wray. The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the incident, Trump announced.
“Anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence, you will be held accountable,” Trump said.
"As a candidate, I promised to restore law and order to our country, and our federal law enforcement agencies are following through on that pledge," Trump added. "We will spare no resource in fighting so that every American child can grow up free from violence and fear. We will defend and protect the sacred rights of all Americans."
Throughout his campaign and into his presidency, Trump has struggled with questions about his support among some white nationalist-affiliated groups.
During the campaign he said a "lousy earpiece" was the reason he did not answer a CNN question about whether he was willing to disavow support from former KKK leader David Duke. He later disavowed Duke, but continued to receive encouragement from many in the white nationalist movement.
Duke, who was attending the Charlottesville rally, told a reporter his goal was to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump," before attacking Trump on Twitter after his original statement.
But Trump attempted to strike a conciliatory tone Monday, mentioning the loss of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old struck by a car while protesting the white nationalists, along with the two Virginia state troopers killed.
“These three fallen Americans embody the goodness and decency of our nation. In times such as these, America has always shown its true character: responding to hate with love, division with unity, and violence with an unwavering resolve for justice,” Trump said.
Heyer’s mother thanked the president in a statement released shortly after Trump spoke.
The president's brief White House stop came amid a “working vacation,” as White House aides have dubbed it, spent at his golf club in New Jersey and New York City. His approval rating in Gallup’s daily tracking poll sits at just 34 percent, the lowest mark yet in the survey.
By comparison, President George W. Bush did not sink that low the poll until April 2006, well after his popularity had taken major hits for the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton never dipped so low.