By Glenn Thrush
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday bowed to overwhelming pressure that he personally condemn white supremacists who incited bloody demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend – labeling their racist views “evil” after two days of equivocal statements.
“Racism is evil,” Trump said. “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.”
Several of the president’s top advisers, including his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, pressed Trump to issue a more forceful rebuke after his comment Saturday that the violence in Charlottesville was initiated by “many sides,” prompting nearly universal criticism.
That pressure reached a boiling point early Monday after the president attacked the head of the pharmaceuticals company Merck, who is black, for quitting an advisory board over his failure to call out white nationalists.
Merck’s chief executive, Kenneth C. Frazier, resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council on Monday, saying he objected to the president’s statement Saturday blaming violence that left one woman dead on “many sides.”
“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental views by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,” Frazier said in a tweet announcing he was stepping down from the panel.
Frazier is one of just a handful of black chief executives of a Fortune 500 company.
Less than an hour later, Trump responded on social media as he departed his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a day trip back to Washington.
“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” the president wrote.
Trump’s shot at one of the country’s best-known black executives prompted an immediate outpouring of support for Frazier from major figures in business, media and politics.
“Thanks @Merck Ken Frazier for strong leadership to stand up for the moral values that made this country what it is,” Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, wrote on Twitter.
It’s not unusual for Trump to attack, via Twitter, any public figure who ridicules, criticizes or even mildly questions his actions. But his decision to take on Frazier, a self-made multimillionaire who rose from a modest childhood in Philadelphia to attend Harvard Law School, was extraordinary given the wide-ranging criticism he has faced from both parties for not forcefully denouncing the neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers who rampaged in Charlottesville.
Frazier appeared next to Trump at the White House last month to announce an agreement among drugmakers that would create 1,000 jobs.
He is only the second African-American executive to lead a major pharmaceutical firm and rose in prominence as Merck’s general counsel when he successfully defended the company against class-action lawsuits stemming from complications involving the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx.
“It took Trump 54 minutes to condemn Merck CEO Ken Frazier, but after several days he still has not condemned murdering white supremacists,” Keith Boykin, a former aide to President Bill Clinton who comments on politics and race for CNN, wrote in a tweet.
Frazier’s exit from the business council marks a mini-exodus of business leaders, resulting from the president’s stances on social issues and the environment. His recent decision to leave the Paris climate accord prompted Elon Musk of Tesla to resign, as did the chief executive of Disney, Bob Iger, and Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs.