Three days after white supremacists and counter protesters clashed in the streets of Charlottesville, Va, President Trump declared Monday that "racism is evil" and said the Justice Department will open a civil rights investigation into the deadly car attack that left one woman dead.
"Justice will be delivered," he said after returning to the White House from a working vacation to meet with top federal law enforcement officials.
Specifically citing the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, Trump said such groups are "repugnant to everything we hold dear" and denounced those who carry out violent acts in the name of racism as "criminals and thugs."
Trump's remarks came after an avalanche of criticism for his initial response on Saturday, in which he blamed the Charlottesville violence on "many sides" – without directly condemning white supremacists rallying to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that officials had declared an unlawful assembly.
Trump returned to the White House on Monday to confer with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and newly confirmed FBI Director Chris Wray, just hours after the attorney general said the Charlottesville attack does meet the definition of domestic terrorism and warrants a federal investigation.
A 20-year-old Ohio man James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run after driving a car into a crowd of people protesting a white supremacist demonstration in the city where the University of Virginia is located. The crash killed one woman and wounded 19 others.
"You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally an unacceptable evil attack," Sessions said earlier Monday on ABC's Good Morning America.
After Trump's initial statement that did not condemn white nationalists, numerous Republicans and others called on Trump be more forceful. "Mr. President - we must call evil by its name," tweeted Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. "These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism."
On Sunday, one day after the deadly car crash, the White House offered reporters a statement in response to questions about Trump's comments.
"The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred," the statement said. "Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together."
The statement, which was not attributed to any specific person or the president, did little to quell questions about Trump's initial statement.
As Trump traveled to Washington, D.C., from his working vacation in New Jersey, Vice President Pence defended Trump's initial controversial weekend comments on the violent events – but also went beyond them to directly condemn "the hate and the violence advocated by groups like white supremacists and neo-Nazis and their ilk."
"I think the president yesterday spoke into a national moment words that the American people needed to hear, that we condemn acts of violence, acts of hatred," Pence said in an interview with NBC News on Sunday.
During a press conference the same day in Cartagena, Colombia, the vice president said Trump had "clearly and unambiguously" condemned the violence, and "also made clear that behavior by others of different militant perspectives are also unacceptable in our political debate and discourse."
The problem, the vice president said in both the press conference and his NBC News interview, was that the media appeared to be more concerned with the president's words than the people behind behind the hateful acts in Charlottesville.
"I take issue with the fact that many in the national media spent more time criticizing the president’s words than they did criticizing those that perpetuated the violence to begin with," Pence said at the press conference.
The media needs to refocus its attention, Pence told NBC.
"We ought to focus on ways that we can marginalize those extremist voices, voices that have no place in the public debate in our country, and focus back on what unites us, which is our commitment to freedom, our commitment to free expression and peaceable assembly, our commitment to liberty and justice," he said.