WASHINGTON — President Trump is facing a crossroad in his presidency — a choice between adopting the better-angels tone of a traditional White House or doubling down on the slashing, go-it-alone approach that got him elected in 2016.
On Monday, he tried to walk both paths — and satisfied neither supporters nor critics.
Mr. Trump, bowing to overwhelming pressure that he personally condemn white supremacists who incited bloody weekend demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., on Monday labeled their views as racist and “evil” after two days of issuing equivocal statements.
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“Racism is evil,” said Mr. Trump, delivering a statement from the White House at a hastily arranged appearance meant to halt the growing political threat posed by the unrest. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
But before and after his conciliatory statement — which called for “love,” “joy” and “justice” — Mr. Trump issued classically caustic Twitter attacks on Kenneth C. Frazier, the head of Merck Pharmaceuticals and one of the country’s top African-American executives.
Mr. Frazier announced on Monday morning that he was resigning from a presidential business panel to protest Mr. Trump’s initial equivocal statements on Charlottesville.
“Now that Ken Frazier of Merck has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” the president wrote at 8:54 a.m., as he departed his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., for a day trip back to Washington.
Shortly before leaving the capital, Mr. Trump attacked the news media for blowing the episode out of proportion.
“Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied… truly bad people!” he wrote on Monday evening.
“Trump faced a fork in the road today, and he took it,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California and the House minority leader. “He showed cowardice on Saturday by refusing to call out the racists and neo-Nazis, and on Monday he showed how uncomfortable he was in delivering another kind of message.”
Even Mr. Trump’s allies worried that his measured remarks, delivered two days after dozens of public figures issued more forceful denunciations of the violence in Virginia, came too late to reverse the self-inflicted damage on his moral standing as president.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump said the rioting was initiated by “many sides.” His comments prompted nearly universal criticism and spurred several of his top advisers, including his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to press the president to issue a more forceful rebuke.
Even after a wave of disapproval that included a majority of Senate Republicans — and stronger statements delivered by allies, including Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump — Mr. Trump seemed reluctant to tackle the issue head-on when he appeared before the cameras on Monday.
He first offered a lengthy and seemingly out-of-place recitation of his accomplishments on the economy, trade and job creation. When he did address the violence in Charlottesville, he presented his stronger language as an update on the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into the death of a woman who was hit by a car allegedly driven by an Ohio protester with ties to neo-Nazi groups.
“To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered,” said Mr. Trump, who had just concluded a meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director.
Mr. Trump has had a career-long pattern of delaying and muting his criticism of white nationalism. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he refused to immediately denounce David Duke, a former Klansman who supported his candidacy.
Some human rights activists, skeptical that Mr. Trump’s latest remarks on the issue represented a change of heart, called on him to fire so-called nationalists — a group of hard-right populists led by Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist — working in the West Wing.
“The president should make sure that no one on his staff has ties to white supremacists,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a telephone briefing on Monday afternoon. He added, “Nor should they be on the payroll of the American people.”
He said that the Justice Department and the Office of Government Ethics should “do an investigation and make that determination” to see if anyone in the White House has had links to hate groups.
Mr. Trump and his staff have consistently denied any connection to such organizations, and the president called for racial harmony in his remarks on Monday.
“As I have said many times before, no matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws,” he said. “We all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence.”
Far-right leaders, including Richard B. Spencer, who attended the Charlottesville rally, said they did not take the president’s remarks seriously.
“The statement today was more ‘kumbaya’ nonsense,” Mr. Spencer told reporters on Monday. “He sounded like a Sunday school teacher.”
“I don’t think that Donald Trump is a dumb person, and only a dumb person would take those lines seriously,” Mr. Spencer said.
As Mr. Trump was delivering the kind of statement his critics had demanded over the weekend, Fox News reported that the president is considering pardoning Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., a political ally who has been accused of federal civil rights violations for allegedly mistreating prisoners, many of them black and Hispanic.
The timing of the interview was especially striking, given that it came at the height of the controversy over his tepid remarks about Charlottesville.
“I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio,” the president said in the interview on Sunday, speaking from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”
Two themes — uniting the country while defending himself — collided on Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed earlier on Monday.
It is not unusual for Mr. Trump to attack, via Twitter, any public figure who ridicules, criticizes or even mildly questions his actions. But his decision to take on Mr. 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 the president faced from both parties for not forcefully denouncing the neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers who rampaged in Charlottesville.
As such, Mr. Trump’s shot at one of the country’s best-known black executives prompted an immediate outpouring of support for Mr. Frazier from major figures in business, media and politics.
Just last month, Mr. Frazier appeared next to Mr. Trump at the White House to announce an agreement among drug makers that would create 1,000 jobs.
He is only the second African-American executive to lead a major pharmaceutical firm, and rose to 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.
Mr. Frazier’s exit from the business council marks a mini-exodus of business leaders from presidential advisory counsels as a result of Mr. Trump’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.
Correction: August 14, 2017
An earlier version of this article misquoted part of President Trump’s statement on the violence in Charlottesville, Va. He blamed “many sides,” not “all sides,” for the violence that left one woman dead.
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