US president Donald Trump has blamed “many sides” for the violent clashes between protesters and white supremacists in Virginia, but stressed the “hatred and bigotry” broadcast across the country had taken root long before his political ascendancy.
But Charlottesville’s mayor argued that Mr Trump’s election campaign last year fed the flames of prejudice.
Michael Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed Mr Trump for inflaming racial prejudices with his campaign last year. “I’m not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president,” he said.
Mr Trump, on a working holiday at his New Jersey golf club, had intended to speak briefly at a ceremony marking the signing of laws to help veterans, but quickly found that those plans were overtaken by the escalating violence in the Virginia college town.
Speaking from a podium set up in the golf clubhouse, Mr Trump said that he had just spoken to Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.
“We agreed that the hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now. We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and … true affection for each other,” Mr Trump said.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time.”
The president said “what is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives”.
After completing his statement and the bill signing, Mr Trump left the room, ignoring reporters’ shouted questions, including whether he wanted the support of white nationals who have said they backed him, or if the car crash in Virginia were deemed intentional, would it be declared to be terrorism?
Several Republicans pushed for a more explicit denunciation of white supremacists. Colorado senator Cory Gardner tweeted: “Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
Florida senator Marco Rubio wrote: “Nothing patriotic about #Nazis,the #KKK or #WhiteSupremacists It’s the direct opposite of what #America seeks to be.” Even New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a staunch Trump supporter, wrote: “We reject the racism and violence of white nationalists like the ones acting out in Charlottesville. Everyone in leadership must speak out.”
Alt-right leader Richard Spencer and former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke attended the demonstrations. Mr Duke told reporters that the white nationalists were working to “fulfil the promises of Donald Trump”.
Mr Trump’s speech also drew praise from the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, which wrote: “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. … No condemnation at all.”
The website had been promoting the Charlottesville demonstration as part of its “Summer of Hate” edition.
Disturbances began on Friday night during a torchlight march through the University of Virginia before escalating into Saturday. The White House was silent for hours except for a tweet from first lady Melania Trump: “Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts.”
Mr Trump later tweeted: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for.”
He also said “there is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” Mr Trump tweeted condolences about the woman killed at the protests on Saturday evening. As a candidate, Mr Trump frequently came under scrutiny for being slow to offer his condemnation of white supremacists.
His strongest denunciation of the movement has not come voluntarily, only when asked, and he occasionally trafficked in retweets of racist social media posts during his campaign. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, once declared that his former news site, Breitbart, was “the platform for the alt-right”.
The president’s reluctance to condemn white bigots also stood in stark contrast by his insistence of denouncing “radical Islamic terrorism” by name. “Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name,” he said in an election debate.
In his remarks on Saturday, Mr Trump mentioned the strong economy and “the many incredible things in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad”.