Sessions says Dept. of Justice will defend protesters against ‘racism and bigotry’
Attorney General Jeff Sessions became the latest official in the Trump administration to defend the president's comments following the car-ramming attack in Charlottesville, while promising the Department of Justice would take "vigorous action" to defend the rights of Americans to protest bigotry.
"Well [Trump] made a very strong statement that directly contradicted the ideology of hatred, violence, bigotry, racism, white supremacy — those things must be condemned in this country," Sessions told TODAY on Monday. "They're totally unacceptable, and you can be sure that this Department of Justice, in his administration, is going to take the most vigorous action to protect the right of people, like Heather Heyer, to protest against racism and bigotry."
Heyer, a 32-year-old counter-protester, was killed and 19 people were injured after James Alex Fields Jr., 20, allegedly rammed his car through a crowd.
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"We're going to protect the right to assemble and march and we're going to prosecute anybody to the fullest extent of the law that violates the right to do so, you can be sure about that," Sessions said.
Fields has been charged with second-degree murder, among other counts, for the alleged attack.
Sessions said that terrorism investigators from the FBI are working on the case with civil rights specialists and attorneys at the Department of Justice.
"It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute," Sessions said. "We are pursuing it in the Department of Justice in every way that we can make it — make a case. You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigations toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack that cannot be accepted in America."
The vehicle rammed through the crowd during a day that saw clashes between white supremacists attending a "Unite the Right" rally held in Charlottesville and counter-protesters.
President Donald Trump faced bipartisan criticism after suggesting "many sides" were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville. Trump did not denounce the white supremacist groups by name, but an official White House statement later called them out using their specific monikers.
"I thought it was a pretty good statement delivered just a few hours after the event. The next day — yesterday — they explicitly called out the Nazis and the KKK by name," Sessions said.
Sessions implied Trump was speaking to the deep-seated issues of violence that have happened historically in America.
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"We've had violence around the country in any number of ways over decades. We've had these spasms of violence that are unacceptable in America," Sessions said. "He did say he wasn't just talking about Donald Trump or Barack Obama — he said these problems have been going on for a long time."
On Saturday, a federal civil rights investigation was launched by the Department of Justice into the deadly car-ramming attack.
"The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice," Sessions said on Saturday. "When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated."
The FBI said in a statement Saturday that it, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the car striking the crowd of people.
The investigation will examine the actual ramming attack itself, whether it was pre-meditated, and — if it is determined the attack was planned — if others were involved.
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Rick Mountcastle and the Civil Rights Division in Washington will head up the federal investigation.
However, the greater issue of clashes between the rallying white supremacists and counter-protesters is currently not under investigation.
Sessions said on Saturday the federal investigation "will have the full support of the Department of Justice."
"Justice will prevail," he said.