Politics

Sessions defends Trump statement on violence

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke during a news conference at the Department of Justice earlier this month.
Zach Gibson/New York Times
Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke during a news conference at the Department of Justice earlier this month.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday strongly defended President Donald Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, seeking to counter widespread criticism that the president did not go far enough in denouncing white supremacists and other hate groups.

‘‘His initial statement on this roundly and unequivocally condemned hatred and violence and bigotry,’’ Sessions said on ABC’s ‘‘Good Morning America’’ as part of his appearances on morning shows. ‘‘He called on our people to work together in community and love and affection and not in hatred and violence.’’

Sessions also said that the violence in Charlottesville met the definition of domestic terrorism, a phrase that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been urging the president to use to describe the melees on Saturday.

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The clashes left one woman dead after a car plowed into a group of counterprotesters. The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr., was described by one of his former teachers as a sympathizer of Nazi views. In a separate incident, two Virginia state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash outside Charlottesville.

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‘‘It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute,’’ Sessions said. ‘‘We are pursuing it [at] the Department of Justice in every way that we can make a case. You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack.’’

While Trump has not used the words ‘‘white supremacy’’ in his comments about the Charlottesville violence, Sessions did not hesitate to use the phrase.

‘‘Racism, white supremacy is totally unacceptable,’’ Sessions said. ‘‘The president talked about the problems in America, in that first statement, have been going on a long time. He said before Donald Trump, before Barack Obama. A long time.’’

Sessions also said that Trump ‘‘opposes these kind of radical, racist bigotry that these organizations espouse.’’

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Sessions said on CBS’s ‘‘This Morning’’ that people are making ‘‘too much out of’’ President Trump not explicitly condemning white supremacists.

‘‘Heather Heyer was out protesting racism and bigotry,’’ Sessions said, referring to the 32-year-old woman killed in the car ramming.

‘‘She has a right to do that. This individual had no right to drive a car into them and kill people, killing her and injuring others, some of them very seriously. This is absolutely unacceptable . . . The president has directed us to get after it,’’ Sessions added on the CBS show. ‘‘Our FBI people are working on it assiduously. Our United States attorneys and civil rights division are focused on it. Justice will be done. We are coming after these people . . . It cannot be tolerated in America.’’

Sessions and FBI Director Chris Wray plan to meet with Trump later Monday to discuss the Charlottesville attacks and the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation. It will be the first time that Sessions has met with the president since Trump publicly criticized Sessions and called him ‘‘weak.’’

Sessions said on NBC’s Today Show that Trump has not apologized to him for the public criticisms he has made of Sessions in recent weeks.

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‘‘I believe in the president’s agenda,’’ Sessions said. ‘‘I believe in his leadership. He has a right to scold his cabinet members if he’s not happy with them. And he has a right to have people in his cabinet that he believes will serve his agenda . . . I look forward to meeting with him today and talking about the issues that face us right now. And I appreciate the opportunity to serve in his administration.’’