Attorney General Jeff Sessions called late Saturday for a federal investigation into the day’s racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Sessions said.
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His announcement was followed Sunday by continued reaction to President Donald Trump’s statement Saturday that appeared to distribute blame for the violence among many or all those in attendance, as well as a revised White House statement.
The setting for the mayhem was a mass protest by a group of white supremacists, who were hollering racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Among those in attendance were former Klan leader David Duke and Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute.
“When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated,” Sessions added. “I have talked with FBI Director Chris Wray, FBI agents on the scene, and law enforcement officials for the state of Virginia. The FBI has been supporting state and local authorities throughout the day. U.S. Attorney Rick Mountcastle has commenced a federal investigation and will have the full support of the Department of Justice. Justice will prevail.”
One woman, identified as 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed and at least people were 19 injured when a car slammed into a crowd of protesters. The vehicle’s driver was identified as James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio and he was charged with second-degree murder, among other possible crimes.
“Any time that you commit an attack against people to incite fear, it is terrorism,” said national security adviser H.R. McMaster, speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” where he also referred to the car attack as “a criminal act against fellow Americans.”
Later, two state troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed. They were identified by the Associated Press as Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, one day shy of his 41st birthday. The circumstances were not immediately clear. Others were injured in fighting during the day.
In his Saturday statement, Trump condemned the violence but made it clear he blamed not only the white supremacists but others on the scene.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred bigotry and violence on many sides,” the president said. He then repeated “on many sides.”
Later, he tweeted condolences to Saturday’s victims.
The president’s response was widely panned because he failed to call out white supremacists specifically in his statement, which critics accused of equating the extremists with the counter-protesters. Democrats and many Republicans called on Trump to call out the white supremacist groups and call the car attack domestic terrorism.
On Sunday, following hours of uproar, the White House issued an unsigned statement clarifying Trump’s remarks. “The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred,” the White House said.
On Sunday morning, McMaster condemned the “bigotry” and “hatred” on display at Saturday’s rally in terms much harsher than the president’s initial statement, but also defended Trump.
“The president’s been very clear. We cannot tolerate this kind of bigotry, this kind of hatred,” McMaster said. “And what he did is he called on all Americans to take a firm stand against it. This is a great opportunity for us to ask ourselves: What are we teaching our children?”
Speaking on CNN, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said too much emphasis was being placed on the phrase “on many sides” at the expense of Trump’s other comments.
“What you need to focus on is the rest of his statement,” Bossert said as part of an extended verbal battle with CNN host Jake Tapper.
Other notable Republicans declined to follow the president’s lead, choosing to be specific in their condemnations of the white supremacist groups and their behavior.
“The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil,” said Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, “and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.”
Speaking Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.): “Call it for what it is. It’s evil.” He repeatedly referred to the incident as “domestic terrorism.”
Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly Trump’s communications director, told ABC’s “This Week” of Trump: “I think he would have needed to have been much harsher.”
Scaramucci added: “I applaud General McMaster for calling it out for what it is. It’s actually terrorism. Whether it’s domestic or international terrorism, with the moral authority of the presidency, you have to call that stuff out.”
The mayor of Charlottesville on Sunday morning condemned the president for not having gone far enough.
“We just aren’t seeing leadership from the White House,” Mike Signer said on “State of the Union,” saying Trump had courted elements of the far right during the 2016 campaign.
“He has the opportunity, as do we all, to have a fresh beginning,” Signer told Tapper.
Conservative commentator Bill Kristol also took aim at the president, saying it was “depressing” that the president didn’t condemn the white supremacists but that he was not surprised. “I felt sick reading the president’s statement,” Kristol said during a heated panel discussion on “State of the Union,” adding: “President Trump meant what he said and said what he meant.”
Trump’s words did draw support from a pro-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer: “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.”
The Daily Stormer added: “God bless him.”
Sessions’ statement was accompanied by one from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia and the Richmond Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation:
“The Richmond FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident that occurred earlier Saturday morning. The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence, and as this is an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment further at this time.”
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