WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said today that President Trump should “absolutely” call out white supremacist groups and not draw moral equivalency with the counter-protesters at Saturday’s deadly events in Charlottesville, Va.
“He gave a statement at a press conference that apparently was already scheduled on veterans issues, it was a long statement about violence, bigotry and hated, he condemned it, he called for unity in our country, he called on us to get along with one another, and have love and affection and unity on the Constitution,” Sessions told CBS this morning about Trump’s Saturday remarks in which he condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” GOP senators were among those criticizing Trump for not pinpointing white supremacists.
“He was strong about that, it was just shortly after the event happened, within a couple of hours, actually, from him, I’m sure, knowing about it, so I thought that was strong. And yesterday, his own spokesman explicitly condemned by name the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan,” Sessions added. “I’m sure he’ll speak about it again. But his own spokesman said that. I just think we’re making too much out of this.”
A White House spokesman Sunday released an unattributed statement: “The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
Trump did not make any statements or appearances Sunday. This morning as he walked by media on the South Lawn he did not respond to questions about whether he condemned white supremacist groups.
Asked if it is wrong to make a moral equivalency between the white nationalist rally-goers and counter-protesters, Sessions replied, “Absolutely. These people, Heather Heyer, was out protesting racism and bigotry. She has a right to do that. This individual had no right to drive a car into them and kill people, and killing her, and injuring others seriously, some of them very seriously. This is absolutely unacceptable, it cannot be countenanced, the president has directed us to get after it, our FBI people are working on it assiduously… justice will be done, we’re coming after these people, it will not be tolerated. It cannot be tolerated in America.”
Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal from Charlottesville, was killed when a vehicle rammed into a group of counter-protesters holding a downtown march separately from the white nationalists. James Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, who was photographed rallying with a neo-Nazi group earlier in the day, was arrested and charged with murder. A judge ordered today that he be held without bond.
Asked if the president should explicitly condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Sessions replied, “Absolutely. His spokesman said it yesterday and I’m sure he’ll reiterate that in the days to come.”
Sessions vowed that focusing on domestic terrorism will be a “high priority” at the Department of Justice.
The attorney general said cities and states, including his home state Alabama, have a right to decide what to do with their Confederate monuments and “nobody should use violence to stop them, either way.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News on Sunday that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups “seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House.”
“I don’t know why they believe that, but they don’t see me as a friend in the Senate, and I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he’s their friend,” Graham said. “…If I were president of the United States and these people showed sympathy toward me and my agenda, it would bother me.”
Andrew Anglin, found of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, wrote after Trump’s Saturday remarks that the comments were “good.”
“He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us… he implied the antifa are haters,” Anglin wrote. “There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
Asked about Graham’s comments on white supremacists believing they have administration friends, Sessions said today, “I don’t believe that’s the case and the directions I’ve gotten from the White House is what, I believe, is that we will not tolerate this kind of hatred and violence. We will not allow these extremist groups to obtain credibility: morally, legally, they’re unjustified in their actions and approach to American democracy. It cannot be countenanced.”
Sessions added that “there’s no bigger case right now that we’re working on” than the events in Charlottesville. “Every resource that’s needed will be dedicated to it. We’re going to study what happened in Charlottesville, see if we can do better in the future. And I’ll be asking that we do that kind of thing today.”
Sessions and FBI Director Chris Wray met with Trump at the White House this morning to discuss Charlottesville. Trump was scheduled to fly back to New York later in the day.
After weeks of tension stemming from Trump’s public disparaging comments about Sessions, the attorney general was asked about their relationship now. “I think it’s considerably better. I look forward to meeting with him today,” he said. “…I share his vision for a lawful America where people can walk the streets safely without fear.”
Sessions said he’ll serve until he’s asked not to. “He can have as his attorney general someone else if he chooses.”