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Sessions defends Trump’s response to Charlottesville violence

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that the Justice Department is aggressively investigating the violence in Charlottesville that left one woman dead and 19 others injured as a hate crime and an act of “domestic terrorism.”

During his appearance on three morning shows, Sessions denounced white supremacists and other hate groups and said that the federal civil rights investigation he has opened is the highest priority of the Justice Department.

"There's no bigger case right now that we're working on," Sessions said on CBS's "This Morning" show. "Every resource that's needed will be dedicated to it."

The violent clashes came Saturday as hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members gathered in Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 others were injured 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 someone who held Nazi views. In a separate incident, two Virginia state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash outside Charlottesville.

“Heather Heyer was out protesting racism and bigotry,” Sessions said on the CBS show. “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.”

Republican and Democratic politicians criticized President Trump for not calling out white supremacy while administration officials defended his statement. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Charlottesville victim: ‘She was there standing up for what was right’’

The civil rights investigation could take months, according to Justice officials. One department official said the probe will not be limited to the driver of the car and will examine whether others were involved in planning the attack, which Sessions said meets the legal definition of domestic terrorism.

Federal agents and prosecutors will have to find "proof of motive" to bring a federal hate crime charge and will interview friends and relatives of the suspects and examine any associations they might have with extremist organizations.

Alleged driver of car that plowed into Charlottesville crowd was a Nazi sympathizer, former teacher says.

“Our FBI people are working on it assiduously,” Sessions said. “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.”

On Monday, after meeting with Sessions and FBI director Christopher Wray, President Trump denounced the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and noted the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation was underway. The statement came after Trump was widely criticized for not explicitly criticizing white supremacists and other hate groups in the immediate aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville.

Was the Charlottesville car attack domestic terrorism, a hate crime or both?

Charlottesville residents respond to the violence that erupted in their city Aug. 12. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

“The President’s statement is two days late and a dollar short,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It should not take two days and a national tragedy for the president to take action and disavow white supremacists.”

But, Sessions strongly defended Trump's initial response to the violence, saying on CBS's "This Morning" that people are making "too much out of" the president not explicitly condemning white supremacists on Saturday.

"His initial statement on this roundly and unequivocally condemned hatred and violence and bigotry," Sessions said on ABC's "Good Morning America" show. "He called on our people to work together in community and in love and affection and not in hatred and violence."

“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, who announced his investigation late Saturday night, was criticized by former Obama administration officials for not announcing the probe earlier in the day. But Justice Department officials said that opening civil rights cases is complicated and can be delayed initially by fact-gathering and the need to coordinate with the FBI and the U.S. attorneys who will be involved.

The Obama administration did not move any faster to open civil rights, officials said. For example, it took the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. 22 days to open a federal civil rights investigation into the fatal shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in February, 2012. Holder also did not open a civil rights probe into the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer on Aug. 9, 2014, until nearly a month later.

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch opened a hate-crime investigation into the shooting by Dylann Roof of nine people praying at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. the day after it occurred in June, 2015. But she did not announce a civil rights probe into the Baltimore Police Department for more than two weeks after the April 19, 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody set off protests and rioting for days in Baltimore.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken one small step in the right direction by opening up an investigation into Charlottesville and speaking out against racial hatred and the organizations inspiring racially-motivated violence,” Clarke said. “Now, we need to watch closely to see whether Sessions follows through.”

Justice officials said that prosecuting hate crimes is a high priority for Sessions, and they point to other hate-crime cases brought across the country since he became attorney general: A Victoria, Tex. man was charged with a hate crime for allegedly burning an Islamic Center in January. A Florida man was indicted for a hate crime in June for making a threat to shoot congregants at an Islamic Center.

In Kansas, a man was charged with a hate crime for shooting three men, including two Indian nationals, in February. Four Texas men were indicted in May on hate crime charges for assaulting gay victims. And a man with dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship was charged in April in connection with threats to Jewish community centers and is still being investigated for possible hate crime charges.

Sessions’s meeting with Trump on Monday was their first since the president criticized him repeatedly for Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the election.

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.

“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 appreciate the opportunity to serve in his administration.”