Jeff Sessions Just Called the Charlottesville Attack What Trump Won't: Domestic Terrorism

Charlottesville
Flowers and a photo of car ramming victim Heather Heyer lie at a makeshift memoriall in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 13, 2017. Reuters/Justin Ide

As President Donald Trump continues to face widespread criticism for his lackluster response to the car-ramming in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead, Attorney General Jeff Sessions went further that his boss on Monday, saying the incident "does meet the definition of domestic terrorism" under American law.

The car-ramming occurred after authorities called off the "Unite the Right" march in the face of heightening tensions and violence between the marchers and counter-protesters. Police have charged suspected driver James Alex Field Jr., a 20-year-old from Ohio, with second-degree murder after the attack killed Heather Heyer, 32, who was protesting against the white nationalists.

Speaking to ABC's Good Morning America, Sessions reacted to the censure of Trump over his alleged failure to condemn the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen who rallied in the town at the weekend.

"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 a case."

Two days after the attack, Trump has failed to call the incident an act of "terrorism," instead chastizing "many sides" for the violence witnessed at Saturday's march.

Sessions served as a conservative Senator before Trump appointed him to the Justice Department, and rights groups and black rights activists had expressed concern about his record on civil rights.

But he released a strong statement condemning the attack over the weekend. "The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice. When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated," he said.

The Department of Justice has also opened a civil rights investigation into the deadly crash that also left 19 people injured as they protested the white nationalist march. The FBI, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the United States attorney for the Western District of Virginia will lead the probe.

Sessions is now the second top Trump associate to break line with the president, who has refused to directly condemn the marchers after his national security adviser H.R. McMaster came out on Sunday to condemn the attack, using the same terminology as Sessions did a day later.

"I think what terrorism is, is the use of violence to incite terror and fear, and of course it was terrorism," McMaster told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday when asked if the act was "domestic terrorism."

"Certainly, we can confidently call it a form of terrorism," he added.

The White House has attempted to calm the storm created by Trump's response to the attack, releasing a statement attributed to an unnamed administration spokesman 36 hours after the attack. It blamed "white supremacists" for the violence on Saturday. But it failed to criticize them solely, and said "all extremist groups" should be condemned.

“The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred," the statement read. "Of course that includes white supremacists, K.K.K. neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together."

But the Mayor of Charlottesville Mike Signer did not agree with the White House's assessment of Trump's reaction. "I do hope that [Trump] looks himself in the mirror and thinks very deeply about who he consorted with during his campaign," he said.

While Trump has created negative headlines for his reaction, his predecessor Barack Obama was prompted a more positive response to Saturday's incident on social media.

He tweeted: "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion..." The post has been retweeted 940,000 times, one of the most shared tweets since the site launched in 2006.