In the days following the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke out against “racial bigotry” and “white supremacists” earlier ― and in stronger terms ― than his boss, the president of the United States.
Sessions unequivocally condemned Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan on Monday after a white nationalist rally turned violent on Saturday, leaving one person dead and at least 19 injured. Two state troopers also died after their helicopter crashed while they patrolled the area.
“Amazingly, Nazism remains alive, after all of the evil it has caused in the world,” Sessions said Monday on NBC’s “Today” morning show. “I think we take this seriously. We go after it morally, politically, legitimately ― in any way possible ― to reject this ideology that causes division and hatred in America. It’s just not part of our heritage.”
Sessions appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” minutes later and pledged that the Department of Justice would engage in “vigorous action” to protect U.S. citizens.
“It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism,” Sessions said in reference to James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old white nationalist, allegedly driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
“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 that cannot be accepted in America,” Sessions said.
Hours later, President Donald Trump finally followed suit.
In an address to the nation, Trump condemned the Charlottesville violence in the “strongest possible terms” ― after two days of backlash for issuing a vague statement that criticized hatred and bigotry on “many sides.”
“Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said Monday.
Sessions first commented on the Charlottesville clashes in a statement released Saturday night, announcing a hate-crime investigation into the matter and delivering a stronger condemnation of the “racial bigotry” at play than what Trump had previously offered.
“When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated,” Sessions said in the statement.
The White House released a statement Sunday morning that specifically condemned extremist groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis, but the comments were attributed to an unnamed spokesperson and not the president himself.
Still, Sessions was quick on Monday to defend Trump’s initial equivocal response to the violence in Virginia.
“[Trump] made a very strong statement that directly contradicted the ideology of hatred, violence, bigotry, racism, white supremacy,” Sessions said on “Today.” “Those things must be condemned in this country.”
Sessions, who Trump has publicly bashed in recent weeks for his decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation, claimed the White House’s statement represents Trump’s views, despite its lack of clear attribution.
He also noted that Trump hasn’t apologized for publicly shaming him, but said he believes the president has the “right to scold” his Cabinet members.
This article has been updated throughout.