SOTU Charlottesville mayor blames Trump for violence_00005704.jpg
Charlottesville mayor blames Trump for violence
04:34 - Source: CNN

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The Justice Department opened a federal civil rights hate crime investigation into the violence

"There's no bigger case right now that we're working on," Sessions said

CNN  — 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed Monday that the Justice Department will “take the most vigorous action” to protect Americans against “racism and bigotry” in the aftermath of the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.

Sessions said on CBS’s “This Morning” that he and FBI Director Christopher Wray will meet with President Donald Trump Monday to discuss the violence that left one woman dead after white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters. The meeting was not originally on Trump’s schedule.

“You can be sure this Department of Justice in this administration is going to take the most vigorous action to protect the right of people like Heather Heyer, to protest against racism and bigotry,” Sessions said on NBC’s “Today” show. “We’re going to protect the right to assemble and march. And we’re going to prosecute anybody, to the full extent of the law, that violates their ability to do so.”

The Justice Department opened a federal civil rights hate crime investigation after white supremacist groups descended on the Virginia city. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, is accused of running his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of people, killing Heyer, a 32-year-old woman, and injuring at least 19 others.

Federal criminal civil rights statutes, including those for hate crimes, may be applicable in Fields’ attack, a Justice Department official familiar with the investigation said Sunday.

Scores of federal and local law enforcement officials are working together to gather evidence before determining whether the matter should proceed in the federal or state system or both, the official said.

“There’s no bigger case right now that we’re working on,” Sessions said on CBS. “Every resource that’s needed will be dedicated to it. We’re going to study what happened in Charlottesville.”

“We’ll have our top people in Charlottesville,” he added.

While there is no single domestic terrorism statute, “domestic terrorism” is defined under federal law for purposes of other crimes and investigations, as criminal acts “dangerous to human life” and “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”

“Motive often is not clear, but we have enough evidence to be suspicious that the suspect intended to send a message and not just harm immediate victims,” the official said Sunday.

The department is also investigating whether others may have been involved in planning the attack.

Trump has been widely criticized for not directly calling out white supremacists for inciting violence and promoting racist rhetoric. But Sessions pushed back on that criticism Monday, saying on CBS that Trump’s condemnation of the events was “strong.”

“It was a long statement on violence, bigotry and hatred,” he said on CBS, referring to Trump’s remarks on Saturday. “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 under the American Constitution.”

“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,” Sessions added.

CNN’s Laura Jarrett, Mary Kay Mallonee and Dan Merica contributed to this report.